People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
April 16, 2006
EC and West Bengal Elections
The Election Commission of India is an extremely important constitutional body. The Commission has been given the powers of superintendence, direction and control of elections to state and national legislatures. Articles 324 to 329 under chapter XV of the Constitution provide the powers and the manner of their discharges by the Commission. Over the years, the Commission has emerged as an important bulwark for the establishment and strengthening of the parliamentary democratic system in the country. The Commission, however, has not always acted without generating its own share of controversies. Unlike the political parties, the Commission’s freedom to express itself is limited; its action, its sense of fair play and impartiality has to come out clearly through its actions. The justification of the steps initiated by the Commission towards the holding of free and fair polls is something which should be self-evident.
However, this time around, some major controversies have arisen, out of the steps initiated by the Election Commission with regard to the West Bengal Assembly elections. The Left Front is facing the election for returning to office for the seventh consecutive term. This is unprecedented in Indian electoral history. Perhaps internationally also, it is very difficult to find a parallel to this experience in terms of repeated successes at the polls. Why this unique phenomenon has legitimately triggered off a great degree of interest and also widespread intensive research on the performance, functioning and achievements of the Left Front government by eminent researchers and academics from various disciplines – economics, sociology, political science, administration and management sciences, agriculture and so on, the opposition in the state has always tried to explain away this repeated electoral successes of the Left by attributing it to `rigging’ or its more `improved variant – scientific rigging’. It is pertinent to note that some of the opposition leaders are claiming that the EC is on then side. This has correctly led to raising of some eyebrows.
While each time election results in West Bengal have been followed by a monotonous repetition of these charges, Election Commissions whether under T N Seshan or under M S Gill or G V G Krishnamoorty have all vouchsafed for the free and fairness of the polls which catapulted Left to office each time.
This time around, the situation is appearing to be little different. The EC started with the intensive revision of the electoral rolls. While there can be no two opinions about the desirability of having flawless rolls, the emphasis, as sometimes the observers who supervised the work highlighted in the media, was on the number of names struck off. The result was dramatic. `Dead voters’ reappeared to stand testimony of the excesses in this exercise. The `ordinary resident’ interpretation by some of the observers or officers led to disenfranchising some genuine voters. The bogie of Bangladeshis was also used to strike off certain names. While the CPI(M) firmly wanted that no single Bangladeshi should be allowed to have their names in the electoral roll, at the same time, no single legitimate Indian citizen must be struck out under this pretext.
Festivity colour and creativity has always been part of the elections in West Bengal. Paintings, political limerick and cartoons have articulated a sharp sense of wit and contributed handsomely to the political discourse and debate. But this time around, alas! this was not to be. An obscure 1976 emergency enactment of the state which was completely out of use and not specific to electioneering was used to force the state government to extend it to the whole of the state to give a complete go-bye to graffiti, posters and banners on walls even of private buildings, trees, lamp posts. However, similar law in Tamilnadu was allowed to be limited only to Chennai. This has raised serious questions. Is the EC really interested in controlling poll expenses? Is it fair to discriminate between states? Whether free and fair polls will mean cutting out people’s participation and engagement in debates?
The more fundamental constitutional question which has been underlined is the question of law and order. The Constitution is very specific. It is under the state government, regardless of the powers of Election Commission in terms of `superintendence, direction and control’. The deployment plan of the security forces which involves the posting of central paramilitary forces exclusively within the polling premises is a point in question. The other constitutional question which begs a reply is whether election observers have the executive powers to issue directions. The recent raids on the CPI(M) office in the Keshpur constituency of West Midnapur district has sharply underlined this issue.