E.C.’s Symbols Order, the BJP and the turmoil in the DMK

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.
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  • A quick response: DMK holds elections for various posts right from the lowest level to highest level regularly.The same person is always (re)elected as President.But
    other office bearers do not remain the same.In fact the inner party elections are fiercely contested and violence is not uncommon in them. The part has rules that would
    prove that inner party ‘democracy’
    k.ravi srinivas

  • Dear Mr.Srinivas, the question is how the same person continues as President. The rules may favour him; May be the voters in the party want him. This is what the Shiv Sena also claimed in its Constitution, but had to amend it, because the EC disapproved that the same person can continue to be the President for life. Now what the parties are saying is that the party functionaries want the same president to continue for life. This is ridiculous, and cannot be accepted a democratic principle. Had there been a norm to facilitate leadership change in the DMK, Karunanidhi’s successor could have been chosen smoothly, in accordance with democratic norms. Why can’t Karunanidhi accept that someone else could succeed him in his own time without splitting the party? That is the crux of the issue. If he doesn’t believe in democratic norms within the party, then his party – according to EC’s own formulation – has no right to participate in democratic elections, and contribute to democracy .

  • Is there any provision in that Act that states that a person can be a party president only for this many times.Is there any law which prohibits the same person becoming P.M again and again. I think when elections are held regularly the procedural part of the democracy is completed.As long as party posts are not filled up soley on nomination basis or a majority of them are not filled up on nomination basis the law cannot object to the party’s highest body executive council choosing the same person to head the party more than once. Here too he i.e Karunanidhi is not elected for life. The only thing is that he is re-elcted periodically along with other party functionaries at various levels. Moreover can EC
    decide for parties as to who should be president and for how
    many times. I do not know the intricacies of the Act but I
    think that DMK can prove that
    its rules and practices do not
    have any provision for life time
    presidents or succession on the basis of lineage. There is a huge difference between electing a person as life term president and
    electing the same person as president again and again, till (s)he breathes his/her last. The former may be bad before the eyes of the law but the latter can always be shown to be an outcome of a democratic exercise.
    ravi srinivas

  • Agreed that Karunanidhi is elected periodically. But what was the objective of this directive from the EC in 1996? To ensure that parties are run democratically, and leadership changes do take place, or at least opportunities are provided. Those familiar with DMK’s history after Anna’s passing know how dictatorial Karunanidhi has been within the party. Otherwise, Vaiko and MGR would not have come out. The question is if the E.C’s reasoning is valid when it issued that directive in 1996, then, it ought to lift the veil and see whether these inner party elections are meaningful or just a sham. May be restricting the terms of party presidents to two or three could help. We need drastic measures to discipline such parties which are out of sync with democratic functioning and have closed all doors for dissent. I agree EC’s powers in this regard may be limited; so, it may be necessary to introduce reforms by Parliament.

  • “I agree EC’s powers in this regard may be limited; so, it may be necessary to introduce reforms by Parliament. “

    Very true, but the Congress would be the first one to object to such a move.Other parties like RJD,DMK, JD(S) will also object to such powers to EC. The left too would
    join them, for a different reason,
    as they are unhappy with EC and would not want more powers to EC.

  • Dear Mr.Ravi Srinivas,
    You may remember that when the 1996 directive was issued by EC, (may be during Seshan’s tenure), it met with stiff resistance from many political parties, some of whom questioned the EC’s powers. But over the years, the parties had taken them in their stride. The point is possibility of resistance from parties cannot be the ground for not initiating a sound proposal.
    Here it is possible to draw comparison between parties and the election to Lok Sabha and assembly, and suggest that we don’t limit the number of tenures of an MP or a Prime Minister. But they are strictly not comparable. In an open election, chances of threatening an opponent to withdraw from the contest are very limited. In fact, the more the contestants, the better the legitimacy of an election. That is why India is different from many banana republics or even Pakistan, where periodical elections have not lent them the democratic legitimacy, because there is no genuine political contest or competition. Some of our parties behave the way the Pakistan generals hold elections. Fixing the number of tenures of a party president to two or three may be one proposal; there could be others. The BJP, despite its many flaws, has this provision in its constitution, because of which a Rajnath Singh could become a President, even though he is not a mass/charismatic leader like Vajpayee or Advani. Even in Congress,CPM you have collective leadership. Even BSP – did not Kanshi Ram groom Mayawati during his life time?