It has taken nearly two decades for the Election Commission of India (EC) to reach its present level of credibility and public trust. The present controversy surrounding the future Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is a threat to this exalted institution. The right and wrong of what the present CEC, N. Gopalaswami, has done will continue to feature in talk shows and opinion pieces for some time. Those who agree with the legality of the CEC’s recommendation may question the timing. Others may regard Election Commissioner Navin Chawla as the victim of circumstances.
To redeem the situation, there are a few alternatives to consider. One is to do nothing, in keeping with our penchant. Events will take their course. Gopalaswami will retire on April 21 and, in keeping with convention, Chawla, being the senior of the two Election Commissioners, will take over as CEC. His appointment will, of course, be questioned but by then the country will be in the middle of general elections and it is only the man on the spot who will command attention; not his predecessor.
A second alternative is not to proceed with the CEC’s appointment until at least the elections are over. Since they will have to be completed by the end of May to prevent a constitutional hiatus, a few weeks’ extension should be easy, even if this requires amending the requisite regulations. In the meantime, the CEC’s recommendation about the unsuitability of Chawla can be examined to enable the government to arrive at a carefully considered conclusion. Of course, the laws of natural justice include opportunities for both Gopalaswami and Chawla to explain their points of view.
It is unwise for the Congress and BJP to politicise this matter. It is equally unwise to disregard the issue altogether. One course of action which may end this controversy is a clear recognition that the present system of appointing the CEC or other Election commissioners is far from satisfactory. The CEC and the EC together represent the most important constitutionally mandated entity with regard to India’s electoral system. Without casting aspersions on the present and previous incumbents of the EC or on those who selected them, the fact remains that the process has been highly opaque, to say the least.
There are several other positions in the country where a process of consultation has been in vogue for many years. The Central Vigilance Commissioner is appointed after the recommendations of a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (LS). In appointing a judge of the Supreme Court (SC), the government is obliged to consult the Chief Justice and other judges of the SC and High courts. Even in the case of the Secretary General of Lok Sabha, the long-held convention has been to consult the LS Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition.
There is no reason why in the case of the CEC, equated with an SC judge in the Constitution, such a broad-based consultation is not followed. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution made a specific recommendation that the CEC and the other election commissioners should be appointed on the recommendation of a body consisting of the PM, leaders of the Opposition in the LS and the Rajya Sabha, the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The Commission also recommended that a similar procedure be adopted in the case of appointments of State Election Commissioners. Even if such a selection body is considered unwieldy, there is no denying the fact that a process based on consultation and participation is better and more acceptable than the determination by a minister or a government on its own.
It will be an act of statesmanship if the government announces, as quickly as possible, that in the future the PM, in appointing
the CEC and other members of EC, will consult the LS Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, at the very least. The question is whether the government can show this statesmanship or will it continue with its
ways of gamesmanship. It is futile to characterise Gopalaswami as the villain of the piece or Chawla as the victim of circumstances. What is at stake is the credibility of the EC. That should not become the real victim.
K.C. Sivaramakrishnan is Chairman of the Board, Centre for Policy Research