The Election Commission is in a self-congratulatory mode, after the “successful” and “peaceful” conclusion of Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The Chief Election Commissioner is now in the limelight giving interviews to the media one after the other on how he managed the assembly elections in U.P. If today’s editorial
in Deccan Herald admires the way the E.C. has held peaceful elections in the State, the interview
in Tribune quotes the CEC as suggesting that there is need to fix ceiling of parties’ expenditure too in the election campaign, as the candidates are prone to disown their expenditure as that of the parties’, in order to evade the ceiling on their expenditure. The E.C.’s helplessness in this regard, despite the reservoir of powers under Article 324, is clear to any observer.
Far more disturbing, however, are the reports that some parties indulged in campaign blatantly on communal lines, thus violating election law with impunity. Doubtless, our election law distinguishes corrupt practice from electoral offence, the remedy for the former invariably being invoked after the conclusion of elections in a High Court. The remedy for the latter too is a lengthy process, depending on the pace of investigations etc., even though the aggrieved need not wait for the conclusion of elections. The Election Commission appeared to be bristling with activity when it decided to hear the matter involving the BJP’s use of a CD with communal overtones during the campaign. Even though the non-BJP parties made a determined bid to seek derecognition of the BJP under the Symbols Order for this alleged violation of model code of conduct, the E.C. has preferred to wait and watch the party’s response to its interim directions to it ( asking it to condemn the CD etc.) and also the progress of the investigation to determine whether the party’s senior leaders were involved in this. The E.C.’s relevant press note is here.
While the E.C. should be reasonably fair and non-partisan while exercising its powers under the Symbols Order, it needs to ask itself why it has not been able to effectively use its powers under Paragraph 16A of the Symbols Order, 1968. This provision, inserted by the then CEC, T.N.Seshan, through a notification in 1994, enables the Commission to suspend or withdraw recognition of a recognized political party for its failure to observe Model Code of Conduct or follow lawful directions and instructions of the Commission. It is enough that the Commission “is satisfied on information in its possession” to invoke this section against a party. Yet, the E.C. has used this only once, when it directed all political parties to hold organizational elections periodically, or face derecognition in 1996. Ensuring a clean election campaign is part of the E.C.’s mandate to hold free and fair elections. But looking at the manner the E.C. has dealt with redressal of complaints under Paragraph 16A, it appears to be a toothless provision.
Update: It may be far-fetched to hold that the E.C.’s intervention/lack of intervention has led to turmoil in a political party. But the ongoing turmoil in the DMK, which has led to the unfortunate events in Madurai, may perhaps be traced to the E.C.’s insufficient intervention under Paragraph 16A of the Symbols Order in 1996 to ensure inner-party democracy in political parties. The E.C. regularly updates its website with information on organisational elections held by the politial parties, and when they are due etc. The E.C.’s 1996 directive stems from the fact that every political party seeking registration has to give an undertaking that it would, inter alia, uphold the principles of democracy. The E.C. interpreted it to mean that the party constitution makes adequate provisions for inner-party democracy and various organisational bodies of the party are constituted on the basis of periodic elections. Indeed, one of the already registered parties, Shiv Sena, was forced to amend its party constitution which earlier provided that Bal Thackeray shall be its supreme leader for life and all powers to run the affairs of the party shall be vested in him. But it is naive to believe that the E.C.’s intervention has had the desired effect. It is obvious that the inner-party democracy which the E.C. seems to have ensured through Paragraph 16-A is nothing but a farce. Most political parties are centered around individuals, who desire to pass on the leadership legacy to their family members – whether it is DMK, Shiv Sena, or Samajwadi Party. Holding periodical organisational elections alone cannot guarantee inner party democracy. What Shiv Sena had blatantly done, before amending its party constitution, all parties are following the similar trend, using periodical party elections as a sham to satisfy the E.C.’s requirements. Needless to say , the E.C. has to lift the veil to ensure that leadership changes do occur within political parties at all levels over a reasonable period of time. If it finds this not feasible within its powers, it should make a suitable recommendation to the Government.