How Ambedkar created a unitary, independent EC

Let us for a moment imagine what would have happened to the country if each state functioned with its own election commission as envisaged before Ambedkar’s intervention.
How Ambedkar created a unitary, independent EC
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

I was 25 years old when I voted for the first Lok Sabha in 1952. This time, with 97 crore eligible voters, the election that just finished was the biggest on the planet. The Election Commission deserves our unstinted praise for conducting it. Except for a few incidences during the seventh round of polling, the process has been by and large peaceful—a real festival of democracy.

The validity of results declared by the EC has never been doubted, even by candidates who lost by just a few votes. I would know, because as a candidate in 1980, I stood from the Anna Nagar constituency in Chennai and lost by 699 votes to DMK chief M Karunanidhi. Over time, I have been a five-time legislator.

All things considered, Indian elections are regarded as a model for the world. We should be proud of our democracy. What worked well for India is an empowered and independent EC. To know why Indians have implicit faith in the EC, one has to delve a little bit into the past. I also want to illustrate with a comparison to the US system.

The US has a presidential form of government and India is a parliamentary democracy. There are strengths and weaknesses in each form. The limited point I am making here is the difference in the electoral governance structures. In the US, the Federal Election Commission oversees federal elections, while each state has its own election administration responsible for state and local elections. In India, the Election Commission is an autonomous body responsible for conducting all elections, from the local to the national levels.

In the US, election rules vary widely among states because states, rather than the federal government, play the primary role in creating election administration policy. This can lead to a lot of confusion. In the 2020 presidential election, the certification deadlines in five states were within a week of polling. In 28 states, the deadlines were between November 10 and November 30. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, they were in December. And three states did not have fixed deadlines.

India would have been in the same boat, but for the wisdom of B R Ambedkar. In this context, it is relevant to recapitulate a few incidents connected with the evolution of the final draft of the Constitution presented before the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949.

Though the Constituent Assembly had begun its deliberations on December 9, 1946, Ambedkar was not directly involved in the process of drafting the Constitution between January 1947 and July 1947.

A few weeks before independence, in July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru met Mahatma Gandhi to seek approval for using the services of British constitutional expert, Professor William Ivor Jennings, for finalising the draft. The Mahatma turned down the proposal, saying, “When we are sending the foreigners away, why a foreigner again?” He asked Nehru to enlist the help of Ambedkar and make him independent India’s first law minister.

Though Nehru initially resisted, he finally accepted the advice. This is how Ambedkar became chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee a fortnight later, on August 30, 1947 and the Union law minister on August 15.

After Ambedkar took over, many of the earlier drafts were re-examined and reshaped. One concerned the subject of constituting the Election Commission. This was originally numbered as Draft Article 289, and finally ended up as the famous Article 324 of the Constitution, under which elections have taken place ever since.

Draft Article 289 envisaged different election commissions for the Centre and the states, which was radically changed by Ambedkar. Explaining this in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar said: “The original proposal under Article 289 was that there should be one commission to deal with the elections to the central legislature, both the Upper and Lower Houses, and that there should be a separate election commission for each province and each state, to be appointed by the governor or ruler of the state. This [new Article 324] proposes to centralise the election machinery in the hands of a single commission to be assisted by regional commissioners, not working under provincial governments... As I said, this is a radical change.”

To further strengthen the commission, he said, “The Chief Election Commissioner shall not be liable to be removed except in the same manner as a judge of the Supreme Court. If the object of this House is that all matters relating to elections should be outside the control of the executive government of the day, it is absolutely necessary that the new machinery which we are setting up should be irremovable by the executive by a mere fiat. We should therefore give the Chief Election Commissioner the same status, so far as removability is concerned, as we have given to the judges of the Supreme Court.”

Let us for a moment imagine what would have happened to the country if each state functioned with its own election commission as envisaged before Ambedkar’s intervention. It is this farsightedness of Ambedkar that makes India a robust democracy. To accept ‘vox populi, vox dei (the will of the people is the will of god)’ would be the most gracious thing to do.

The EC is a constitutionally independent body that upholds democracy and is its bedrock. Any attempt to undermine the integrity of the electoral process or an attack on our democratic institutions poses a significant risk to public order and trust in the electoral system.

(Views are personal)

H V Hande | Former minister of health, Tamil Nadu

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