The 2014 Elections catered to a potential 840 million voters, nearly three times the population of the US, the third largest country in the world. The Election Commission (EC) has a hoary record and enviable reputation for efficient conduct of a massive human exercise every five years. From the time of Sukumar Sen, the first commissioner, EC has a great tradition for efficiency, impartiality and innovation. T N Seshan, in the early 90s, transformed the commission from an obedient, docile, government-friendly agency to an effective constitutional authority, a fierce watchdog to guard the independence of the electoral process. Effectively, muscle power in the electoral process was snuffed out by Seshan; henceforth, increasing money power was the main weapon of the candidate and parties to swing public sentiment in their favour. A frightened government, to emaciate Seshan’s powers, expanded EC to a three-member body; successive commissions displayed performance of high quality with great efficiency and impartiality, led by great administrators such as T S Krishnamurthy, J M Lyngdoh and S Y Quraishi to name a few.
The feeling has been growing that the current Sampath Commission has been found wanting, and has not covered itself with glory. By very nature of things, the commission, particularly the Chief Election Commissioner, needs to be alert, assertive, indeed aggressive (in the sense of being proactive), and even-handed. This required that the commission impose its authority through swift effective interventions, undertaken decisively, to create an atmosphere where the candidates, parties and supporters fear sanctions when they cross the limits prescribed by the ‘code of conduct’. A successful commission also needs to develop a secondary information system, informal but reliable, to keep close watch on the information stream furnished through the district and state election administration channels. The commission also needed to respond very early in each election process with sharp reaction to real or potential infractions, to preempt the participants from going overboard in the heat of the electoral battle. Essentially, it needs to display administrative leadership of a high order for successful conduct of the process. Alas, the present commission has not lived up to these lofty requirements, which we have taken for granted with previous commissions.
It should not be forgotten that the EC takes over the apparatus and administration of the states only for about two months each five years or so (except for state elections which come in between). Thus, the need for the commission to ‘bare its teeth’ and put the ‘fear of God’ in the minds of the election hierarchy is imperative. The present commission could not perhaps comprehend the requirements of the situation. Thus, for instance, the Returning Officer of Varanasi was left alone, to mishandle a potentially sensitive local situation, (where the state administration, Chief Secretary and DG Police were astonishingly not seen in the picture), and the EC was extremely slow-footed and lethargic with anaemic responses. One element of administration is to growl to bring fear, and occasionally bite; the commission was too namby-pamby. Right from the beginning, for instance, the EC failed to discipline Azam Khan and Mamata Banerjee, giving the impression of softness and being ineffective—it was natural that in the heat of the battle, the EC itself became the target with increasing regularity.
After Seshan, the major issue to be addressed in the election process relates to reduction in influence of money power. With modern facilities of communication and photography available, this ought to have been seriously attempted. Alas, by the admission of the current EC, there has been no movement in this regard. Innovative new methods to expose expenditure well beyond prescribed limits ought to have been experimented with, and major forward movement undertaken. An opportunity has been wasted. Apart from the process itself, major changes in the electoral system relating to ‘first-past-the-post’, possibility of introducing ‘second transferable vote’, and use of ‘referendum’ for major policy issues, and so many others need to be considered. Electoral reforms are now a necessity. Concurrently, the selection process to all constitutional and statutory bodies needs to be a bi-partisan exercise to choose the most efficient and impartial functionaries.
Despite these hiccups, the massive national exercise of 2014, described by some as the largest exercise by mankind, has gone off extremely well. It is often not realised as to how strong and effective the administrative machinery is at the state and Centre levels; the yeoman service rendered by higher civil services, police forces, and field staff—the bureaucracy so disparagingly referred to with contempt. The same administrative system, when under the control of a venal political executive in normal times, is seen as tardy, whimsical and corrupt; when given firm and decisive leadership, is able to respond, and produce results with minimum adverse incidents. Spare a thought for the quality of the Indian bureaucracy and administrative apparatus which can perform as well as anywhere in the world and show results. One hopes that the 2014 elections will produce a clean, effective, decisive public-spirited leadership at the Centre and in the states—they can count on our bureaucracy to deliver.