Before proceeding to examine the mandate, performance, conduct and future challenges of the Election Commission of India (ECI), let us see what Article 324 of the Indian Constitution says: The Superintendence, Direction and Control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the Conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and VicePresident held under this Constitution shall be vested in a commission.
Has the commission been able to deliver on its mandate? The scope of the expression direction is significantly broader and wider than exercised by the ECI. Myriad orders and directions issued by different courts have diluted the ECI’s mandate. The turf assigned by the Constitution has been usurped and the ECI has neither protested, nor reclaimed it. The courts and, perhaps, the governments have encroached or constricted the ambit of functions and authority of the ECI and reduced it to an executive authority. While the ECI has done as best as it possibly could on all other fronts, the dilution of its assigned role to provide direction must be restored.
In terms of conduct of elections, in the 2019 general elections to the Lok Sabha the ECI handled the largest number of registered electors – 90 crore, out of which 61.30 crore voted. It deployed a total of 39.6 lakh EVMs and 17.4 lakh VVPAT units in 10.35 lakh polling stations.
It mobilised, moved, housed, trained, deployed and supervised 85 lakh poll personnel drawn from different states and departments across geographies and got them to subscribe and abide by the electoral laws, rules and processes. But for a few sporadic incidents, it ensured fair play and accounted for every single vote cast. The performance of ECI in this regard is exceptional and unparalleled.
As for the functioning and conduct, notwithstanding the individual dispositions and styles of the Chief Commissioners or Commissioners, most of them have steadfastly upheld the constitutional values and rule of law. Much has changed since we first went to polls in 1951-52. The electoral contests have become very fierce and combative. A lot of times, the divisive agenda threatens to tear apart the social fabric. Vote-bank politics buttressed by false electoral promises and offer of freebies have further queered the pitch. In response, the commission and governments have done some patchwork in terms of amendments in statute and rules, but this has rendered the entire electoral process rather complicated. It is time the Government and the ECI address the societal, political and technological changes that have occurred over the past 70+ years.
As a caveat, we understand that dissent is the essence of our democratic polity. Ranging from a casual drawingroom debate to the actions and orders of the state and the judgments of courts, the society has rarely accepted the results with complete unanimity. Hence, everyone does not need to agree with all or some of the orders of the ECI, but compliance of such orders becomes mandatory.
The last major electoral reform was introduction of EVMs. It did create some phoney and spurious furore but the ECI defended the sanctity of the EVMs and proved their inviolability in full public view. Looking at the growing and evolving complexities of Indian elections over the past decades, I apprehend a sharp degradation in the quality of our polity and upscaling of mudslinging, violence and disruption in all manners. While the ECI and the Government must prepare to counter such developments, they must also address the issue of minimal participation of domestic migrants and overseas voters.
The accuracy of electoral rolls still haunts both, the political parties as well as the commission and its offices. The longstanding demand of One Nation, One Election, issues around pre- and post-poll violence and use of technology to usher in a major paradigm shift away from current structure and practices are amongst many issues that are waiting to be addressed.
This may require a complete overhaul of electoral processes and enabling statutes, rules, processes and governance structures. Electoral transformational reforms cannot wait. Time to wake up!
— Om Pathak, Convenor, BJP Central Electoral Management [ECI] and member secretary BJP Central Disciplinary Committee