Former Chief Election Commissioner of India
November 26 marks an important milestone in independent India’s history. On this day in 1949, India adopted its Constitution after the members of the Constituent Assembly had worked hard for two years, 11 months and 17 days. The zeal with which they participated in materialising the Constitution of India is reflected in the fact that they proposed as many as 7,635 amendments to the draft. And finally, amidst loud cheers and the tune of the National Anthem echoing in Parliament, the founding fathers of the Constitution gave the nation its sacred book, comprising 395 Articles and eight Schedules.
As the 70th Constitution Day passed off amid celebrations and recitations of the Preamble in government offices, the Prime Minister gave a call that we must celebrate the Fundamental Duties enshrined in the Constitution throughout the year. A great idea indeed, notwithstanding the fact that it was introduced by Indira Gandhi, and that too during the Emergency.
A tranche of 16 Articles came into effect on November 26, 1949. It included Article 324 which laid the foundation for the establishment of the Election Commission (EC), mandated with ‘superintendence, direction and control’ of all elections.
During the proceedings of the Assembly, the Committee on Fundamental Rights recognised the independence and non-interference by the executive and legislature in the elections as a fundamental right. Therefore, as Dr Ambedkar remarked, "in the interest of purity and freedom of elections to legislative body", the Constituent Assembly authored Article 324.
The execution of Article 324 bore its fruit in the form of the Election Commission of India, which was established on January 25, 1950 — a day before India became a sovereign democratic republic. For the Constituent Assembly, if a democratic country was the end, free and fair elections were its means.
The scope of the powers of the EC has often been questioned in the Supreme Court. In Mohinder Singh Gill and another versus Chief Election Commissioner and others (AIR 1978 SC 851), the apex court held that the words ‘superintendence, direction and control’ are the broadest terms, and Article 324 is a plenary provision vesting the whole responsibility of national and state elections in the Election Commission.
A significant issue that came up in the Constituent Assembly (CA) was whether the elections to the state legislatures should be vested in the state election commission or the central commission. In a radical departure from the federal principle, the CA, in a farsighted move, put the Vidhan Sabha elections under the Central Election Commission.
Ambedkar summed up the rationale for this bold move in the following words: “…today we find that in some of the provinces of India, the population is a mixture. There are what may be called original inhabitants, so to say, the native people of a particular province. Along with them, there are other people residing there, who are either racially, linguistically or culturally different from the dominant people who are the occupants of that particular Province. It has been brought to the notice both of the Drafting Committee as well as of the Central Government that in these provinces, the executive Government is instructing or managing things in such a manner that those people who do not belong to them either racially, culturally or linguistically, are being excluded from being brought on the electoral rolls..... No person who is entitled ....., should be excluded merely as a result of the prejudice of a local Government, or the whim of an officer.....
“In order, therefore, to prevent injustice being done by provincial governments to people other than those who belong to the province racially, linguistically and culturally… the whole of the election machinery should be in the hands of a Central Election Commission .which alone would be entitled to issue directives to returning officers, polling officers and others engaged in the preparation and revision of electoral rolls .....”
How prophetic! We increasingly see in different parts of the country overt or covert attempts being made to exclude certain sections of the citizens from the electoral rolls. Many see the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a part of the same phenomenon.
The CA debates must serve as a guiding light in situations of policy ambiguity. It is mindboggling how its members' concerns resonate at every nook and corner of our society. Providing a structure for uninterrupted working of the Election Commission, Ambedkar underscored a futuristic possibility, which has embodied a federal feature. He said, “There were two alternatives before the Drafting Committee, namely, either to have a permanent body consisting of four or five members of the Election Commission who would continue in office throughout without any break, or to permit the President to have ad hoc body appointed at the time when there is an election on the anvil. The Committee has steered a middle course. What the Drafting Committee proposes by sub-clause (2) is to have permanently in office one man called the Chief Election Commissioner, so that the skeleton machinery would always be available. Election no doubt will generally take place at the end of five years; but there is this question, namely that a bye-election may take place at any time. The Assembly may be dissolved before its period of five years has expired. Consequently, the electoral rolls will have to be kept up to date all the time so that the new election may take place without any difficulty.”
Again the foresight of the founding fathers comes out loud and clear: while they hoped for simultaneous elections but, in their wisdom, provided for staggered elections. In fact, had it not been for their admission of the possibility of an early dissolution of state assemblies and byelections, a permanent Election Commission would not have been a reality. The EC is the greatest gift of the Constitution to the nation. Now, the responsibility of upholding its principles in letter and spirit rests on the three organs of the government, besides, of course, the Constitution’s protégé, the EC. Their joint efforts can lead the largest democracy of the world to become the greatest.