Context: The Election Commission of India (ECI) has become a center of disagreement between the government and the judiciary. The recent conflict revolves around the process of appointing its officials. The Supreme Court ruled that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners (EC) should be appointed by the President based on a committee’s advice, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha or the largest Opposition party leader, and the Chief Justice of India (CJI). This was a unanimous judgment by a five-judge Bench and aimed to strengthen the ECI’s constitutional standing.
However, the government introduced a bill to change this procedure, seeking to remove the Chief Justice of India from the selection committee. The proposed committee would then consist of the Prime Minister (Chairperson), Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (Member), and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the Prime Minister (Member).
This move reflects the government’s desire for more influence in appointing top election officials, potentially undermining the institution’s independence.
Various committees and leaders have previously suggested a more representative selection process for ECI members. The idea was to reduce the ruling party’s sway and ensure fairer elections. The current bill, introduced by the ruling party (BJP), contradicts its previous stance as an opposition party and aims to increase government control over the ECI.
Despite being respected for its reliability and responsible conduct, the ECI’s autonomy and trust have been questioned due to perceived leniency towards the ruling party. The bill highlights the government’s pursuit of a tighter grip on the ECI’s functioning.
Election Commission of India (ECI) is a constitutional body (under Article-324) vested with the responsibilities of superintendence, direction and control of conduct of elections. It consists of a Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners.
Article 324 states that the Election Commission shall consist of Chief Election Commissioner and such numbers of other Election Commissioners, if any, as the President may from time to time fix and appointment of CEC and other ECs shall, subject to provisions of any law made in that behalf by the Parliament, be made by the President.
Still, appointments in ECI is associated with various issues:
- Lack of security of tenure for Election Commissioners (ECs).
- Article 324(5) of the Constitution protects only CEC from removal, except if the manner and grounds of removal are the same as a judge of the Supreme Court. However, ECs can be removed by the government on the recommendation of the Chief Election Commissioner.
- The appointment of CEC and other ECs according to the Article 324, shall be done as per the law made by the Parliament in this regard. However, no such law has yet been made which leaves a “gap” and leaves the appointment of such a crucial post solely to the executives.
- The constitution has not prescribed the qualifications (legal, educational, administrative, or judicial) of the members of election commission.
- The constitution has not debarred the retiring Election commissioner from any further appointment by the government.
- There is no clarity regarding the power division between the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners.
Reforming the Election Commission of India: A Concise Action Plan
- Legislation for Appointment: Create a clear law outlining how the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners are appointed, ensuring transparency and fair selection.
- Qualifications Defined: Specify necessary qualifications and experience for Commissioners, focusing on legal expertise, administrative competence, and integrity.
- Secure Tenure: Guarantee secure tenure for all Election Commissioners to prevent arbitrary removals and political influence.
- Clear Powers Division: Clearly define roles and responsibilities of Chief Election Commissioner and other Commissioners to prevent conflicts.
- Transparent Selection: Form a diverse selection committee including judiciary and civil society to assess candidates fairly.
- Post-Retirement Rules: Introduce rules preventing retiring Commissioners from taking immediate government positions to prevent conflicts of interest.
- Enhance Independence: Consider amending the Constitution to grant the Election Commission greater autonomy from government influence.
- Capacity Building: Invest in regular training for Commissioners and staff to improve their understanding of electoral processes and technologies.
- Public Awareness: Launch awareness campaigns to educate citizens about their voting rights and the significance of elections.
- Ongoing Review: Periodically review and adapt the Commission’s functioning to address emerging challenges and maintain electoral integrity.
Implementing these focused reforms will bolster the Election Commission’s credibility, efficiency, and impartiality, strengthening India’s democratic foundation.