Do the recent initiatives of the Election Commission of India (ECI), disqualifying a minister for filing election expenses incorrectly, objecting to a state government’s disciplinary proceedings against an officer, and introducing paper trails in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), indicate a ‘model’ Indian public institution, playing its role impartially and fearlessly to conduct free and fair elections? Certainly, these actions show the ECI as autonomous and accountable, qualities that are uncommon, but much needed, in our public institutions. Unsurprisingly, since 1996, surveys have shown that of all public institutions, people trust the ECI the most. But this was not always the case, and the ECI’s rather rocky journey to its current level of success provides insights into how Indian public institutions can be made more effective.
The ECI’s success in conducting free and fair elections has varied over five phases. Post-independence, the ECI began triumphantly as it conducted the first elections in the world’s largest, but largely illiterate, democracy, with inadequate roads, buildings, and personnel. Innovating by using symbols to identify political parties and candidates, the ECI enabled illiterate constituents to vote, exhibited an astonishing efficiency, gained the trust of ordinary people (in the second general election, some voters wanted to vote for the Chief Election Commissioner—CEC!) and was admired across the world. It kept up this performance through the first phase (1950-1967).
Partly, the ECI succeeded because the leaders of the dominant political party, the Indian National Congress, wanted free and fair elections, and because of the capable leadership of its first CEC, Sukumar Sen. But, equally important were some features of ECI’s institutional design. First, the ECI is a very autonomous organisation. It is independent of the government, has full powers when the law is silent, and even the courts cannot intervene in the election process once it has begun. This autonomy allows innovative and decisive action, such as the allotment of symbols. Second, the ECI’s subject domain is narrow, i.e. conducting elections, but it can act across a range of processes, be it policy-setting, implementation, and quasi-judicial actions. This varies from the powers of, say, the legislature and the judiciary, each of which addresses one process, i.e. law-making and adjudication, respectively, (and neither implements), across subjects.
Third, the ECI’s positioning in our federal structure is unusual. Most other public institutions have parallel national and state-level structures, with varying autonomy of the latter. But, while both Lok Sabha and state legislature elections are centralised in the ECI, it is totally dependent on the state administrative machinery to conduct elections. This centralisation meant that the ECI could use its expertise fully to give detailed administrative directions to state governments regarding election processes, such as the design of ballot boxes and ballot papers, location of polling stations, counting procedures, etc. At the same time, through constant interaction with the states, the ECI created transparent, accountable and realistic processes, such as for preparation of voters’ lists, the nomination of candidates, discipline at the polling station, etc. Most of these, with the support of the political establishment, were enacted as law.
The ECI’s success was diluted in the second phase (1967-1975), and eroded further in the third phase (1977-1990), as political support for free and fair elections declined progressively. From 1967 onwards, the Congress began to lose its dominance, and multi-party democracy grew, resulting in intense political competition. Now, political actors stepped up violence and electoral malpractices, such as personating and intimidating voters and booth-capturing. This was matched by a general decline in ethics within the government. Several state governments made large-scale transfers on the eve of the elections, posting pliable officials in key positions. These officials sometimes flouted the ECI’s orders, with the state government’s support. So much so, that by the end of the third phase, in parts of UP and Bihar, elections became a mockery, with organised booth-capturing and intimidation of voters.
But, though violence and electoral malpractice rose steadily, elections remained free and fair in large parts of the country. This was because of the transparent and accountable processes incorporated in law in the first phase. These could not be flouted casually. As a rule, though with exceptions, officials were not willing to participate in illegal activities. Additional protection was provided by the possibility of partisan elections being challenged and set aside in courts. In other words, the strong legal basis of the election process, and accountability to the courts were defences against the deteriorating political climate.
As has been the case with many of our public institutions, this deterioration could have continued in the fourth phase (1991-2002). Instead, after another rise in violence in the 1991 elections, the ECI re-established the rule of law. The new CEC, TN Seshan, counterbalanced the ECI’s institutional shortcomings, i.e. inadequate control on electoral malpractice by political actors and the administrative machinery, through combative and forceful leadership. He publicly reprimanded politicians for violating the Model Code of Conduct, created shock waves by postponing and cancelling elections, increased the number of central observers four-fold, and insisted on action against errant officials. The CEC exploited the ECI’s autonomy to the hilt, used the burgeoning electronic media to get public support, and at times, approached the courts against the government, which often backed him.
Consequently, the credibility of the election process was re-established in the 1996 elections, while violence, booth-capturing and voter-intimidation declined dramatically. Subsequently, independent stands by the ECI became an accepted and common feature, and new safeguards were incorporated in the law. Moreover, the ECI became a three-member body, which added to its internal accountability. The current independent actions of the ECI are a continuation of this process.
In the ECI’s institutional evolution, the first phase illustrated the importance of institutional autonomy, buttressed by the mandate to make and implement policy, to enable innovation and sound management. The narrow subject area and the responsibility for implementation sharpened institutional expertise. The second and third phases demonstrated the significance of grounding processes in law, and accountability to the judiciary, which were bulwarks in a deteriorating context. That the ECI is autonomous and accountable, is critical to its success. Usually, our public institutions tend to be only one of the two, and flounder as conditions become adverse. The implied policy initiative here is to strengthen autonomy and accountability simultaneously in public institutions.
These institutional features remained important in the ECI’s success in the fourth phase, but a new element was added: the right leadership. The irony here is that the ECI got the right leadership accidentally, rather than as per institutional design. The appointment of the CEC and the Election Commissioners remains a non-transparent process, and the decision rests with the government of the day. The risk of partisan appointments persists and could undo ECI’s achievements. And, this is a problem that plagues almost all our public institutions.
Recently, the appointment process of the CEC and Election Commissioners has been challenged through a PIL in the Supreme Court, and an independent and neutral process has been sought. As the court hears the case, a key question for the future of public institutions in India hangs in the balance.
By Rashmi Sharma