On Mar. 3, the Supreme Court (SC) passed a critical judgement on the appointment of Election Commissioners. It is a judgement crucial for India’s journey to becoming a more robust democracy. After all, strong Election Commission is the facilitator of free and fair elections, core of an authentic democracy.
The five-Judge Constitution Bench said that henceforth, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners (ECs) would be appointed by the President of India just like before, but…
Unlike the earlier years, when the Law Minister would suggest candidates to the Prime Minister, who in turn would ask the President to make appointments, from now on, there will be a recommendation panel.
This panel will comprise the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition (or leader of the single largest Opposition party). No more will a CEC be appointed simply on the Prime Minister’s or Government’s recommendation. A good policy.
Of course, many have said the Judiciary is overstepping its bounds, calling it judicial interference. It may be so, but someone has to do something. The Election Commission and a few CECs have been demanding this law be formulated for decades.
Article 324(2) mandates the Parliament to enact a direction to appoint CEC and ECs. It has been 70 years, and no law has been formulated!
The Supreme Court order comes at an interesting juncture because a vacancy in the Election Commission will arise early next year when Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey retires. He is set to retire on Feb. 14, and the announcement of the 2024 Lok Sabha may be in March.
When the CBI Director can be appointed by the recommendation of a committee comprising the PM, the Opposition party leader and the Chief Justice of India, why not the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners?
Law for appointment of CEC and ECs apart, it is more critical that the Election Commissioners are fearless. For this to happen, promotion to CEC must be through seniority and not at the Government’s discretion. Also, the termination process for ECs should be similar to that of the CEC, which is through impeachment and not through the recommendation of the CEC.
While the Supreme Court is correct to step in, it must realise, just like how justice depends on the individual character of a Judge, free and fair elections also depend on the courage and character of the Election Commissioners.
This matter of character reminds me of Sukumar Sen: The first, the best, yet forgotten…
For many of us, the most famous Election Commissioner was T.N. Seshan. But there was one more, much greater. A man who must be credited for the robust democracy that we proudly proclaim as the ‘largest democracy in the world’ — the first Election Commissioner of India — Sukumar Sen.
In his book, “India after Gandhi,” Ramachandra Guha talks about this great man.
India got its Election Commission two years after independence, and Sukumar Sen was appointed Chief Election Commissioner in March 1950. The then PM Jawaharlal Nehru wanted an election soon, in 1951.
But Sen, an Indian Civil Service man and a Mathematician, understood the numbers he was dealing with and postponed it to 1952. After all, he had to deal with 176 million Indians who could vote, of which 85 percent could not read or write.
Each one had to be identified, named and registered. Sites for polling stations had to be selected, and honest and efficient polling officers had to be identified. Additionally, there were to be concurrent elections to the State Assemblies!
The polls were finally scheduled for the first months of 1952. Guha quotes an American observer who wrote, “Some numbers will help us understand the scale of Sen’s enterprise. At stake were 4,500 seats — about 500 for Parliament, the rest for the provincial assemblies. 2,24,000 polling booths were constructed and equipped with 2 million (20 lakh) steel ballot boxes, for which 8,200 tonnes of steel were consumed; 16,500 clerks were appointed on contracts to type and collate the electoral rolls by constituency; about 3,80,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls; 56,000 presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, aided by 2,80,000 helpers and 2,24,000 Policemen.”
Sen also had to deal with geographical problems, and so bridges had to be specially constructed across rivers; in the case of small islands in the Indian Ocean, naval vessels were used to transport boxes and electoral rolls to the booths.
Apart from geographical problems, Sen also had to deal with social problems, such as women in northern India not giving their names. Instead, they wanted to be registered as “A’s mother or B’s wife.” Sukumar directed his officials to either get the women to give their names or leave them out. This led to a furore, but Sen said this prejudice would make the women register with their real names the next time.
Then, to make voting effective, he came up with the idea of providing symbols to help illiterate voters. To make it even more effective, he used multiple ballot boxes, a box for each party with its symbol on it so the voter could drop their ballot in that box in case they got too confused.
Then he introduced the use of indelible ink to avoid impersonation. He also used media — a documentary was made on the duties of the electorate and shown in more than 3,000 cinemas. The election was a success.
He once again was the Commissioner in 1957 for the 2nd Lok Sabha. By this time, 193 million Indians were registered to vote, and 95 percent of the women were registered voters! This second run, too, was a grand success, and it established India as a functioning democracy.
This shows how one sincere officer, one patriotic officer, can put a nation on a progressive path and prevent it from straying into chaos. One will appreciate this when one considers that just as India was getting ready to vote in 1952, in neighbouring Pakistan, its first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated. Since that day, Pakistan has never been able to become a genuine democracy.
Indeed, Indian democracy has come a long way. From 146 million voters in the 1st Lok Sabha to 912 million in the 17th. All thanks to the glorious start given by Sukumar Sen.
Sukumar Sen went on to assist other countries with their elections and is fondly remembered in those countries but sadly forgotten here in his motherland.
Let’s hope if the EC gets its own Secretariat, Sen will be honoured with an installation of his bust instead of some politicians.
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