India is the largest democracy in the world, and the onus of the elections lies with the Election Commission of India, a full-fledged constitutional authority under Article 324 of India. The Election Commission has to hold timely elections for 140 billion people of different religions in altogether difficult terrain, keeping in mind floods in monsoon or naxalite areas or snowfall, among many other constraints. From 1950 until 1989, it was a single-member commission. Till 1989, there were no electoral reforms, and the role of the Election Commission was more one of observation than commanding the elections and framing the borderlines. During elections, there have been allegations of rigging, booth capture, the use of muscle and money power, bribing voters, the use of liquor and riots. Practically, it was free for all, and the use of state machinery to influence voters was a routine exercise. Then came the CEC. T.N. Seshan and the meaning of the Election Commission became altogether different. He used the powers vested in the CEC under Article 324 to transform the Indian election system altogether. He listed 150 malpractices during elections, including the distribution of liquor, bribing voters, a ban on writing on walls, the use of religion in election speeches, etc. He introduced voter ID cards, and the Model Code of Conduct, and enforced a limit on poll expenses. In the whole process, Seshan also had several rifts with the ruling Government, which forced the PV Narasimha Rao Government in 1993 to introduce an ordinance to appoint two more Election Commissioners, M. S. Gill and G. V. G. Krishnamurthy, under Article 342(2) of the Indian Constitution. Opposing this, Seshan approached the Supreme Court, alleging that the move was introduced to curb his powers. His petition was dismissed by the Court and the rest is history.
In 2009, the then-CEC N Gopalaswami sent a recommendation to the President to remove Navin Chawla as EC on the allegation of bias towards a particular party; the plea was not accepted, Chawla became the next CEC, and the impartiality of the CEC came under suspicion. More recently, the “haste” and “tearing hurry” with which the Centre had appointed ex-bureaucrat Arun Goel as an Election Commissioner led to a PIL with an allegation that his file travelled at “lightning speed” within departments in less than 24 hours. The court pointed out that since 2004, no Chief Election Commissioner has completed the six-year tenure, and during the 10-year rule of the UPA Government, there were six CECs, and in the eight years of the NDA Government, there have been eight CECs. A serious situation keeping in view the huge task of impartiality. The Supreme Court of India has taken cognizance of all these facts and came out with a historic judgement: Government alone will not choose the Election Commissioners in the future; a panel of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Chief Justice of India will make the next selection. Despite clear provisions to make a law for the selection process, nothing has been done till now, and this panel will be making the selections until Parliament makes a proper law. There is ample time for GoI to initiate the process, as the next Election Commissioner will be chosen in 2025 when the present CEC will leave office. This judgement is historic in the sense that it has opened many future doors for reforms, as the selection of Supreme Court judges by the Collegiums System is also being debated for quite some time now. Transparency should be the benchmark beyond any doubt for all constitutional appointments. Strengthening democracy is the ultimate aim.
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