Monday, February 20, 2012

Poll Panel Neet To Find Their Teeth Again/The Sunday Standard/ February 19, 2012


The Three Wise Men of the Poll Panel Need to Find Their Teeth Again

Has the lion been caged? It has stopped roaring. After high voltage outrage, banning busts, covering statutes and transferring errant poll officials, the Election Commission (EC) has retreated into a shell. Last week, Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi wrote an irate letter to President Pratibha Singh Patil seeking her decisive intervention to deal with a serious violation of the model code of conduct by Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid. The commission then magnanimously forgave Khurshid, after receiving a letter from him accepting the EC’s supremacy. This liberal gesture is being perceived as weakness. Soon after, Union Minister for Steel Beni Prasad Verma also promised job reservation for the minorities, delivering the EC yet another body blow. Like his colleague, Verma called his gaffe a mere ‘a slip of tongue’ and expected the commission to give him the same treatment it gave to Khurshid.

Undoubtedly, the commission has been able to instil confidence in the electoral process and has succeeded in taming political muscle and money power. However, for the past few days, it seems to have lost its bite. Its highly visible head Quraishi is now hardly seen on TV debates. His two other colleagues prefer to hide within the four walls of their spacious rooms in Nirvachan Sadan. No money is being seized from cash-rich candidates. Nor is excessive publicity material or illicit liquor being recovered.

The sudden minimisation of the EC is ominous for the free and fair conduct of elections in a state like Uttar Pradesh. The commission was excessively active in taking strong action against the ruling BSP. It ordered all statues and busts of Mayawati be covered along with those of elephants—the party’s election symbol. The commission was prompt in taking action on complaints filed by the Congress party about the conduct of a few top poll officers, in both Rae Bareily and Amethi. It shunted out over half a dozen officials, including a lady district magistrate. It even repatriated an IAS officer—posted by it as an observer—back to Goa after he strictly enforced the code of conduct in Amethi. The transfer was reversed after the Opposition made it an issue and charged the commission with playing into the hands of the Congress party.

The EC’s reluctance to move against the two Union ministers raised serious doubts about its neutrality in the state. Frankly, they are entitled to market their ideology and manifesto to voters. It’s ridiculous to consider political promises made during an election campaign a violation of the code of conduct. But once the commission has taken a view, it must follow through to the logical end. Its inexplicable decision to knock on Rashtrapati Bhawan doors against Khurshid is seen as an attempt to pass the buck and give the ruling party an escape route. Never before has the commission approached Raisina Hill to invoke presidential authority against code of conduct violations.Surprisingly, Quraishi and his colleagues have betrayed their inconsistency in dealing with recalcitrant politicians. The EC has shown its teeth when it comes to smaller or opposition parties, and its tail while dealing with the Congress. In 2009, Quraishi, as one of the three members of the commission, rightly passed a strong order against Varun Gandhi —a BJP Lok Sabha candidate from Pilibhit—for making inflammatory speeches. Not only did the commission censure the young firebrand leader, it also issued a notice to the BJP seeking explanation. It took suo motu cognizance of Varun’s speeches. It even advised the BJP to deny him an election ticket. When it came to Verma and Khurshid, the EC didn’t even bother to question the Congress on the conduct of its senior ministers.

In 1999, the commission displayed its powers when it disqualified Bal Thackeray from contesting elections for six years, and barred him from voting in any election. He was also charged with inciting communal disharmony and speaking against the minority community. Surprisingly, ignoring the advice of the then law minister Ram Jethmalani, President K R Narayanan accepted the recommendations of then chief election commissioner M S Gill and election commissioner J M Lyngdoh to punish Thackeray. Under Article 103 (2) of the Constitution, the President is bound by the advice of the EC on matters of disqualification. The commission can bar any leader from campaigning, countermand an election and even disqualify a defiant leader from contesting an election. However, the commission has now restricted itself to recovering cash, tracking the use of motor vehicles and punishing pygmies in every political party. Unfortunately, the current state of mind of the three wise members signal a fear of the unknown. Unless reversed at the earliest, it may undo the great contributions made by the institution and lose the confidence of the people. Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

No comments: