The full transcript of the BBC Hindi special programme Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with the former chief election commissioner of India – Dr Manohar Singh Gill on: are constitutional bodies like the election commission under increasing political pressure?
[This programme was conducted on Sunday night, before the announcement of appointment of T.S. Krishnamurthy as the next CEC today - Ed]
Nagendar Sharma : Are constitutional bodies like the Election Commission (EC) under increasing political pressure today?
M.S. Gill : Whether it is on the increase or decline, it depends on the changing times. I can say with confidence, as I have spent a long time in the Commission, that it does not easily buckle under pressure.
However, since the EC, is the back-bone of democracy, political parties keep on eyeing it. It is also true that in politics, an urge for benefit from any body is always there. In democracy, to keep the EC free of any pressure, there is a need for vigilance.
BBC listener from Bihar : The present Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), J M Lyngdoh, is retiring on 7th Feb, and the next CEC, whoever comes, would have a testing time of conducting the general elections as the first assignment, do you see the next head of EC working free of any political pressure?
M.S. Gill : We in India have developed a habit of seeing things in terms of individuals, whether it was Seshan, Gill and now Lyngdoh. The chiefs would come and go, but I assure you that the next CEC and the commission would continue the good work with vigour as before.
The worry at the moment is J M Lyngdoh relinquishes office in less than 20 days, the Kumbh of the elections has arrived. Prime Minister Vajpayee has launched his party’s election campaign in Hyderabad, and the Congress president Sonia Gandhi has done so in U.P., other parties are not behind in their campaigns. But there is no Chief Election Commissioner in the country, the Kumbh has begun and there is no Mela Officer. Lynghdoh is packing his bags, as he will not be there to conduct the elections. There are two Election Commissioners at the moment, T S Krishnamurthy and B. B. Tandon, with the former being a senior member of the Commission.
By my experience in the commission, I say that the senior member of the Commission, Krishnamurthy should be the next Chief Election Commissioner. I am saying so because this was the practice followed, when I succeeded Seshan, and then, Lyngdoh was my successor. It is similar to the practice followed in the Supreme Court of the country, where the senior most judge is appointed the Chief Justice of the country. Now, also it has to be the turn of a senior most member in the Commission. It is important to ensure the impartial nature of the commission, and that there is no dirty game is played in this appointment.
At the moment, it is not known at this crucial juncture for the country, who would run the Commission, so much preparation for the elections is to be done . This time the voting would be done through Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), and at least six lakh machines would be required. I was reading that these machines are being ordered now, the revision of the electoral rolls has to be completed. I am worried on this count, but then I am an optimist, and I hope that the Prime Minister, being a seasoned man, would take the right decision soon.
Nagendar Sharma : Mr Gill, are you satisfied with the procedure for the appointment of the Election Commissioners at the moment ?
M.S. Gill : In the 21st century, time has come that all appointments for the constitutional bodies, whether it be the Election Commission or that of the governor, should be done by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition to set a high standard and maintain the sanctity of such posts. Then these posts would be held by deserving and neutral personalities.
If this is not done soon, and the governments appoint the Chief Election Commissioners of their choice, then it would not take long for Indian democracy to go down the Bangladesh route, where as soon as the new government takes over, first of all it removes the top officials appointed by the previous government, which creates an unpleasant situation. I can only warn the Indian government to put things in order before it is too late.
Five years ago, the Supreme Court had directed the Central government to appoint the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), after consulting the leader of the opposition. Prime Minister Vajpayee had then consulted Sonia Gandhi, and then was Mr N Vitthal appointed. Similar was the procedure adopted in the case of the present CVC Mr Shankar.
My point is when this correct method is adopted for the CVC, a post quite junior to that of the Election Commission, then why is a similar procedure not there for the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner. Remember the Election Commission is the backbone of our democracy.
BBC listener from Chandigarh : There is a lot of talk in the media, that the present Central government is looking for J M Lyngdoh’s successor from outside the existing Election Commission. How far do you think it could be correct?
M.S. Gill : I have to say that the correct precedent is to appoint the senior-most Election Commissioner, which is Mr Krishnamurthy, as the next Chief Election Commissioner. It has happened after T N Seshan retired, it was followed when I retired. Infact I feel that the announcement regarding Mr Krishnamurthy should have been made about four weeks back, so that the EC did not lose any poll preparation time. The departure date of J M Lyngdoh is fast approaching, there is no name to succeed him at the moment.
The date of general elections is being debated and the Election Commission is orphaned.The situation demands that in accordance with the norms, the government should take a decision quickly, which would be good for the country, its democracy and for the betterment of the Constitution.
I further say that the three member Election Commission should have a fair regional balance. At present, the two members – Krishnamurthy and Tandon represent South and North of the country. The third new member should be from the Eastern part of the country.
BBC listener from Japan : Sir, any govt in office can decide the date of elections, in accordance with its convenience, meaning even before time. Isn’t it strange that in the world’s largest democracy, a govt once elected can take as many anti-people decisions as it wants, and then closer to the elections it could give unlimited sops to fool the electorate, is there any way to check this ?
M.S. Gill : You have raised an interesting point. I would make you understand giving the example of Vidhan Sabha elections, which are fundamental for democracy.
