In an article in The Tribune, eminent journalist and author Rasheed Kidwai has focussed attention on the inadequacies of the Election Commission to hold elections with a modicum of fairness and deal appropriately with those violating its guidelines or the Model Code of Conduct. He has suggested, among other things, the induction of a retired Supreme Court judge in the Central Election Commission as the Election Commission of India (ECI) performs several important functions which are quasi-judicial in nature, such as dealing with the crucial issue of the disqualification of MPs and MLAs, petitions and interpretation of rules in the Representation of the People Act. Another important suggestion made by him is implementation of the 1990 Dinesh Goswami Committee recommendation that members of the ECI should be selected by a panel consisting of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Valuable as these suggestions are, these are not enough under the prevailing circumstances when hate-mongers and criminals dominate the politics and get elected with the help of money and muscle power. In the just concluded Bihar Assembly elections, as many as 1157 (out of a total of 3,733) candidates were with criminal backgrounds, some of whom might be declared winners when the results are announced on November 10.
In fact, the need is to have a relook into the very law governing the ECI, as suggested by then Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi in 2016. In his inaugural address at National Interactive Conference on Electoral Laws in New Delhi, he said that the issue is vital and needs rather a debate at national level because almost everyone is involved in one way or the other in the electoral process.
When a comprehensive review of the Representation of People Act is taken up, thought must also be given to the helplessness of ECI in protecting the career of officers working honestly but not to the like of the political party that comes to power. It has been seen that politicians and officers accused of electoral crimes are rewarded by the party in power and officers doing their job honestly are punished once the period of Model Code of Conduct is over.
Here are the examples. When Shivraj Singh Chouhan became Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 2005, he was not a member of the Assembly, but a member of Lok Sabha. He resigned from Lok Sabha and contested from Budhni constituency in Sehore district. Collector of Sehore and Returning Officer S K Mishra was removed by Election Commission a few days before polling for violating the law to help Chouhan. As soon as the Election Commission’s Code of Conduct was over, Chouhan appointed Mishra Collector of Bhopal, one of the most coveted posts, and then Secretary to CM, virtually ridiculing the Election Commission and its Code of Conduct.
During the 2008 Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, Phoolchand Verma filed his nomination papers as BJP candidate from Sonkutch (SC) constituency in Dewas district. Sajjan Singh Verma was the Congress candidate. Tukojirao Puar, a Minister of State in the Chouhan council of ministers, was the BJP candidate from Dewas. As the scrutiny of the nomination papers was being held, Tukojirao Puar, accompanied by Phool Chand Verma, created a ruckus in the office of Dewas Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Sanjana Jain, who was the Returning Officer for the Sonkutch (SC) Assembly constituency. They wanted Sanjana Jain to reject Sajjan Singh Verma’s nomination papers under one pretext or another. As the lady officer tried to explain the things, Puar had lost his temper and he and Phoolchand Verma started threatening her. The rowdy behaviour of the BJP leaders lasted for quite some time.
After receiving a report, accompanied by a CD of the proceedings in her office, from Sanjana Jain, the Election Commission pondered over the matter and directed the Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh to get a criminal case registered against Puar under Sections 186, 353 and 506 of IPC. As the Sections make it a cognisable offence, Puar was subsequently arrested by the police. At the same time, the Election Commission ordered immediate removal of Dewas Collector Navneet Mohan Kothari, who was the District Returning Officer, for not sending SDM Sanjana Jain’s report to the Commission promptly. Shivraj Singh Chouhan told an election meeting at Dewas a few days later that he was proud of Tukojirao Puar (the main culprit).
In due course, Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of Dewas D K Mittal framed charges under Sections 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty) and 504 (intentional insult) of Indian Penal Code (IPC) against Puar and Phoolchand Verma.
Meanwhile, BJP had returned to power and Chouhan again become Chief Minister. He promoted Puar to cabinet rank and transferred Sanjana Jain to an insignificant post. The case against Puar and Phoolchand Verma fizzled out as it was Chouhan’s prosecution officer. The Election Commission could neither protect Sanjana Jain nor ensure prosecution of Puar and Verma.