Errors of Commission
The multi-member structure of the Election Commission protects it from individual bias. A former commissioner recalls his years with a difficult job. SS Dhanoa elaborates.
I was to retire from the Indian Administrative Service in August 1988. I requested for an appointment with the Prime Minister and got it the next year in April. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi enquired if I would take up a government assignment as I appeared to be in good health. I gave my consent, but heard nothing about it till October after I had as the chairman of the Bihar Public Service Commission (BPSC).
I hesitated in accepting the new appointment, but I had to join almost immediately as the Bihar Chief Minister personally came to Delhi to accept my resignation as the BPSC. I was escorted by Rama Devi, the then law secretary, along with Election Commissioner V.S. Seigell to meet Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) R.V.S. Peri Sastri.
While welcoming us, the CEC said that he had neither been consulted nor informed about our appointment till that morning of October 16, 1989. He added that he had completed all that was required for holding the Lok Sabha elections. As far as he was concerned, the election notification could be issued the next day.
I reached office a bit late the next day and found that B.G. Deshmukh, the principal secretary, was already there. Peri Sastri was shouting that he could never accept what Deshmukh had just conveyed to him as the decision of the Prime Minister. Deshmukh insisted on having a decision from the Election Commission by the afternoon and left.
I told Peri Sastri that it was not appropriate for him to join issue with Deshmukh without taking into confidence the two new elect ion commissioners. He was furious on hearing my intervention but soon controlled himself.
He said that Deshmukh had conveyed to him the PM's desire to schedule the Lok Sabha elections from November 22.
Peri Sastri then explained that as according to electoral law, only the Election Commission could fix the dates of polling.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had announced the dates of election to the media without taking the EC along.
I agreed that the PM was at fault, but cautioned Peri Sastri that the Election Commission's refusal to go ahead with the PM's dates would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
It was obvious that Peri Sastri did not like the imposition of the two new election commissioners. But being an officer with a legal affairs background, he arranged that all statutory matters were decided by the three members. He spurned all
my proposals to formalise working of the multi-member Election Commission.
Meanwhile, the media went hammer and tongs against Rajiv Gandhi, alleging his role in the appointment of the two new election commissioners. I came under the scanner for being identified with EC decisions that went against the interest of the political elements who had united to unseat Rajiv Gandhi as PM.
I could not help notice that the PM and the CEC were not on talking terms to each other. This often caused problems as the CEC would entertain paltry complaints against the ruling party while condoning much bigger faults of the opposition
Often EC meetings had to be called at short notice and at odd hours to rectify some of the anomalies generated in the day-
to-day conduct of the elections.
Some of these decisions included changing the poll dates in UP and deciding about the polling stations that should go for re-poll in Amethi.
Some of the CECs in the past had taken decisions that were indeed partisan. My short stint as an election commissioner convinced me that the EC was one constitutional body that had been conceived as a multi-member body with all commissioners enjoying the same powers, privileges and immunity to ensure that personal prejudices and failings did not undermine the objectivity needed for such a body.
It was for this reason that I had gone to the Supreme Court against the government’s decision to revert to a single-member Election Commission. My view was endorsed by the apex court.
(SS Dhanoa is a former Election Commissioner)