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PMO ‘Meet’ With EC: Modi Govt Has Hollowed Out All Autonomous Bodies

The incident is the latest episode in a list of transgressions that mark the track record of this government.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
PMO ‘Meet’ With EC: Modi Govt Has Hollowed Out All Autonomous Bodies
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If there were any lingering doubt about the extent to which the overweening power of the Central government has corroded the checks and balances prescribed in the Constitution of India, the recent summons by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) will have dispelled them. India is now clearly a nation in the thrall of its executive branch.

The summons was transformed into an ‘informal’ meeting between the Principal Secretary at the PMO and CEC Sushil Chandra (plus his two deputies), but that it took place at the former’s behest is not just a glaring departure from appropriate protocol. It raises serious questions both about the separation of constitutional powers and the overbearing influence the executive seeks to wield over the responsibilities meant to be exercised by autonomous public institutions.

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A Sorry Track Record

The incident is the latest episode in a troubling list of such transgressions that mark the track record of this government. Since the arrival of the Modi-led BJP administration in 2014, autonomous public institutions have been systematically compromised and hollowed out, through a combination of:

  • unconstitutional influence (as we have seen with the EC, the Reserve Bank of India and elements of our judiciary);

  • interference through handpicked appointments (as in the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Lalit Kala Academy or Jawaharlal Nehru University, leave alone the fiefdoms of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate);

  • the use of inertia to disembowel autonomous bodies by leaving key posts vacant or arrogating to the executive the right to set salaries and determine tenures (as seen with the Information Commission at the Centre and the states); or

  • blatantly appropriating them to serve the government’s political interests (as we have seen with the Armed Forces and the Fourth Estate).

This is not the first time that the Election Commission has fallen prey to the government’s steady assault on our institutions.

While in the past, Election Commissioners have largely enjoyed a reputation for integrity, this took a severe blow in 2017, when a BJP-appointed Chief violated the convention of announcing election dates for all impending state elections at the same time.

The worry for the Opposition is that the latest episode could be a harbinger of something similar again.

The Case of a Gujarat Election Years Ago

A quarter-century ago, the Commission had introduced a Code of Conduct that prohibits government expenditure to impress voters once election dates are announced. With the BJP, which was in power at both the Centre and in the state of Gujarat at the time, scrambling to attract voters in the election-bound state through last-minute schemes and pre-election freebies, the EC came under pressure to delay the election announcement there as long as possible. Giving in, it surprisingly declared the dates for elections in Himachal Pradesh, a state that normally goes to the polls at the same time as Gujarat, 13 days before the latter, citing a specious need to permit flood relief work in Gujarat (which the Code of Conduct would not have disallowed).

Former Election Commissioners condemned the decision unanimously, even as the Gujarat government and the Prime Minister himself took advantage of the delay to announce a series of pre-election giveaways. In the event, the BJP scraped through in Gujarat, though it came perilously close to losing its majority.

BJP protestations of innocence strain credulity because those leading the executive today have a track record of seeking to bend the EC to their wishes.

In the 2002 Gujarat election campaign, when the EC, wary of the communal tensions in the state, refused then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s call for early elections, the latter launched a public tirade against the then-Chief Election Commisioner J.M Lyngdoh, highlighting his Christian background and suggesting that he was favouring minorities in the state by not calling for early state elections. (This prompted a sharp dressing down from his own party leader and then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.)

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What Has Become of the Poll 'Custodian'?

The concern that under BJP rule the EC was behaving like a government department became more acute when two years ago, the Delhi High Court threw out an EC decision to disqualify 20 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) members of the Delhi Legislative Assembly on technical grounds, an action that could have benefited the BJP had by-elections to their seats followed. The Court termed the decision ‘bad in law’ and ‘violating principles of natural justice’.

How has an institution hailed widely as an impartial custodian of India’s democratic process allowed itself to be brought to such a sorry pass? The answer lay clearly with the ruling party at the Centre, seen as pressurising the institution to act according to its wishes.

In the latest episode, the failure cuts both ways. While it was imperative that the PMO desist from its deplorable assumption of authority over the Election Commission, it was equally important for the CEC to stand firmly on the issue of its autonomy and refuse the PMO’s summons. The EC, after all, is not a body that should feel obliged to comply with such a demand by the PMO or any part of the executive.

Just contemplate the optics if the Chief Justice of India had voluntarily acceded to a similar summons from the government. The independence of the EC is just as sacrosanct as that of the CJI – both must be seen to be above the political fray that they exist to adjudicate.

And as many knowledgeable authorities, including former CEC SY Quraishi, have pointed out, there were certain protocols that should have been adhered to had such a meeting been unavoidable. For instance, the appropriate manner would have been for the PMO to request to call on the EC, rather than the other way round. Specific issues that required clarification could have also been elicited through written responses from the body.

Both avenues were ignored and, to make matters worse, the government is still yet to offer any clarification on what exactly transpired during the meeting and what matters were discussed.

Parties Come and Go, Institutions are the Foundation

The grave danger posed by such episodes is that the confidence that the people of India have in autonomous bodies like the Election Commission will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today.

As I have argued in my book, The Battle of Belonging, political parties and ruling powers will come and go, but these institutions are the enduring pillars of any democracy, whose independence, integrity and professionalism are meant to inure them from political pressures of the day.

For much of our first 67 years of independence, successive governments sought to strengthen our public institutions, but the last seven-and-a-half years have witnessed a clear dilution in their autonomy, as the government has consolidated more and more power in the executive.

India faces major challenges, but our democratic evolution will be undermined if the current government continues on this dangerous path of eroding the pillars that have held up our system of government since independence.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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