Election Commission: The Making and Unmaking of its ‘Reputation’
EAS Sarma 03 May 2021
As I write this article, results of the Assembly elections in the five states are trickling in, diverting the public attention from the tragedy that India is today, with Corona patients waiting in queues and dying helplessly in ambulances, unable to get hospital care, critical patients gasping for oxygen and breathing their last, the kith and the kin of the departed souls waiting in endless lines for disposing of the dead bodies and thousands of people, including the old and the infirm waiting in unending queues for the elusive Covid vaccine.
 
Some parties may win in these elections, others may lose, but does this not remind us of the Killing Fields of Cambodia? At the end of these elections, who is the winner? Is it democracy? May not be. 
 
Has the Election Commission of India (ECI) of the TN Seshan fame covered itself in glory? Certainly not.
 
This is perhaps the most tragic of all elections because, the political parties have literally sold their souls to win elections, like Mephistopheles, who made an unholy deal with the Devil for worldly gains, when the country was witnessing mass cremations. 
 
The ECI, which could have risen to the occasion by preventing the calamity, unfortunately chose to become a party to it.
 
When both the Calcutta and the Madras High Courts made adverse observations on the ECI's role in these elections and when the press reported the same widely, the ECI has appealed to one of the courts not to permit press coverage of its observations, as it would “tarnish” its reputation! 
 
On the face of it, this runs counter to the need for transparency, encapsulated in the two Constitutional rights, “freedom of the press” and the “citizen's right to know”. But there are deeper concerns about the ECI's role as an election regulator. 
 
What was its reputation in early nineties when Mr Seshan was the election commissioner? Does the present ECI measure up to it?
 
Socrates, the Greek philosopher once said, “the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear”. 
 
What role does the present day ECI wish to assign to itself? Is there clarity and honesty about this? Has it done justice to itself? Has it done anything to deserve the trailblazing legacy left by Mr Seshan?
 
TN Seshan, with whom I had the fortune of working when he was a Member in the erstwhile Planning Commission and, as an election observer, when he was the election commissioner, had stretched the election law to its outermost limits to demonstrate what the ECI's authority should mean for the Indian democracy. 
 
He injected flesh and blood into the otherwise staid Model Code of Conduct (MCC). He did not hesitate to put the fear of the law in the minds of the political parties. 
 
He did not hesitate to court controversy, when needed to establish the dignity of the ECI. In 1992, he cancelled elections in two States when the political parties failed to cooperate with the ECI. 
 
In 1993, he disqualified 1,488 Lok Sabha candidates for three years because they failed to submit election expense accounts. In 1994, he asked the then Prime Minister to drop two senior cabinet ministers who tried to influence the voters. 
 
Several of Mr Seshan's successors had tried to safeguard ECI's reputation, built so assiduously by him. However, some in the recent times squandered away opportunities to maintain it, because they chose to be servile to the politicians who appointed them and far too timid to stand up to the political bigwigs. 
 
ECI's stature has thus diminished over the years. The present ECI has had opportunities to stem this trend but it chose not to. If its reputation is hurt, it is a self-inflicted wound. For the ECI to find fault with the press is therefore meaningless.
 
A few specific examples would show how the ECI has allowed many golden opportunities to slip away from its hands, when it could have easily accomplished a fraction of what Mr Seshan did. 
 
Many political parties failed to submit their expenditure statements and political contribution reports on time. The ECI could have threatened to bar their future participation in elections but it chose to be a passive spectator. 
 
When the political parties failed to certify that the corporate contributions received by them were compliant with the provisions of the Companies Act and the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, the ECI could have asked them to show cause as to why an adverse inference should not be drawn against them but the ECI looked the other way. 
 
The ECI could have filed cases against the political parties and their candidates for electoral corruption, non-disclosure of accurate information by the candidates in affidavits on their antecedents and so on. 
 
The ECI has not cared to act, as some of the errant candidates are among the high and the mighty. 
 
As a result, the political parties have started taking the ECI for granted and mocked at its role as an independent regulatory body. 
 
Retiring civil servants competed with one another to become election commissioners and, in return, were prepared to do their bidding.
 
The manner in which the ECI conducted the recent Assembly elections and bye polls is truly bizarre. During the Covid fury, the ECI could have averted the tragedy by putting off the elections. The Commission lacked the will to do so.
 
Instead of allowing physical rallies for the elections, the ECI could have insisted on virtual meets to avoid infringement of the Covid norms.
 
The Commission was neither innovative enough nor it had the vision to do so. 
 
Its own Covid directions warned the political parties that their rallies would be banned, if they failed to comply with the Covid-appropriate norms of behaviour. 
 
The star campaigners of the political parties, some of them the highest in the government, nonchalantly threw caution to the wind, blatantly defied the Covid discipline, endangering the lives of the people consciously. 
 
Some of them even gloated over the numbers present, with a mischievous, self-glorifying glee written all over their faces, at the huge ovation they received, deliberately ignoring the human misery and trauma that was sure to follow.
 
The ECI could have banned the rallies, invoked its inherent authority to get the star campaigners booked for offences under the Disaster Management Act (DMA) and even Sections 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) [spreading infectious disease endangering human life] and deferred elections for conducting rallies in an irresponsible manner.
 
The ECI failed to enforce its own directions and authority, knowing well that its inaction meant death and destruction all around as a result of the spread of Covid. 
 
By doing so, the ECI had unwittingly become a party to the offences, as facilitating an offence amounted to its abetment, equally punishable. 
 
It is the ECI that has diminished its own authority. It is the ECI that has eroded its own reputation.
 
When Mr Seshan put life into the Election Commission in the early nineties, the Commission's stature went sky high.
 
