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Power of the ballot

Democracy is at risk if the conduct of elections and the exercise of free will are thwarted, says NIRMALENDU BIKASH RAKSHIT.

NIRMALENDU BIKASH RAKSHIT | New Delhi |

Ancient Greece invented the system of ‘direct democracy’ in which the citizens personally took part in political affairs.

But now it is a phenomenon of history and it has almost sunk into oblivion. Due to the larger size of modern states, population-explosion, scientific discoveries in communication systems, political maturity etc., indirect democracy has flourished everywhere. In such a system every citizen, after gaining a specific age, can cast his/her vote in the election and, thus, a Government is formed. Of course, they can smoothly change it in subsequent polls.

As such, it can be said that they make and, on occasions, unmake the Government by their secret ballots.

Thus, an election is an expression of popular will. As Dr HH Das opines, “it is through the election that the state of nation’s mind is gauged.

Election secures people’s participation in public affairs, ensures transfer of power in peaceful way and provides the Government legitimacy.”

As such, it not only sustains democracy, but enlivens it as well. But, it must be free and fair. As HN Kunjrue said in the Constituent Assembly, if a political leader or the Government plays foul in this matter, “democracy will be poisoned at the root.” Lack of honesty in the ballot box destroys the democratia process.

In other words, the fair and smooth conduct of elections is the primary requirement of a healthy democracy.

When the sanctity of the election is lost through political interference or muscle power, the people lose everything.

For this reason, our Constitution has provided a separate chapter on elections. Part XV of the Constitution contains six Articles dealing with electoral affairs..This shows how anxious the Constitution-makers were to safeguard the sacred right of the citizens to cast their votes according to personal choice.

Under Art. 324, the Constitution has created an Election Commission to conduct the elections of the President, Vice-President, Lok Sabha and State Legislatures. It is headed by the Chief Election Commissioner.

There may be some other Commissioners as well. The President appoints them from time to time under Art. 324(2). The salary and other allowances of these officers are charged from the Consolidated Fund of India and, hence, they can never be curtailed or stopped by any aggrieved Government.

According to Dr MV Pylee, “the Commission is an independent body’ – Its independence is secured by Art. 324(5) which provides that the Chief Election Commissioner shall not be removed from his office except in the like manner and on the like grounds as a Judge of the apex court and that other Commissioners shall not be dismissed except on the personal recommendation of the Chief Election Commissioner.”

Art. 324 lays down that the superintendence, direction and control over the preparation of the electoral rolls and the conduct of the elections for Parliament, state legislatures, and the offices of the President and the Vice-President shall be vested in it. In this way, it offers the sole authority of conducting these elections to the EC.

As such, it can

1) prepare the electoral rolls
2) scrutinize the nomination papers and cancel such forms due to irregularities
3) examine whether or not a candidate’s election-expenditure has crossed the specific limit
4) deploy cen- trol force in order to boost up public morale
5) transfer the force from one place to another in order to ensure fair and proper election
6) appoint election observers
7) postpone the election of a Constituency on a polling booth due to disturbances
8) request the President and the Governor of a state for requisitioning the staff necessary for the polls
9) notify the date of elections
10) take up the responsibility of maintaining law and order
11) announce the electoral results and act as a tribunal.

According to DD Basu, its extensive power means a stupendous duty as well So, it must see that the elections are free and fair. In recent years, the EC has tried to strictly enforce the code of conduct, election-rules etc. in order to cleanse and streamline electoral affairs.

But, as Dr SC Kashyap observes, “it has become a matter of considerable controversy between the Government and the EC”. It is quite natural. More than 2000 political parties have registered their names with the EC. But most of them have no distinct ideology, norm, discipline, ideal and moral sense. They look for power and power alone – it must be retained or captured by hook or by crook. Electoral success is, for them, the only way to that end. This is why, bullets, and not ballots have become the instrument of gaining power.

According to Dr AC Kapur, “capturing of polling booths has now become a routine-process by organised and armed gangs of hoodlums.”

In his view, Bihar, West Bengal, MP and UP have taken the lead in this matter. Thus, the chaos has ripened into a crisis. Naturally, the EC has become active to stem the not. In the view of Dr MM Singh, the root of evil lies in our political culture. So, instead of criticizing the EC, it is necessary to purify the political culture of our party system.

However, the EC cannot act tyrannically – because there are higher courts with regulatory power. As a stark reality, an election gives us the opportunity to place deserving persons at the helm of affairs. They alone can serve the people selflessly and with paternal care.

But if by force, rigging and other unfair means, some power-mongers can keep them at bay, democracy would surely be a misnomer.

The EC has the serene duty and bounden responsibility to see that deserving persons are not denied the rightful opportunity to serve the people selflessly. Moreover, Art. 326 has granted to all eligible people the absolute right to vote for their chosen persons. So, the EC must take steps to ensure that no one can be denied his right to vote by the armed hoodlums of any political party. It must also make the necessary electoral codes and conduct the polling affairs as strictly as possible.

An active EC may, however, enrage some political leaders – but such resentment matters little to us. We must remember what JS Mill observed:: “With small man no great thing can really be accomplished.”

The writer is a Griffith Prizeman and Former Reader, New Alipore College, Kolkata.