Sunday, April 27, 2014

Election Commission: powers and functions

The Election Commission of India (ECI) was established on January 25, 1950 as a constitutional body (under article 324 of the Constitution) responsible for administering elections in India according to the provisions of the Indian Constitution. It controls the process for elections conducted at various levels: parliament, state legislatures, and the offices of the president and vice president of India.

Role of Election Commission of India.

Among all its roles, the most crucial one is to implement norms and the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) to ensure free and fair elections in the country. In the present democratic scenario, wherein, the democratic elections are not free from sabotage, the independence of ECI is need of the hour. 

Technological advancements.

In order to bring improvements in the election procedure, the ECI has taken numerous steps. Some of them are as follows:
  1. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were introduced to improve reliability and efficiency. It was thought that EVMs would reduce malpractices and improve efficiency. It was first tried out on an experimental basis in the state of Kerala for the 1982 Legislative Assembly Elections. After successful testing and legal inquires, the Commission took the decision to begin the use of EVMs.
  2. The website of the ECI was launched on February 28, 1998 to provide accurate information and instant results of the elections. In 1998, Election Commission decided on a programme for the 'computerisation' of the electoral rolls.
  3. Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPICs) were issued in 1993 to prevent electoral fraud. From the 2004 elections, these were made mandatory.
A few more initiatives taken recently by the ECI are:
  1. New guidelines for broadcasting on state-owned electronic media.
  2. Inspection of instances of criminalization in politics.
  3. Simplification of account maintenance and filing.
  4. Measures for better enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct.

Functions and Powers.

  • Holding periodic free & fair elections are essentials of democratic system. The Supreme Cort held in T. N. Sheshan V/s Union of India (AIR 1995 SC 852) that
"The Preamble of our Constitution proclaims that we are a Democratic Republic. Democracy being the basic feature of our constitutional set up, there can be no two opinion that free and fair elections to our legislative bodies alone would guarantee the growth of a healthy democracy in the country. In order to ensure the purity of the election process it was thought by our Constitution-makers that the responsibility to hold free and fair elections in the country should be entrusted to an independent body which would be insulated from political and/or executive interference. It is inherent in a democratic set up that the agency which is entrusted the task of holding elections to the legislatures should be fully insulated so that it can function as an independent agency free from external pressures from the party in power or executive of the day. This objective is achieved by the setting up of an Election Commission, a permanent body, under Article 324(1) of the Constitution." 

  • Model Code of Conduct (MCC). In every election, it issues a Model code of Conduct for political parties and candidates to conduct elections in free and fair manner. The Commission issued the code for the first time in 1971 (5th Election) and revised it from time to time. It lay down guidelines for conduct of political parties & candidates during elections. However, there are instances of violation of code by the political parties and complaints are received for misuse of official machinery by the candidates. In I.D. Systems (India) Pvt. Ltd. v/s. Chief Election Commissioner (AIR 2006 Ker 229) the Kerala High Court held that the object of model code of conduct is not to stop all governmental activities but only those actions which may directly influence a section of electors need to be prevented.

The need for such code is in the interest of free and fair elections. However, the code does not have any specific statutory basis. It has only a persuasive effect. It contains what, known as "rules of electoral morality". But this lack of statutory backing does not prevent the Commission from enforcing it.
The Election Commission has warned that any breach will be dealt with sternly. The Commission has the power to disqualify a candidate if s/he refuses to follow the Model Code of Conduct.
Punishment for violation of MCC. The violations are punishable in a court of law. In cases of, inter-alia, violation of Model Code of Conduct by a political party, the Commission can, after giving reasonable opportunity of showing cause, subject to such terms as the Commission may deem appropriate, either suspend or withdraw the recognition of a party as a National or State Party, as the case may be. In case of individual candidates or leaders of political parties, the Commission may take action, if deemed appropriate, under the residuary powers available to it under Article 324 of the Constitution which includes censure against person who is guilty of violation of the Model Code of Conduct.

  • Registration of political parties. After the amendment in the year 1989 in the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which inserted section 29A, all the political parties contesting general elections in India are required to be registered under it. It helps to avoid confusion and headache of the administrative machinery as well as confusion of the electorate. It ensures that political parties can practice democracy only by their registration.
Benefits of registration are:
  1. The candidates set up by a political party registered with the Election Commission of India are given preference in the matter of allotment of free symbols vis-à-vis purely independent candidates. 
  2. Registered political parties, in course of time, can get recognition as `State Party’ or National Party’ subject to the fulfillment of the conditions prescribed by the Commission in the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, as amended from time to time. If a party is recognised as a State Party’, it is entitled for exclusive allotment of its reserved symbol to the candidates set up by it in the State or States in which it is so recognised, and if a party is recognised as a `National Party’ it is entitled for exclusive allotment of its reserved symbol to the candidates set up by it throughout India. Recognised `State’ and `National’ parties need only one proposer for filing the nomination and are also entitled for two sets of electoral rolls free of cost and broadcast/telecast facilities over Akashvani/Doordarshan during general elections.
  • Limits on Poll Expenses.The Election Commission has fixed the legal limits on the amount of money which a candidate can spend during election campaigns, which have been revised from time to time. The Election Commission by appointing observers keeps an eye on the individual account of election expenditure. There are tight legal limits on the amount of money a candidate can spend during the election campaign. 
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the poll expenditure have been increased from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 70 lakh for each Lok Sabha constituency in bigger states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Karnataka. It has been increased from the present Rs 22 lakh in smaller states like Goa to Rs 54 lakh on par with other hilly and north eastern states.
It will also go up to Rs 54 lakh in north eastern states where the limits were varying between Rs 35 lakh to Rs 27 lakh for parliamentary seats earlier.
Among the union territories, the limit will go up from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 70 lakh in Delhi while it will be uniform at Rs 54 lakh for all other UTs.
In Common Cause v/s. Union of India, it was pointed out that, in India elections are fought on the basis of money. The Court ruled that, purity of election is fundamental to the democracy and Commission can ask the candidates about the expenditure incurred by them and political party for this purpose.

The campaign period was reduced by the Election Commission from 21 to 14 days for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections; it is for to trim down election expenditure. The Election Commission’s this attempt to impose these measures has been a move in the right direction. Moreover, Election Commission takes details of the candidate's asset on affidavit at the time of submitting nomination paper.
  • Advisory Jurisdiction & Quasi-Judicial Functions. Under the Constitution. The Commission also has advisory jurisdiction in the matter of post election disqualification of sitting members of Parliament and State Legislatures. Further, the cases of persons found guilty of corrupt practices at elections which come before the Supreme Court and High Courts are also referred to the Commission for its opinion on the question as to whether such person shall be disqualified and, if so, for what period. The opinion of the Commission in all such matters is binding on the President or, as the case may be, the Governor to whom such opinion is tendered. 
The Commission has the power to disqualify a candidate who has failed to lodge an account of his election expenses within the time and in the manner prescribed by law. The Commission has also the power for removing or reducing the period of such disqualification as also other disqualification under the law.

Judicial Review of Decisions.

The decisions of the Commission can be challenged in the High Court and the Supreme Court of the India by appropriate petitions. By long standing convention and several judicial pronouncements, once the actual process of elections has started, the judiciary does not intervene in the actual conduct of the polls. Once the polls are completed and result declared, the Commission cannot review any result on its own. This can only be reviewed through the process of an election petition, which can be filed before the High Court, in respect of elections to the Parliament and State Legislatures. In respect of elections for the offices of the President and Vice President, such petitions can only be filed before the Supreme Court.