Sanctity of institutions | The Financial Express

Sanctity of institutions

SC flagged important concerns over election commissioners’ selection, but should have been more restrained in its remarks

Sanctity of institutions
The SC’s strong remarks on the EC selection process have come close on the heels of criticism by the government of the apex court’s own model of selecting judges for constitutional courts.

Hearing petitions seeking reforms in the system of appointing the election commissioners (EC), the Supreme Court said on Tuesday that a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) should be someone “with character” who “does not allow himself to be bulldozed”, and a person like former CEC, the late T N Seshan “happens once in a while”. Given that the Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the most important institutional frameworks in a democracy, there is considerable merit in suggestions from certain quarters that the Supreme Court should have been more restrained in its public comments. Equally debatable is the court’s suggestion that the induction of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in the appointment committee to choose ECs will ensure “neutrality”. For example, the selection panel for the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) comprises the prime minister, the CJI, and the leader of the Opposition. That has not shielded the CBI from allegations of partisanship and doing the bidding of the governments of the day. The SC’s strong remarks on the EC selection process have come close on the heels of criticism by the government of the apex court’s own model of selecting judges for constitutional courts.

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It would, however, be wrong if the debate degenerates into yet another conflict between the executive and the judiciary. The focus should be on the more substantive issue of how the ECI could be strengthened. In that context, no one can dispute the SC’s observation that successive governments have been lax in ensuring the independence of the ECI by ensuring no CEC gets the full six-year term to head the poll body since 1996. It is indeed strange that despite Article 324 of the Constitution envisaging the enactment of a law to provide for the procedure for appointments in ECI, the government has done nothing so far. It should be done urgently as the independence of the poll body can be ensured only by way of having a completely neutral selection panel. If nothing else, this would at least help build a perception that the ECI is free from political and executive interference. That is missing now—consider the ECI’s flip-flop on the electoral bonds issue in the past.

Going beyond the ECI, the larger issue is that India needs to preserve the sanctity of its institutions. The overriding theme of governance in the country over the past couple of decades has been a sustained attack on the very institutions that bind the Indian state. It is sad but true that whether it be apex investigative agencies such as the CBI (which earned the sobriquet of caged parrot) or the Enforcement Directorate or any of the regulators, only a handful of institutions have managed to protect their autonomy and credibility as governments—whether the previous ones or the current one—have gone about demolishing the checks and balances that limit the abuses of power. While given appropriate and significant powers under the laws that govern them, several factors have worked to undermine the effectiveness of regulators. The power of appointment of chairpersons and members still rests exclusively with the government. This power and its occasional arbitrary use serve to undermine the perception of independence, which in turn dilutes the effectiveness of such institutions. The SC’s observations are a timely reminder of the fact that institutions are the very foundations of a modern democratic system.

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First published on: 24-11-2022 at 04:30 IST