EC indeed needs financial autonomy

More so since UPA’s more inclined to clip the commission’s wings

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | March 16, 2012




Few would disagree with the chief election commissioner SY Quraishi’s demand for absolute financial autonomy for the election commission. In fact, he hit the nail in the head when he said, at a discussion in New Delhi on March 15, “Any dependence on the government for anything….and they may ask for a price and that is where the conflict (can) start because we will not pay any price because we value our independence and will guard it to the last drop of our blood”.

Inarguably, a free and fair election is an absolute necessity for a healthy democracy, given the fact that a large number of people with criminal antecedents (notorious Raja Bhaiyya has become a minister in UP again) and corruption charges are increasingly getting into our legislative bodies (there more than 100 such people in our parliament). And this can’t be ensured if the conduct of election is not completely delinked from the government of the day. One of the ways the government can manipulate the commission is by controlling its finances.

That is why Quraishi said he wanted financial autonomy of the commission on the lines granted to the supreme court and the comptroller and auditor general of India (CAG). Or even Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and UPSC for that matter.

And this can be done by making the commission’s budget, or its expenses, ‘a charge to the Consolidated Fund of India’. This would mean, its budget will not go through its administrative ministry - the law ministry - and will not be debated in parliament. Both of these majors will keep politicians firmly at bay.

But that should have been the case in the first place, isn’t it?

True, but then, there is an explanation. The commission officials say the founding fathers probably didn’t reckon with the fact that the elections would be regular affair as it is now. It would be once-in-five-years phenomenon, they presumed, needing no elaborate and permanent set-up. Nor probably they foresee the kind of conflict the spat between Quraishi and law minister Salman Khurshid demonstrate.

Thanks, though, to TN Seshan, who transformed the commission into a fiercely independent and powerful body in the 90s, the commission’s budgets are no longer fiddled with by the law ministry or debated in parliament. But it is so only because of an informal agreement that Seshan arrived at with the law ministry.

Yet, this is an informal arrangement and can be easily flouted or subverted if the government of the day so chooses. To guarantee against this an institutional arrangement is required.

More so since the UPA’s intentions don’t seem honourable. After the ugly spat between Quraishi and Khurshid, the latter tried to humiliate the former by saying that he still cleared the former’s foreign travels. He also put hurdles on the commission’s way in setting up an internal institution to train people in conducting elections. And then, a proposal was put before a GoM to take away model code of conduct from the commission’s purview by giving it statutory status. A statutory status would mean every violation of model code of conduct will go to the court for adjudication, rather than the commission.

So, how can an institutional arrangement be made, ensuring financial autonomy of the commission?

By amending the constitution to say that the expenses of the commission will be a charge on the Consolidated Fund of India.  Just as the case with the supreme court and some other institutions mentioned earlier.

By no means this is the only measure that needs to be taken to institutionally strengthen the commission though. There are other measures that can be taken but that calls for another article.

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