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Think small on big issues

By A. Surya Prakash
Originally published on The Pioneer (Tuesday, June 26, 2012)

This is what the Congress-led UPA regime has practised over appointments to key positions. It has brushed aside the Opposition’s views and landed in trouble.

The Congress’s disdain for norms in governance and for opinions other than those of the family that virtually controls the party is well-known. It was, therefore, no great surprise to see the dismissive attitude of the Manmohan Singh Government to the salutary suggestion made by BJP veteran LK Advani that the Government appoint a collegium to select the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners.

Mr Advani suggested that the Government take the collegium route while choosing the successor to then outgoing CEC, Mr SY Quraishi. The Government virtually brushed his suggestion aside and announced the appointment of Mr VS Sampath as the CEC.

Mr Sampath may well have all the qualifications to head the Election Commission, but the partisan nature of the process of selection of Election Commissioners and the CEC in the past  (of the Government, by the Government and, therefore, by deduction, for the Government) puts a question mark on the worthiness of even the most qualified of candidates. Let us not forget that it was this very Government which appointed Mr Navin Chawla, who did not have even basic democratic credentials, as Election Commissioner and thereafter as Chief Election Commissioner because of his proximity to the Nehru-Gandhis. Mr Chawla, who was Secretary to the Lt Governor of Delhi during the dreaded Emergency in 1975-77, ordered the Superintendent of Tihar Jail to build prison cells with asbestos roofs to house Indira Gandhi’s political opponents. When the jailor reminded him of the blistering heat in Delhi in the summer months and wondered how political prisioners could survive in such cells, Mr Chawla said, “Bake them”.

The Shah Commission, which examined the systematic assault on democracy and constitutional values during the Emergency by Mrs Indira Gandhi and Government servants like Mr Chawla said that he had behaved in an “authoritarian and callous” manner. It indicted him and said that he had grossly misused his position and abused his powers in cynical disregard of the welfare of citizens.

It appears as if Justice MB Shah, who headed the commission that probed the Emergency excesses, had a premonition that one day India would have a Prime Minister like Manmohan Singh, who would consider persons like Mr Chawla for key constitutional positions. That is why, in the hope of preventing such an eventuality, the commission described Mr Chawla as a “tyrant” and declared that he had rendered himself “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others”. Yet, this Government appointed this very person as an Election Commissioner in 2005. This is the reason why Mr Advani has said in his letter to the Prime Minister that the credibility of the system was severely dented because of a “dubious appointment” a few years ago.

Mr Advani’s view that the appointment of Election Commissioners by the President solely on the advice of the Prime Minister “does not evoke confidence among the people”, is shared by many political leaders, jurists and thinkers. This grossly partisan process of choosing Election Commissioners, who have the constitutional responsibility of superintendence of the electoral process, runs contrary to the democratic scheme itself.

That is why this process of selection — making it a purely intra-Government affair — has agitated many citizens who are concerned about the sanctity, credibility and independence of constitutional bodies like the Election Commission and prompted them to record their opposition to the present system and to suggest alternative methods. For example, in recent times, two important commissions have suggested that a broad-based committee that reflects the political diversity so evident in the country, should select the CEC and Election Commissioners.

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, which was headed by eminent jurist MN Venkatachaliah, said that the Chief Election Commissioner and the other Election Commissioners should be appointed “on the recommendation of a body consisting of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha”. The NCRWC suggested that a similar procedure should be adopted in the case of appointment of State Election Commissioners.

The collegium principle enunciated by the NCRWC, which was appointed by the National Democratic Alliance, was reiterated by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, appointed by the United Progressive Alliance Government. The Second ARC’s recommendation had a slight variation: The collegium to select the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners should be headed by the Prime Minister with the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Law Minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha as members. It also recommended that the provisions for selection of State Election Commissioners should be similar, if not the same, as those for the Election Commission of India.

So, when Mr Advani wrote to the Prime Minister a fortnight ago suggesting a collegium, he was only echoing the views of two important commissions, one of which was appointed by the UPA itself. But the Government dismissed  his suggestion and announced the appointment of Mr Sampath as the CEC.

This is not the first time that the Government has ignored sound advice in regard to the mode of selection of persons for key constitutional offices. Nor will it be the last because it is in situations like these that one gets to see the real Manmohan Singh. Both he and Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram displayed gross irresponsibility two years ago when they chose Mr PJ Thomas, a man facing a corruption charge, as the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, much against the advice of Ms Sushma Swaraj, leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Eventually, the Government’s appointee was thrown out of office after the Supreme Court found him unfit for the job.

It would have been presumed that the PJ Thomas affair and the observations of the apex court would have chastened the Government to display some decency and at least minimal commitment to democratic standards while making appointments to constitutional offices.

But it is too much to expect such civility from Mr Singh and some of his colleagues in the Cabinet. Probably, they are now waiting for another direction from the Supreme Court ordering them to device a more acceptable and non-partisan scheme for selecting the CEC and other Election Commissioners. Until that day, these leaders will continue to play partisan politics, much to the detriment of democracy and democratic institutions.

(The accompanying visual is of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looking through the window of his special plane on his arrival at Waterkloof Airbase, Pretoria in South Africa on Friday. PTI photo by Vijay Verma.)



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