The Election Commission of India (ECI) plays a crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy. However, recent incidents have highlighted the need for greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of the ECI. The lack of transparency in decision-making, handling of complaints and grievances, campaign finance, and voter data privacy are all areas of concern.
On March 2, the Supreme Court of India made a landmark ruling regarding the appointment and removal of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and election commissioners (ECs), which will bring clarity to the process of appointment and ensure greater accountability and transparency in the functioning of the ECI.
Concerns have been made raised on how the ECI operates, and these concerns have been expressed by opposition political parties.
Lack of Transparency in Decision-Making
In 2017, the ECI conducted a hackathon to test the security of electronic voting machines (EVMs). However, when a political party requested the ECI to provide details of the hackathon, including the number of participants and the vulnerabilities identified, the ECI refused to disclose this information. This lack of transparency raised questions about the credibility of the hackathon and the ECI’s decision-making processes.
Handling of Complaints and Grievances
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there were several instances where political parties and candidates alleged that the ECI was not addressing their complaints in a timely and impartial manner. For instance, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had complained to the ECI about a BJP candidate allegedly distributing cash to voters. However, the ECI dismissed the complaint without conducting a proper investigation. This led to allegations of bias and a lack of accountability on the part of the ECI.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, several political parties were found to have violated campaign finance rules by accepting donations from foreign sources. However, the ECI’s enforcement of these rules was criticized for being weak and ineffective. Additionally, there have been concerns about the lack of transparency in the reporting and auditing of campaign finances, with many political parties allegedly submitting incomplete or inaccurate reports.
Voter Data Privacy
In 2019, the ECI launched a mobile app called “cVIGIL” that allowed citizens to report violations of the model code of conduct during elections. However, it was found that the app was collecting user data, including location and device information, without users’ consent. This raised concerns about the ECI’s handling of voter data and its failure to adequately inform citizens about how their data is being used.
Historical Perspective on the Election Commission
The Constituent Assembly in its debates contemplated the need to set up an independent election commission. Dr B.R. Ambedkar anticipated the possibility of a person who was likely to be under the control of the executive to be appointed. Hence, he specifically proposed that this Election Commission to be independent must be free from the clutches of the Government. In the book Framing of India’s Constitution, B. Sivarao stated that by leaving a great deal of the power of appointment in the hands of the president there remains a large room for exercising Political influence
The Need for Transparency and Accountability
Elections are the cornerstone of democracy, and citizens must have confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. Transparency and accountability are essential in ensuring that the ECI is fulfilling its mandate to conduct free and fair elections.
The court stated that the president will appoint these officials on the advice of a committee consisting of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India (CJI). The decision was made by a five-judge constitution bench headed by Justice KM Joseph, who held that this norm would continue to be in effect until a law on the issue is enacted by Parliament.
The Supreme Court also clarified that, if the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha is absent, the leader of the single largest opposition party will be included in the committee responsible for appointing the CEC and ECs. In a separate judgement, Justice Ajay Rastogi added that the process for removing ECs would be the same as that for removing the CEC which is impeachment.
This ruling is significant as the ECs play a critical role in maintaining the integrity and fairness of India’s democratic processes.
(Amit Kumar is Delhi based Lawyer. Views are personal)