A democracy is a work in progress, and hence would require reforms
Institutions are the real strength of a democracy. They are established through proper process for particular purposes, and will have the authority, responsibility and freedom to act so that they can meet their mandate. They also need institution-builders of calibre, vision and commitment to democratic values to rise to the heights they are expected to. They may need to undergo changes as time changes and every change so introduced must further the cause for which they have been designed.
The Election Commission of India is a critical institution, going by our constitutional scheme. Article 324 vests the superintendence, direction, control and conduct of all elections to Parliament and to the state Assemblies as well as the elections to the offices of President and Vice-President with the Election Commission, headed by the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). The Constitution also offers certain protections to the person who holds the office of the CEC: that he shall not be removed from his office except in like manner and on the like grounds as a judge of the Supreme Court.
The Constitution makers were clear about the importance of the institution since we are a parliamentary democracy, and free and fair elections are its essential ingredients. The institution of CEC, hence, must be insulated from the stranglehold of the executive. Its independence is as important as the process it conducts — the elections.
As per the Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991, the tenure of the CEC or an election commissioner is six years but they have to vacate the office when they turn 65. Between Article 324 and the Act, the law authorises a CEC to hold the office for a period of six years and go about doing his duty, constantly strengthening and fortifying our election process, without fearing for the intervention of the government of the day.
The Supreme Court has now pointed out that the CECs of late have not got to hold the office for the period which the law mandates, that is, six years. Their tenure has varied from a few hundred days to a couple of years, especially after 2004, the court has pointed out. The UPA government had six CECs in 10 years and the current NDA dispensation has had eight CECs in the last seven years. That is, 14 CECs in the last 22 years, making their stay in office out to be an average of one-and-a-half years! This truncated tenure completely destroys the independence of the institution, the apex court has said.
A democracy is a work in progress, and hence would require reforms and changes in the way it is practised. The Election Commission is expected to lead the changes and advise the government on them. However, with such short tenures and hectic schedule of elections in between, they can hardly do justice to the job. It is up to Union government to take this as a cue and make the amends. The process must be revised in such a manner that the right persons are picked at the right time and given a tenure that makes their stay in office a meaningful one. The Supreme Court’s observations must be treated as a wake-up call to reform the process.