Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy
Election Commission can't dictate to Parliament
June 14, 2005
Our beloved railway minister believes the Election Commission harbours a bias against him. He may have a point!
In its press release of May 31, the Election Commission offers reasons for postponing assembly elections in Bihar. It speaks of 'ground realities with regard to the rainy reason and its effect, particularly floods in various parts of the State.' Then it talks of 'the need to acquaint the candidates and their agents in the proper functioning of those machines as some of the political parties and the candidates had complained in the past about the inadequacy of their knowledge about the functioning of EVMs.'
Race for Bihar hots up again
Finally, the Election Commission mentions 'the mobilisation of the central paramilitary forces in adequate numbers so as to provide effective security.'
Read between the lines, it is a damning indictment of 15 years of Lalu Raj. Here is a high Constitutional authority saying his administration did nothing to lessen the impact of annual flooding. (Why else would it be such a major worry?) It says Bihar's electorate is so ill-educated that it cannot grasp the concept of an electronic voting machine. (They can't understand pushing a button?) It concludes by stating that central forces must be deployed if voters can feel secure -- in other words, the Bihar Police is so politicised as to be useless.
But even given all the hideous disasters that a decade-and-a-half of Rashtriya Janata Dal misgovernment has brought upon Bihar, did the election really need to be delayed up to November? Is it constitutional?
Let me point to a British example since we have adopted that nation's mode of democratic government. On Tuesday, April 5, 2005, Tony Blair drove to Buckingham Palace to ask for a dissolution. The queen granted it immediately, Election Day was set for a month later, and by the evening of May 6 Blair had been returned to Downing Street.
I admit Britain has only 44 million voters, far fewer than the 52.68 million that Bihar possesses. It goes without saying that lawlessness is a far greater problem than in Britain, and that Bihar's population is far less educated. But is it anybody's case that all this adds up to political unsophistication? Bihar's malnourished, poorly clad, and ill-housed voters have always surprised us when they go to the voting booth. (Who can forget Lalu Prasad Yadav himself losing from Madhepura in the 1999 general election?)
Nirvachan Sadan has done a magnificent job of organising elections in India on the whole, but admiration should not stand in the way of justified criticism. Of late the Election Commission seems to be driven to ensuring that every voter's name is on the rolls, that every voter feels the same passion that exists so abundantly in Nirvachan Sadan itself. But to quote from the latest Star Wars film, 'Only a Sith thinks in absolutes!'
Correcting the rolls and bringing them up to date is a continuous process, not a terminus. The job of the Election Commission is to conduct the polls as quickly and fairly as humanly possible, not to postpone them until everything is perfect. Where in the Constitution does it say that you must not hold elections during the monsoon, or because of festivals or examinations?
The laws of India do say, however, that President's Rule may not be extended save by explicit sanction from Parliament. As the Election Commission itself admits, 'On 7th March, 2005, under Article 356 of the Constitution, the newly constituted Bihar Legislative Assembly was placed under suspended animation.' The Election Commission also says some parties asked for polls before 'the expiration of the President's rule on 6 September, 2005.'\" Why then has it chosen to hold polls only in November?
As a practical matter, we all know the United Progressive Alliance ministry can get Parliament to sign on the dotted line. But does the Election Commission have the right to presume that the MPs shall do so?
The Election Commission rests on the fact that the Bihar assembly was not dissolved until the night of May 22-23. (I am not quite sure when it came into force given that the Union Cabinet decided so late in the evening on Sunday, May 22, and that the decision had then to be given the President's assent -- necessarily delayed since he was in Moscow.)
Nirvachan Sadan has used this date, quoting a Supreme Court ruling of 2002: 'The Election Commission is required to initiate immediate steps for holding election for constituting Legislative Assembly on the first occasion and in any event within six months from the date of premature dissolution.'
But this is a crucial misinterpretation. The Supreme Court was not saying polls could be held only after six months of dissolution, their Lordships were laying down the maximum permissible time. There is nothing in the Supreme Court ruling that says polls cannot be held within a month of dissolution.
Why not? After all, assembly elections were held in Bihar as late as February 2005. How much more are you going to improve the electoral rolls? As for floods, only the gods know how long and how devastating they can be. What if the effects of floods are evident as late as December? Doesn't it make sense to hold polls before the full fury of the monsoons?
Attempting a perfect election is admirable. But there is a price for everything, and the price of the Election Commission's ambition is delaying democracy in Bihar for six more months. That is unacceptable.
Lalu Prasad Yadav's allegations against the Election Commission can be dismissed as baseless rubbish. But let us not pretend the Election Commission is beyond critique. It cannot dictate to Parliament, and it certainly cannot hide behind a dubious interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling to delay polls.