We have been following the English system, where it is the Prime Minister who runs the show, it is his administration which works, and then conducts the elections also. Here in Indian states, it is the Chief Minister and his/her cabinet which runs the administration. So it is their administration which conducts the elections also. Ok there is the Election Commission to oversee the election work, but whose administrative machinery is there?
It is strange that a particular government which is in office and wants to return to office again for a term of five years, has the administrative machinery at its disposal.
Pardon me, but even if you go to the court of god, and god was to seek a re-election, even his mind would be influenced like that of saint Vishwamitra, was there to be an administrative machinery at the disposal of god.
What I am trying to say is charges like misuse of government machinery, are levelled against the ruling party. To remove this, let the Chief Minister and the cabinet resign two months before the elections, and the elections be held under governor’s rule. In such a scenario, the governor should be a neutral person, not appointed by any government, but on consensus, a name to which both the ruling party and the opposition agree.
Unfortunately, the politicians of the day are not paying heed to this, I warn that they should do this, if you are to prevent your country from being in a chaotic situation like that of Bangladesh .
Nagendar Sharma : If you talk of the present situation, the Central Government has decided to hold early elections, and after deciding this, it went on a spree of populist decisions. Is it a healthy sign for the democracy ? Why did the model code of conduct not come to force here ?
M.S. Gill : See, this question has two aspects, first is that of law and the Constitution, as the EC is also bound by the Constitution, and the second is of good democratic practices, which all parties should bear in mind.
During my tenure as the CEC, I got the Model Code of Conduct approved by Premier Vajpayee and Law Minister Arun Jaitley. A bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Bharucha put his stamp on it, making it a legal document. It was also made clear at the time, that the Code could be implemented one month before the elections notification.
Look at the present situation, as things stand, Parliament is likely to be dissolved on 5th or 6th of February. Only after that the Election Commission would deliberate, explore all possibilities and announce the election schedule. It would be on the day the elections are announced that the Model Code of Conduct would come into effect. Here, the situation is tricky, as the talk of elections is all over the place, and entire country knows elections are round the corner, with even some people announcing the dates.
So should the announcements be made in the way they are being done or not, is an issue of good practices of democracy. Technically, the Election Commission being bound by the Constitution, cannot come into the picture right now, but it is the people’s power, which can certainly do it.
BBC listener from Punjab : In the world’s largest democracy, the pillar on which we are standing is the elections. The main role in the elections is of the bureaucracy, and in the states it is seen that due to political pressure and other such things, these officers interfere in the impartiality of the process by even tampering with the voters’ lists. Is there any way to check this? What is your view?
M.S. Gill : It is a fundamental problem of our system. The Election Commission has three Commissioners, 10-12 officers and about 300 other staff members, that is all. Now look at the task – an election of about 65 crore voters – from voter list preparation till the completion of the entire process, it is the state government administrations, which work under the Election Commission. Now it is not difficult to judge, that the real power lies with the party in power in the states!
It is a difficult situation, as the EC tries its utmost from Delhi to have a fair elections, the state administrations do some face saving tactics, and continue to work under the pressure of the ruling party in the state.
The EC has powers to stop this, it had taken action against state officials in Punjab and recently in Madhya Pradesh, but how far can the Commission go alone? That is why I am saying that the Chief Minister and the Cabinet should quit at least two months before the elections.
Nagendar Sharma : In the present scenario, should not the Election Commission have been consulted for the timing of the general elections? It is the talk of March-April, which is the examination time of the year, teachers would be busy with exams, from where would the election officers be found at that time?
M.S. Gill : This is a confusion being created. The Constitution of India is absolutely clear, the time of elections is to be decided by the Election Commission. Those saying, elections can be done by so and so date in April are wrong.
The government of the day can dissolve the House, it is their right. If the Lok Sabha is dissolved on 6th Feb, then it is the duty of the Election Commission to hold elections within six months. How and when, is the work of the commission and kindly leave this to them.
My experience says, elections cannot be held in June-July, as the major part of the country is under rains, nor can the elections be held in March, as it is the examination time in the country. I think that April end and the first week of May looks like the election time.
Nagendar Sharma : But the Prime Minister has said it would be good if the country has a new government by April end?
M.S. Gill : I humbly say, that this does not look possible.
BBC listener from Hyderabad : Recently, the CEC, Mr Lyngdoh described all politicians as cancerous, do you agree with his remarks? Secondly, the EC asked different political parties from Andhra Pradesh to submit written proof regarding their allegations of irregularities in electoral rolls, how did this situation arise ?
M.S. Gill : I would not like to react to the remarks of J M Lyngdoh, it is his opinion.
However, my assessment of the entire issue is different. The relationship between the Election Commission and the political parties is like that of the child in the womb of its mother, both are attached to each other by the umbilical cord. Now, on the question of irregularities in the voter lists’ revision. It is really unfortunate that bundles of lists, with bogus voters names was shown to the EC. It is a big problem, whether it be Andhra Pradesh or any other state. The commission requires help from the state government administrations in the revision of electoral rolls, and this is a proof of what is done.
It reminds me of what Mohammad Ali had once said ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, catch me if you can’, meaning thereby that political parties say they would continue enrolling bogus voters; to catch it is the work of Election Commission. It is not a healthy trend for the democracy.
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