Appointment of Election Commissioners

The independence and integrity of the Election Commission are of paramount importance for ensuring a free and fair election. In this regard, the procedure of appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners becomes crucial and cannot be left to the sweet will and pleasure of the Executive.

The Government has appointed Mr. J. M. Lyngdoh as the Chief Election Commissioner to succeed Dr. M. S. Gill, who is retiring on June 13, and Mr. B. B. Tandon as the Election Commissioner. Mr. Tandon is now Personnel Secretary, due to retire next month.

At the outset, I wish to clarify that I have nothing for or against the persons appointed nor about their competence or otherwise to hold the high posts. However, I feel that these appointments by the Vajpayee Government are acts of inexplicable and inexcusable departure from the many recommendations and consistent poll promises made by the BJP and most of the parties in the NDA.

In the Constituent Assembly, there were protracted discussions in the Committees and Sub-Committees and it was finally decided to centralise the election machinery under a single Central Election Commission, to be appointed by the President. When the Draft Articles came up for discussion in the Assembly on 15th June, 1949, there was opposition to the appointment of Election Commissioners by the President. Prof. Shibban Lal Saksena gave an amendment saying the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner should be `subject to confirmation by a two-thirds majority in a joint session of both Houses of Parliament.' He argued that appointment by the President would really mean appointment by the Government under the decision of the Prime Minister.

Replying to the debate, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said: ``With regard to the question of appointment, I must confess that there is a great deal of force in what my friend, Prof. Saksena, has stated that there is no use of making the tenure of the Election Commissioner a fixed and secure one if there is no provision in the Constitution to prevent either a fool or knave or a person who is likely to be under the thumb of the Executive. My provision - I must admit - does not contain anything to provide against nomination of an unfit person to the post of Chief Election Commissioner or the other Election Commissioners.''

In the end, Dr. Ambedkar gave an amendment that the appointment of the CEC and the EC shall be made by the President `subject to any law made in that behalf by Parliament.' Article 324 (2) contains this decision of the Constituent Assembly.

It is regrettable that successive Governments did not take any initiative to make a law, as per Article 324 (2), in the matter of appointment of Election Commissioners. But there have been several reports and recommendations by Committees and political parties on electoral reforms, including the appointment of Election Commissioners.

On behalf of the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) appointed a committee in 1974 under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice V. M. Tarkunde to consider electoral reforms. I deem it an honour to have been invited to participate in the deliberations of the Committee in finalising the Draft Report prepared by them. The Tarkunde Committee's Report (1975) said: ``As in the case of Judiciary, the Election Commission must not only be independent in theory but also manifestly appear to be so in the exercise of its powers of organising and conducting elections. In the recent years, an impression is gaining ground that the Election Commission is becoming less and less independent of the Executive than in the earlier years of Independence, because the choice of the Chief Election Commissioner has not always been based on criteria, which would command the confidence of all sections of public opinion. The practice of making it a berth for retiring Government officials has, perhaps, been responsible for the feeling that the incumbent so benefitted will be beholden to the Government for his office.'' (emphasis added).

The Committee recommended that ``the members of the Election Commission should be appointed by the President on the advice of a Committee, consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition (or a Member of Parliament selected by the Opposition) in the Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India.''

Introduction of electoral reforms was one of the demands of the 1974-77 Janata movement of JP. A massive march was organised in Delhi on March 6, 1974, at the end of which a people's charter was to be presented to the Presiding Officers of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. I remember well that Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, and four other MPs, including myself, were asked by JP to present the petition to the Speaker. Among other items, there was Demand No. 3 in the charter which said ``the Election Commission should be selected by a board consisting of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.''

The 1977 election manifesto of the Janata Party promised to ``introduce electoral reforms after careful consideration of the (recommendations of) various committees, including the Tarkunde Committee.''

To consider the electoral reforms, Prime Minister Morarji Desai appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee, which drafted

a bill. But unfortunately when the Janata Government fell, there was no further action in the matter.

In 1982, the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr. S. L. Shakdher, was to retire on June 18. In a hurriedly-convened meeting on June 17, the leaders of the Janata Party, the BJP, the Lok Dal, the CPI(M) and the CPI issued a joint statement urging early legislation on electoral reforms and demanding that the Government appoint the successor to the Chief Election Commissioner after consultation with the Opposition parties.

But now, there was sufficient time for the Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, to hold consultations with the Opposition to implement the demand raised in 1982, but he did not do so.

On January 9, 1990, Prime Minister Mr. V. P. Singh appointed the Committee on Electoral Reforms under the chairmanship of the Law Minister, Mr. Dinesh Goswami. Regarding appointment of the Commission, the Committee made the following recommendations: (a) the appointment of the CEC should be made by the President in consultation with the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition; (b) the consultation process should have a statutory backing; (c) the appointment of the other Election Commissioners should be made by the committee in consultation with the Chief Election Commissioner; (d) on expiry of the term of office, the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners should be ineligible for any appointment under the Government, including the post of Governor.

In its 1998 election manifesto, the BJP made a solemn promise that it would ``immediately on assuming office, introduce a comprehensive Electoral Reforms Bill, much of the groundwork for which has already been done but not acted upon'' and that it would ``update and adopt the Goswami Committee report.'' Three years have passed since and there could be no valid reason for the delay in implementing the Goswami Committee recommendation.

Now, the public will come to the conclusion that the BJP and other parties, after coming to power, have failed to honour the solemn promises made by them when they were out of power. Is it a political precept of Machiavelli, or to suit the Indian tradition, of Chanakya, that when out of power, a party may make any promise and, on coming to power, it need not implement the promise if it is no longer necessary or beneficial to it?

(The writer is a former member of the Rajya Sabha)