Thursday, February 5, 2009

ELECTION COMMISSIONERS AND CAESER'S WIFE

When 94% of the people of a country believe that political loyalties are destroying institutions, the matter is far too serious to be casually dismissed. If the results of the SMS/web poll on CNN-IBN's Face the Nation (FTN) program on February 03, 2009 are accurately reflective of the nation's opinion, it is a matter of grave national concern that despite their stock being so low, our leaders are neither troubled morally nor pushed into mending their ways practically.

Why is it so? Because the rot transcends all party barriers and they all know that this leaves the voter with no real choice. He has to choose between parties and individuals whose stink is indistinguishable. Can this state of affairs continue interminably? Politicians seem to think so, unmindful of the sharp decline in the percentage of people who believe that democracy is the best option available to govern this country.

The ongoing debate on the very serious charges levelled by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N Gopalaswami against Election Commissioner (EC) Naveen Chawla has almost got totally hijacked on political lines, with very respected media personalities and others talking of legalities and 'ethics' based solely on their political alignments. There is hardly anyone who is focusing on the real and very serious issues of the corrosion of basic values and the betrayal of people's trust in the democratic process that this sordid saga represents.

Naveen Chawla, has been facing allegations from day one about corruption and his very close political alignment with the Congress party since the days of the infamous Emergency when he was the personal secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. As per former bureaucrat BS Raghavan, Chawla's conduct during those dark days when he had direct access to Sanjay Gandhi was so undesirable that the LP Singh committee found him "unfit to hold any public office" and recorded that "he deserved to be summarily dismissed from service without any further inquiry or proceedings, invoking the special powers under provisos (b) and (c) of Article 311 of the Constitution".

Nobody is any doubt that Naveen Chawla was appointed election commissioner by the government based primarily on his blatantly partisan political past. If there was any hope that the gentleman would conduct himself with the dignity and neutrality that is expected of an EC, it was repeatedly belied by his often desperate attempts to favour the Congress party. At least that is what the CEC has manifestly said in his report to the President.

There may be a 'congruence' between the views of the CEC and the BJP, as the Congress is saying to dismiss the serious charges that have been made by the former. There may be constitutional and legal grey areas about the right of the CEC to do what he has done. But, is that the real issue? The fundamental question that all those who support the Congress are trying to avoid is of integrity, bipartisanship and a value system that needs to be protected rather than destroyed totally.

And this question transcends parties. Today it is the Congress which is showing to the whole nation that it wants to take no chances with getting back into power by hook or election commissioner crook. Tomorrow it may be the BJP which might do the same. It is the continuance of the practice of destruction of all institutions that should be energising analysts and commentators rather than petty partisanship. As Sagarika Ghose brought out in the FTN program, this downslide was started by Indira Gandhi and has today reached such alarming proportions that almost all citizens have lost faith in the intentions of political parties and politically committed bureaucrats to maintain the dignity and sanctity of almost all institutions that they have anything to do with.

Those blaming the CEC for leaning towards the BJP do not want to talk about the fact that under his stewardship this country has had the cleanest ever elections in its history without any political bias whatsoever. The bias, if any, has been repeatedly displayed by Naveen Chawla, the man the Congress wants to make the next CEC.

That the CEC's intentions are honourable is evident from the fact that he has recommended that the CEC and ECs be debarred from taking up gubernatorial assignments, membership of legislatures or even joining a political party for up to 10 years after demitting office. In addition he has called for an impartial selection procedure for election commissioners through the involvement of the Leader of Opposition as well as Lok Sabha Speaker and deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha. Can anyone argue with the soundness of these proposals? But the extent of the rot that the whole nation can see is so pervasive that hardly any attention is being paid to these proposals which should have been put in place long ago and are badly needed to ensure that the institution of the Election Commission is not destroyed by political partisanship.

As far as holding of elections is concerned, the government of the day is no 'superior' body that is above the Election Commission. It is an interested and affected party because it is no more than a political party or group that is seeking the mandate of the people. Therefore, legalities apart, any action taken by it to appoint Election Commissioners is likely to biased unless we have people of unimpeachable integrity making such appointments. Such people, as the whole nation believes, are shunned by all political parties who are interested solely in grabbing power, all means fair.

The the role of the Election Commission and its three Election Commissioners in ensuring the holding of free and fair elections is central to the survival of democracy. In the discharge of their duties, they have to be politically spotlessly neutral.

Like Caesar's wife, the ECs also have to be above suspicion. That is the touchstone that is being forgotten in the debate on the suitability of Naveen Chawla to become the next CEC. That the Congress party which has chosen him will want to overlook this critical aspect is understandable. But those who are finding all kinds of disingenuous arguments to support its position are equally guilty of contributing to the destruction of this institution.

Perhaps it is time for Dr Manmohan Singh to rise above the muck once again and ensure that the neutrality and impartiality of Election Commissioners is not sacrificed on the alter of political deceit. If it is, we will have an even more cynical nation that may soon lose complete faith in not just political parties but also in democracy. Would any political party want that to happen?