Killing the election umpire

Statutory model code of conduct is a poison pill

rohit

Rohit Bansal | February 21, 2012



When SY Quraishi, supported by his two “peers”, VS Sampath and HS Brahma, who unlike him don’t enjoy constitutional protection, had statues of Mayawati and the BSP’s elephant covered, the three-member Election Commission (EC) trended on Twitter for three days.

Images of elephants covered in pink (the colour, by the way, wasn’t chosen by EC) brought the model code, a voluntary compact of ground rules administered by EC, under social-media centre stage. Tweeples asked whether Quraishi was sleeping while public money was being splurged. Others wondered if the former IAS, an expert in youth and gender, would cover elephants in zoos and temples and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s bicycle! Some called him (err...) anti-national.

Quraishi had already shafted Mayawati (read: “repaid” the Congress; after all, his appointment as EC and promotion as CEC, was by them), advancing elections and depriving her of a full term.

Yet, the three so-called “Congress stooges” locked themselves in mortal combat with Salman Khurshid, the law minister, for stating specific figures of quota promised to muslims. Salman dared Quraishi. The CEC, called “timid” in an influential blog, took his fellow Stephanian head on and made an unprecedented complaint before president Pratibha Patil. This nearly took Salman’s job. The Congress stepped away. EC sources hinted that only an apology from PM would do. In a swift turnaround, the law minister of the land was on his knees. Crisis over, apology made, EC was back to the core job running a fair election.

Another minister, Beni Prasad Verma, has now courted the reflected glare of publicity, promising quotas while camera were whizzing, Salman on the dais clapping enthusiastically. He now has to reply to the notice. A rattled Verma is trending with only “amnesia” as his protective shield.

In another instance, Pawan Sen, a Goa cadre IAS officer and observer in Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi, stopped a motorcade of the Congress’s Robert Vadra. A few hours later, the news of EC’s order reverting Sen to Goa was flashed. More evidence. Tweeps declared Quraishi as a party stooge!

Tempting propositions all, but unsustainable. More worrying, they are being made a smokescreen for statutory status to the model code.

First, statues. The complaint was raised before EC in 2009 itself. While the commission is very powerful (subject, of course, to superintendence of the courts) during the time of elections, it is, perhaps rightly, powerless in normal times. All it did therefore was to promise level-playing field during the time of the next elections. Which it did now by covering the elephants, only to be mired in ill-informed ridicule. Most forgot that the ban on littering government property with party symbols extends to wall calendars and prime ministerial portraits on secretariat walls.

As for early elections in UP, the EC had to bunch four other assemblies, viz, of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa. The term of the Uttarakhand assembly ends on March 13. March is a “no-no,” in view of children’s examinations (most polling booths in India are in schools), February elections in all five states was the preferred option. Of course, tweeps saw the “elephant” from the prism of the Congress’s interests in UP.

The Salman episode, a little hard to explain to the world in 140 characters, shows how the model code really kicks in. Sampath and Brahma can be superceded by an outsider, when Quraishi retires in July, they can outvote him. Yet, in the commission’s “courtroom” all three stood together to dismiss the Congress’s legal battery of nine, headed by Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The manifesto document that Singhvi could conjure talked of reservations per se, not a specific number for the Muslim community. Thus, within 36 hours of a notice under the model code, the law minister, an Oxford-trained legal eagle himself, made an unconditional apology.

The revert of Sen, the Goa cadre IAS officer, was in process for a week before he stopped Vadra. That’s because Goa had illegally placed non-IAS officers as district magistrates. When the EC asked for a panel of IAS officers, the state sent three names, two serving in the personal staff of Goa’s chief minister and the governor. Quraishi thus picked up the third officer, presently in Amethi. The ‘Vadhra Violation’ was a week later. Only if they were clairvoyant, the EC would have pre-empted that with Sen’s transfer!

The government now wishes to make the model code part of statute. A group of ministers under Pranab Mukherjee is mulling this sinister idea, under the garb of giving legal teeth to the code and continuing the unhindered march of development while elections are on. “Without any disrespect for the EC, which we hold in the highest esteem...time has come, in a wider sweep of electoral reforms, to think about giving MCC, a statutory backing. Perhaps it will be appropriate that the whole question should be looked at and the EC should also revisit its own position on this issue,” Manish Tewari, the Congress party’s spokesperson, has stated.

The delay angle is bogus. After adding some safeguards, Quraishi cleared a request by then cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar’s request even as he was taking a walk in his Akbar Road lawns!

A statutory model code would have allowed Salman, Beni, Maya and Sen to drag EC to court. This would have been a joke on the ground umpire whose job is to bat for the opposition and swiftly. In 140 characters, it would have been like telling the world that hereon our courts, not Dickie Bird, will decide if Tendulkar was lbw or not.

Tail Piece: After a day in the political theatre, ensuring that all three commissioners achieve a consensus, Quraishi jams on his electric guitar.

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