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Is Election Commission an Extension of Prime Minister’s Office?

The Constitution mandates ECI to function as an independent entity, apolitical in its character, but also appear to be so, because in the public domain “truth is not the truth, perception is the truth.” PMO’s recent invite to ECI shatters public trust in the latter.

As elections to the assemblies of crucial states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab are impending, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) summoned the Election Commissioners on November 16, 2021, for a meeting ostensibly to discuss certain matters relating to electoral reforms. The previous day, Union Law Ministry sent out a letter on the subject saying that the virtual meeting on November 16 would be chaired by the principal secretary to Prime Minister and the "Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is expected to be present.”

This is at a time when the political parties were vigorously campaigning for the Assembly polls in the above states with Prime Minister himself actively participating.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is an autonomous constitutional body. In June 1949, the Constituent Assembly deliberated on the ECI’s role and the need to keep it out of the purview of the executive: “So far as the fundamental question is concerned that the election machinery should be outside the control of the executive Government, there has been no dispute. What article 289 does is to carry out that part of the decision of the Constituent Assembly. It transfers the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls and of all elections to Parliament and the Legislatures of States to a body outside the executive to be called the Election far as the removal of the members of the Election Commission is concerned the Chief Commissioner is placed on the same footings as the Judges of the Supreme Court.”

This was the genesis of Article 324 of the Constitution in pursuance of which the ECI was set up and the Commission is expected to discharge its onerous responsibility of conducting elections in a free and fair manner.

Article 324 mandates ECI to function as an independent entity, apolitical in its character, but also appear to be so, because in the public domain “truth is not the truth, perception is the truth.” As the authority entrusted with the conduct of elections, the ECI should win the public trust as well as the confidence of all political parties.

PMO represents the ruling political executive and when it took the extraordinary step of summoning the Election Commissioners for interaction, it transgressed that inviolable lakshman rekha! And by obeying that diktat the Commissioners have committed gross constitutional impropriety.

Following public outrage Law Ministry clarified that the meeting was to discuss certain reform issues like updating of the electoral roll and Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage. Both these are highly controversial issues that have a far-reaching adverse impact on the fairness of elections and the integrity of the democratic process itself. The question now arises as to whether ECI is indulging in these unfair practices on the directions of PMO?

PMO and Law Ministry have stated “discussion of election reforms” as the reason for summoning the Election Commissioners. In this context, it is worthwhile to point out that such discussion never took place when a couple of years ago, the Central government enacted amendments to the Companies Act to relax the ceiling on corporate donations to political parties and channelling these donations through surreptitious electoral bonds by retrospectively amending the Foreign Contributions Regulation Acts of 1976 and 2010.

This opened the floodgates to foreign donations, through the unusual route of the Finance Acts of 2016 and 2017 that is now filling the coffers of the ruling party. At that time Election Commission had staunchly opposed the move saying that it will severely distort the electoral process and destroy the level playing field. PMO then had contemptuously brushed aside the objections of ECI and felt no need to discuss this critical issue with the constitutional body. Now they have suddenly found the need to discuss “electoral roll and Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage,” obviously with some ulterior intentions.

Under the circumstances the nagging suspicion arises-whether ECI has become an extension of PMO?

The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Views are personal.

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