Guarding principles, protecting people’s will - Hindustan Times
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Guarding principles, protecting people’s will

Feb 26, 2024 10:00 PM IST

As the electoral process confronts myriad challenges, the judiciary must safeguard its integrity and hold accountable those who seek to undermine democracy

In the intricate tapestry of democratic governance, the judiciary stands as a stalwart guardian of the rule of law, ensuring that the principles of justice and fairness are ingrained in all facets of society. Nowhere is this role more crucial than in the realm of the electoral process that represents the quintessential expression of the people’s will. Preserving the purity of the electoral process is paramount to guarding the essence of democratic governance. To protect this, the judiciary ought to serve as a bulwark against tyranny, safeguarding the sanctity of the electoral process and upholding the fundamental rights of citizens. Over the past weeks, on this front, the Supreme Court (SC) of India has executed its role as the ultimate arbiter with absolute probity and perfection.

The Supreme Court. (ANI) PREMIUM
The Supreme Court. (ANI)

On February 15, a Constitution bench of the SC struck down the Centre’s 2018 electoral bond (EB) scheme of political funding, declaring it “unconstitutional” because it completely anonymised contributions made to political parties. The court added that restricting black money or illegal election financing — two of the articulated objectives of the scheme — did not justify violating voters’ right to information in a disproportionate manner. Ordering full disclosure of donors and recipients of EBs issued since April 2019 on the website of the Election Commission of India (ECI) by March 13, the five-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, ruled that a spree of amendments made in different statutes through the 2017 Finance Act violated the constitutional right of the electors to access information on the funding of political parties “which is necessary to identify corruption and quid pro quo transactions and governance information”.

Five days later, the CJI’s bench delivered yet another landmark decision, putting an end to an unprecedented controversy that erupted after the returning officer of the Chandigarh mayoral election was caught on camera brazenly defacing ballots. The apex court overturned the results of the Chandigarh mayoral polls and declared the Aam Aadmi Party candidate the winner, in a ruling that had at its heart the judiciary’s role in upholding free and fair elections and its duty to interpret and enforce the laws that govern the electoral process.

In SP Gupta Vs Union of India (1981), the SC acknowledged accountability and transparency of governance as important features of democratic governance while observing that the Constitution guarantees the “right to know” which is necessary to secure “true facts” about the administration of the country. Democratic governance, the court held, is not restricted to voting once every five years but is a continuous process by which the citizens not merely choose the members to represent themselves but also hold the government accountable for actions and inactions — and for this, citizens need to possess information.

The cornerstone of any democracy lies in the belief that every vote counts, that each voice matters, and that the collective will of the people shall eventually prevail. However, when dishonesty, corruption, or manipulation creep into the political process, this fundamental trust is shattered, eroding the very foundations on which democracy stands.

The Constitution bench judgment in the EB case addressed the malaise that the bonds could propagate in undermining the legitimacy of an electoral process by promoting corruption and quid pro quo while disrupting the level playing field. The Court ruled that the voters’ right to know supersedes anonymity in political party funding or the concerns of privacy, adding EBs provide economically resourced contributors who already have a seat at the table selective anonymity vis-à-vis the public and not the political party. And rightly so! After all, the purity of the electoral process is not just a matter of procedural correctness; it must reflect a democracy’s commitment to fairness, transparency, and accountability.

In the second case, the Court held the Chandigarh mayoral election results to be “patently illegal” and ordered criminal proceedings against the returning officer, former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office-bearer Anil Masih, for deliberately defacing eight ballots and lying before it. The order is a lot more than a political triumph for the beleaguered Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA); it conveys the SC’s resolve to step in when electoral processes are compromised, and the promise of democracy remains unfulfilled.

The integrity of the electoral process is inseparable from the broader fabric of democratic governance. A tainted electoral process undermines the legitimacy of government institutions, weakens the rule of law, and fosters a culture of impunity. On the other hand, when electoral processes are transparent, inclusive, and free from interference, they serve as a safeguard against tyranny, ensuring that power remains vested in the hands of the people. Through impartial adjudication, courts play a pivotal role in guaranteeing compliance with electoral regulations and holding accountable those who seek to subvert the will of the electorate.

While the importance of purity in the electoral process cannot be overstated because it is the bedrock upon which democracy is built, by exercising its power of judicial review, courts are empowered under the Constitution to reinforce the principle that no individual or entity is above the law. As the electoral process and voters confront the myriad challenges of the modern world, the judiciary must remain steadfast in serving as a beacon of impartiality and justice by safeguarding the integrity of our electoral systems and holding accountable those who would seek to undermine democracy.

The views expressed are personal

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