Even today, more than two decades later, Mr Seshan has remained a household name throughout the country. His name has become synonymous with independent oversight of elections.
 
Unfortunately, though Mr Seshan's name continues to remain in the heart of every Indian, the ECI's reputation has eroded. Is it not high time for the ECI to worry about itself and its role?
 
The strength of the ECI lies in its firm commitment to transparency in its functioning, even-handedness in its dealing with the political parties and fearlessness in bringing the high and the mighty to justice. 
 
If the ECI fails to take cognisance of this and fails to correct itself, its reputation is bound to decline further. 
 
If it rediscovers the ECI of the Mr Seshan kind, strives to transform itself accordingly and enhances its image in the minds of the people at large, why should it really care about what anyone else says?
 
I hope that the ECI will ponder over these issues with a sense of urgency and earnestness. A healthy, independent, fearless, fair ECI is a necessity for Indian democracy to survive.
 
(EAS Sarma is former secretary to Government of India)
 
Comments
Premkumar R
1 month ago
Fully agree with the views.
anant.9196
1 month ago
Post mortem and finding faults after the event are the easiest things to do and requires no expertise.
The onset of the second wave in India and its ferocity was not at all anticipated by the experts and the virologists!
The leaders, the parties the scientists, the people ( rich and middle class) were all caught napping and we're in a way responsible for the 2nd wave. The culpability cannot be escaped by anyone.
Under the circumstances putting the EC alone on the dock is a lazy analysis of a retired bureaucrat and looks as if he is scoring points!
Likewise the Judiciary is being extremely unfair and is acting a bully by calling the EC names. If things were all so clear what prevented the judiciary from acting and protecting the citizens of the country IN TIME ?

Truth be told each citizen of India ( especially the Urban population responsible for the 2nd wave and its proliferation) are culpable for this state of affairs and the sooner we get down to accepting this FACT and focusing on how to prevent the 3rd wave going forward, the better for the Nation.
Such post mortems smack of petty minds and oversized egos and serve no purpose other than further dividing the people and making it more difficult for unified collective action to come out of this unprecedented calamity that is Covid!
I wish Moneylife did not pander to such useless articles and instead focus on actions that need to be taken for getting out of this mess!
abhishekthakur
Replied to anant.9196 comment 1 month ago
Well said. The 2nd wave has been a collective failure which even the experts failed to predict.
Dr Manindra Agarwal, renowned scientist and IITK faculty, admitted that their model had only predicted a peak of 1 lakh cases per day towards April end. Had this been the case, it would have been manageable by our healthcare system.
Hindsight is always perfect and hanging a dog after giving him a bad name is all too easy.
maheshsbhatt
1 month ago
EC dosed till last phase of Bengal elections seeing lacs of people in rallies while Health Ministries ordered Social distance & masking jokes under soft power of Political Master Dogs barking Khela Hobe & Didi o Didi ? Now people dying & EC wants media not to report? Why forgive SC also when it also dosed when Constitutional Equality of Citizens was publicly Gang Raped in 4 states parties IPL became Essential Commodity till date got POSTPONED? Money Matters as MoneyControls & gelatin sticks reach Antilla Hiren Killed in State of India All is well in the Hell Sab kuch Chalta Hai enjoy Democrazy VALUELESSLY But enjoy ebook Universal Values of Rich Kingdoms at http://www.amazon.com with Jeff Bezos Bill Gates & Steve Jobs finding handling mundane money easy but WIVES CHALLENGING? Global New Disorders Why Marry? in ebook shared Mahesh Bhatt Kirticorp
krish.queries
1 month ago
I agree with E A S Sarma’s views that Elections should have been postponed. Having said that the Election Commission has done a fantastic work in conducting & managing the elections in all states despite pressures from Ruling Governments; False allegations of partisan behaviors on ECI by media, politicians; Murderous TMC mobs; fake EVM hacking campaigns; Selective criticism of Madras High Court and Supreme Court on Election Commission, etc. It is very easy for arm chair critics to sit back and preach high morals. If the courts were so concerned what stopped them in end-March / early-April from stepping in and issuing a directive to postpone the elections. Yes the ECI could have clamped down on Election Rallies. Comparison with TN Seshan’s work 3 decades ago when the electorate size was less than half of the current electorate, less no of parties and also when there was no media pressures (compared to 24 x 7 media, incl social media pressures) is an lop sided comparison. Given the prevailing circumstances and the pressures the ECI was subject to we need to acknowledge the fantastic work done. We have shown the world that we can run the largest elections in a very democratic and fair manner, something even global super powers like USA are not capable of.
david.rasquinha
1 month ago
Well said Sir!!
trichyashok
1 month ago
Quite a pathetic article with a number of wild accusations and insinuations many of which may not stand basis data. The Election Commission had done its job with the same amount of diligence in the past and when this round started the situation on the ground was certainly not all that alarming. That the writer was a Secretary to the Government in the past is also telling about the quality of rigour that was brought to Governance in the past.
nileshwar
1 month ago
Every institution is under the cloud of its reputation. Even the judiciary is not spared. This is what is called a DEMOCRACY. Every person representing us at any level is said to be corrupt. Some of them financially, some morally. Our levels of honesty have fallen to such an extent that DEMOCRACY is under severe strain. We appear to be just at the beginning of the tunnel. It is nearly impossible to salvage the situation.
mudit3
1 month ago
The PM is the head of state and the buck stops there.
rasik_ranjan
Replied to mudit3 comment 1 month ago
The Observation by SHRI LK ADVANI very relevant time / again --
and now practiced by his own party( IGNOMINY) -
After emergency in a press meet he was stated to have said-
You press were asked to bend but you decided to crawl!
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