Election Commission’s assurance to conduct “One Nation, One Election” casts doubts about its independence

election commission of india

To

Shri Rajiv Kumar

Chief Election Commissioner

Election Commission of India (ECI)

 

Shri A C Pandey

Election Commissioner

Election Commission of India (ECI)

 

Shri Arun Goel

Election Commissioner

Election Commission of India (ECI)

Dear S/Shri Rajiv Kumar/ Pandey/ Goel,

I have come across a news report (https://www.livemint.com/elections/election-commission-of-india-ready-to-act-cec-rajiv-kumar-on-one-nation-one-election-policy-11694004696134.html) which indicates that the Election Commission of India has assured that it would be ready to act “according to legal provisions“, if the “One Nation, One Election” policy of the present government gets implemented.

If the above-cited report is factually correct, it raises serious concerns about the ability of the ECI to respond in an independent, apolitical manner and express the pros and cons of such a proposal, as indicated below.

  1. In the past, the successive Election Commissions had proposed several far-reaching electoral reforms including safeguards to contain criminality among candidates, bringing greater transparency in election funding, making the electoral process more transparent at every stage, containing the burgeoning election expenses to minimise electoral corruption, rendering the composition of the legislative bodies more representative, strengthening the anti-defection legislation and so on. The political executive has not so far cared to act on the same. It is inexplicable that the Commission should fail to take note of it and unreservedly announce a categorical assurance that it would fall in line with the present political executive’s resolve to go ahead with its grandiose idea of One Nation, One Election, without pointing out that the government and the Parliament should consider more fundamental electoral reforms as cited above, in preference to holding simultaneous elections, with all their associated deficiencies, administrative problems and, more important, their far-reaching adverse implications for the spirit of federalism.
  2. While India is no doubt one nation, there are wide diversities in terms of culture, language, geological constraints, socio-economic characteristics and so on, which make it necessary to allow the voters of different regions and sub-regions to elect candidates and political parties on the basis of their local choices rather than on the basis of choices at the national level. Conducting elections simultaneously for the Parliament, the State Assemblies and the local bodies can result in national choices being imposed to override the local choices, obfuscating the idea of federalism that constitutes an essential component of the basic structure of the Constitution. Should not the Commission have raised these concerns, in response to the present political executive’s unilateral decision to initiate steps to conduct simultaneous elections?
  3. My letter dated 4-9-2023 on the subject, addressed to Rashtrapatiji refers (https://countercurrents.org/2023/09/centres-unilateral-decision-to-set-up-a-committee-on-one-nation-one-election-an-affront-to-federalism/) Instead of viewing itself as a mere appointee by the political executive, the Commission should elevate itself to a level where it should belong, i.e. a Constitutional authority under Article 324.
  4. In a country with such a vast geographical extent, remoteness and difficulty of terrain, electioneering based on divisive politics accompanied often by intimidation of voters and law & order problems, to conduct simultaneous elections would place a heavy demand on the administrative machinery, the security infrastructure, surveillance over electoral corruption and frequent Model Code violations by the highest in the land. Unless the Commission consciously chooses to wink at those issues and allow intimidation of voters to go on unhindered, it ought to have flagged the enormity and complexity of the challenge of simultaneous elections, rather than meekly falling in line.
  5. In my letter dated 7-1-2023 addressed to you (https://countercurrents.org/2023/01/use-of-remote-evms-for-migrants-eci-should-set-its-house-in-order/), I raised concerns about the ability and preparedness of the Commission to conduct even the 2024 general elections transparently and in compliance with the requirement of voter secrecy mandated in Section 128 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA51). The Commission’s problems are further compounded by the fact that at least 6.5 lakh VVPAT machines, out of a total of 17.4 lakhs used in 2019, that is roughly 1/3rd of the paper-trail counting machines available, are found to be defective and are still awaiting repairs (https://thewire.in/government/cloud-of-silence-hangs-over-one-third-of-vvpat-machines-in-use-since-2018-deemed-defective). Considering that the requirement of VVPAT machines for the 2024 elections would be at least 10% more, that is, roughly 20 lakhs, how is the Commission going to keep enough number of functioning VVPAT machines ready for 2024? The fact that an unusually large proportion of the VVPAT machines are defective raises concerns about the technology used and its efficacy. While this is the case with conducting the far simpler 2024 elections, conducting simultaneous nationwide, three-tier elections in the near future would require at least 30 lakh VVPAT machines and pose a far more formidable challenge.
  6. In particular, in my earlier letters (refer to https://countercurrents.org/2023/01/use-of-remote-evms-for-migrants-eci-should-set-its-house-in-order/), I raised serious concerns about the readiness of the Commission to procure enough M3 EVMs for 2024, in view of the emerging global chip shortage, as pointed out by Prof Rajat Moona, a member of the Technical Advisory Committee for the EVMs (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/chip-shortage-poses-major-challenge-to-eci-before-2024-polls-iitgn-director-8192225/). This will perhaps force the Commission to look for imports from diverse sources in the US and Europe, which in turn may not guarantee the integrity of the EVMs based on chips from such diverse sources. In such a situation, should not the Commission have cautioned the concerned authorities to be circumspect about conducting simultaneous elections?
  7. Ideally, the EVMs and VVPAT machines should be subject to an independent audit by an expert group in the presence of all political parties to ensure 100% correspondence between the votes recorded by EVMs and counted by VVPATs to test the efficacy of EVM technology used in elections. In addition, once votes are cast, votes recorded need to be 100% cross-verified by VVPAT count. Apparently, the Commission is insensitive to those basic issues and is prepared to toe the line of the political executive!
  8. Would the Commission be a willing party to conduct simultaneous elections, when those elections are not free from criminality, and gender discrimination, tilted heavily in favour of the more affluent sections of the electorate, the sources of funding of elections remaining opaque, driven by corporate money power, with post-election defections making a mockery of the democratic values underlying elections? What special benefits do simultaneous elections provide, except fulfilling the ego of a few political leaders?

In recent times, there have been questions about the credibility of the Commission as an independent authority under Article 324 of the Constitution and the apex court has suggested that the government should consider setting up an apolitical group to search for and select candidates to be appointed to the Commission so as to enhance its credibility. Somewhat deviating from the norms suggested by the apex court, the Centre has responded by introducing the CEC and Other ECs (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, which, in my view, will render the Election Commission subservient to the Central political executive, rather than enhancing its independence.

It is ironic that the present Commission, by toeing the line of the political executive in the matter of conducting simultaneous elections should unwittingly or otherwise, confirm the apex court’s apprehensions about its ability to function effectively as the custodian of free and fair elections as envisaged in the Constitution and the laws enacted under it.

As a concerned citizen, I would appeal to each one of you to ponder over the concerns expressed by me above and consider it your Constitutional obligation to be politically neutral, committed entirely to upholding the integrity of the electoral system in such a way that you reverse the trend of declining public trust in the Commission.

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma

Former Secretary to the Government of India

Visakhapatnam

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