Wednesday, December 7th, 2022 08:08:16

STRETCHING ELECTION CODE TOO FAR PINCHES

By Amba Charan Vashishth
Updated: November 25, 2022 10:56 am

It goes to the credit of the late T N Seshan who revolutionised the system and process of elections in the country. Incidents of booth capturing, bogus voting and violence have now been pushed to the minimum. His successors too have improved the system further to ensure a free and fair poll. But stretching the Election Code of Conduct too far, pinches one and all.

Till the late T N Seshan, took hold of the strings of the constitutional institution of the Election Commission (EC), this office was considered to be just one of the numerous departments of the Government of India (GoI). It always looked up to the ruling party Government at the Centre in the matter of the conduct of elections to a state assembly or the parliament. At that time EC was a single-member identity designated as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). It was then taken to be a meek, helpless vegetarian institution lacking the tooth to bite.

Seshan then proved that if a person had the will and courage, he could work wonders. He was possessed of both the attributes. No new laws were enacted to facilitate his mission to ensure free and fair elections. Using the same laws which were in force at that time, he single-handedly revolutionised the process and conduct of elections.  The then ruling party government started feeling suffocated because of the dos and don’ts imposed by Sheshan. On the other hand, those fed up with the scenario of booth-capturing, bogus voting and violence were the happiest lot.

The powers that were at the helm of powers at that time were pleased the least. Efforts were then made to tame the institution by turning the one-man EC into a three-member unit by adding two more Election Commissioners.  But of no avail. Those who succeeded him could not turn the horse back. His successors in office had no other choice but take his legacy further. They took the trend to greater heights. It is a different matter if every now and then some opposition leaders continue to criticise the EC for favouring the ruling party government. If it was so, how could the AAP win in Delhi assembly elections, and Congress in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand dethroning the BJP-led NDA state governments there? When their apprehensions proved wrong, they do not feel gracious enough to express regrets for their irresponsible fears, behaviour and utterances.

Recently, the CEC on October 15, 2022 announced the election schedule for HP assembly and on November 3 for Gujarat. HP was to have single day polling on November 12 and Gujarat in two phases on December 1 and 5. The counting of votes for both the states was to be held on December 8. The Model Code of Conduct (MCoC) became effective in Himachal from October 15 and Gujarat from November 3 till completion of the election process after counting of votes. Nobody has a grouse about this.

But overenthusiasm and overanxiety is something that is certainly not desirable. Agreed that before the poll process is over, the EC certainly needs to keep its eyes, ears, and nose in the top alert mode to prevent the smallest incident which could provide the opposition with a rod to beat the EC and government by raising their fingers at their claim of conducting a peaceful and fair poll.

But the moment the polling and repolling, where needed, is over, MCoC needs to be withdrawn. In Himachal counting was to take place after 26 days of polling. In a way in HP the administration was to remain in a standstill mode.

No new appointments could be made, even in cases where persons have been selected by the state public service commission. Similarly, no promotions of government servants could take place during this period. But there was no ban on retirements of governments on October 31 and November 30. Eligible government servants have a right to promotion against the vacancies as a result of retirements. These promotions to the next higher posts are, by no means, a favour but on the basis of their seniority-cum-merit. They are ‘punished’ and made to suffer financial loss for no fault of theirs. This loss of two months has perennial financial suffering till they retire.

Another strange reaction found space in newspapers in north India. A former BJP MLA organised a brahmbhoj (public feast) for more than 300 people, mostly BJP workers on November 18 at Junga which falls in Kasumpti assembly constituency from which Suresh Bharadwaj, Minister for Urban Affairs, was one of the candidates.  He, along with many other BJP workers, is reported to have joined the lunch. Photographs of the event also appeared in many newspapers and social media forums. Taking Suo moto cognizance of this event, the Shimla district election officer issued a notice to Bharadwaj for violation of the MCoC requiring him to send his reply within 24 hours.

Technically it may be a violation of the MCoC but it does not stand the test of reason. The polling in Himachal, including the Kasumpti constituency, was over on November 12. The voters’ verdict remains stored in the EVMs under adequate security. Can this public feast influence or motivate the people to vote for or against any candidate six days after they had already exercised their right to vote? This question can at best be left to the intellectual discretion of the officers of the EC.

Still more interesting is the incident that took place in Gujarat. An IAS officer assigned to an election duty put on his Instagram account his photograph standing by the side of the government vehicle placed at his disposal. This, too, annoyed those in the EC. The officer was instantly relieved of his election duty.

Of late, being active on the social media and fiddling with Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram has become a great obsession and fad with many people. Moreover, assigning of a person on election duty is also not a matter of secrecy which was breached by the officer. How can his conduct be construed as a violation of any electoral law or instruction?

On the one hand, we lay stress on transparency in administration and, on the other, an officer who tries to be transparent in his conduct is kicked out. Which law of the land and CEC instructions did the officer violate by putting his photograph on social media? How can the conduct of the officer be interpreted to violate the commission’s efforts to ensure a free and fair election?

 



By Amba Charan Vashishth

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