On the independence of India’s top poll body, the Supreme Court today had pointed “hypothesis” for the central government: “Do you think the Election Commissioner… if he’s asked to take on none less than the Prime Minister — it’s just example — and he doesn’t come around to doing it: Will it not be a case of complete breakdown of the system?”
The Election Commissioner is “supposed to be completely insulated”, the court added, and referred to how the government had spoken of appointing a “man of character”.
“Character consists of various components… one particular characteristic required is independence,” it noted, and then cited how “one of the Election Commissioners, in fact, resigned”. The court did not take names, rather arguing its central point that the appointment system requires “a larger body” than just the union cabinet to decide on names. “There is a dire need for change.”
The five-judge Constitution bench headed by Justice KM Joseph has been hearing a petition seeking reforms in the system of appointing election commissioners. It has said “every government appoints a yes man” as the poll body chief, “irrespective of the party [in power]”.
The government’s lawyer submitted, “Stray instances cannot be the grounds for the court to interfere. To safeguard the position is our endeavour.”
The court stressed that it wasn’t saying the system is not correct. “There should be a transparent mechanism,” it added. The court also took exception to the Centre’s submission that the appointments are “always based on seniority” and that the tenure is “mostly 5 years”.
The Centre argued that the appointment process has no role in how the elections commissioners later may have differing views on matters. Citing the sheer magnitude of the system, it contended, “The whole mechanism doesn’t permit that somebody could go rogue.” It stressed the “independence of the institution” and not of just the individual.
The court, which yesterday said there should a Chief Election Commissioner like TN Seshan — known for aggressive electoral reforms from 1990 to 1996 — has been insisting on a “mechanism” for the poll body appointments. The government has cited a 1991 law and past conventions of appointment recommended by the PM-led cabinet to the President, who then picks an officer.
The Centre has strongly opposed the batch of pleas seeking a collegium-like system — such as senior-most judges appointing judges — for the selection of election commissioners. Any such attempt will amount to amending the Constitution, the government has argued.
The court, however, has pointed out that since 2004, no CEC has completed a six-year tenure. During the 10-year rule of the UPA, there were six CECs; and in the eight years of the NDA, there have been eight. “The government is giving such a truncated tenure to the ECs and CECs that they are doing its bidding,” the court has said.