Upholding the autonomy of the Election Commission
GS Paper 2: Separation of powers between various organs of the government
Prelims exam: About Election Commission
Mains exam: Significance of Fourth Institution
Over the course of November and December, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India heard a crucial case about the method by which the Election Commission of India (ECI) is constituted, and Election Commissioners appointed.
- According to the classical understanding of modern democracy, there are three “wings” of state: the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.
- The task of the Constitution is to allocate powers between these three wings, and to ensure that there is an adequate degree of checks and balances between them.
- Bodies that are involved with administrative and implementational issues elections being among them Significance of Fourth are believed to fall within the executive domain.
Election Commission of India
- Article 324 Establishes ECI as All India Body.
- Election commission is 3 Member Body -Chief Election Commission (CEC) & 2 Election Commissioner
- Election Commissioner (EC) can be appointed by president
- For 6 or till age of 65 years And condition of services are determined by president.
- CEC can be removed in the manner & same on the ground of Supreme Court judges.
- EC can be removed by president On recommendation of CEC.
- The chief election commissioner and the two other election commissioners have equal powers and receive equal salary, allowances and other perquisites, which are similar to those of a judge of the Supreme Court.
- They have power Administrative advisory and quasi judicial.
- Election Commission resolves the disputes relating to splits/mergers of recognised political parties
The erosion of a ‘classical understanding’
It is now commonly accepted that healthy constitutional democracies need what are known as “fourth branch institutions” (or, alternatively, “integrity institutions”).
The reason why a “fourth branch” in addition to the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary needs to exist is the following:
- Many of the basic rights and guarantees that we enjoy cannot be effective without an infrastructure of implementation.
- The right to information, a staple feature of most modern constitutional democracies.
- Without an infrastructure of implementation, the right to information will remain only a paper guarantee.
- We need, for example, an information commission, adequately staffed and funded, which will oversee the on-ground enforcement of the right to information, compel recalcitrant public institutions to release public information, adjudicate disputes, and so on.
- These tasks involve elements of the judicial function as well as the administrative function, and, therefore, cannot only be performed by the judiciary, but need bodies such as commissions to perform them on a daily basis.
“Fourth branch institutions” need to be functionally independent from the political executive
- This is because they are the vehicles for implementing rights against the executive.
- Think of the right to information: primarily, citizens will attempt to invoke this right to extract public documents from government departments, in the interests of transparency.
- Governments, therefore, have a direct interest in such cases, and as history has shown, governments are rarely willing to be transparent of their own accord.
- To be effective, therefore, an Information Commission needs to be thoroughly independent of the government, against which it will be obligated to enforce the constitutional right to information.
- In recent times, extensive government control over the Central Information Commission including control over appointments has led to it becoming a largely toothless and ineffective body, and the eventual frustration of the right to information.
Examples from overseas
- The South African and Kenyan Constitutions have dedicated constitutional provisions for “fourth branch institutions” such as Human Rights Commissions, Election Commissions, and so on, calling these “integrity institutions”, and requiring them to be “independent.”
- The appointments process for such bodies normally involves multiple stakeholders from different wings of the state.
- The Indian Constitution also provides for such similar fourth branch institutions. While the ECI is, obviously, an example, others include the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Public Service Commission(s), and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
- The Constitution goes to some degree to protect the independence of fourth branch institutions while officials are in office (such as, for example, a high threshold on the removal of an Electoral Commissioner), the power of appointment lies exclusively with the executive (formally, the President of India acting on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers).
- Simply, the government decides who gets to be in charge of running fourth branch institutions.
- How this is a Problem?
- The link between the power of appointment to a body, and its control, is both intuitive and has been empirically established in multiple contexts.
- As the South African constitutional court correctly noted in one of its landmark judgments, true and functional independence is effectively impossible if the power to appoint rests entirely within a single individual, office, or entity.
- This, then, is the foundation of the ongoing dispute before the Supreme Court.
The appointments process
- It is important to note that almost no constitutional democracy in the world allows the political executive sole power to staff a body as important to sustaining democracy as an Election Commission.
- Appointment processes involve the government, the Opposition, independent experts, and judicial experts, in a manner that no one centre of power has dominance, or a veto.
- The problem, however, is that an appointments process is difficult to create simply by judicial decree: it is something that needs political consensus, public deliberation, and, perhaps, a carefully crafted legislation.
One possible alternative is for the Court to hand down a suspended declaration of invalidity, i.e., a remedy where the Court puts into place certain interim guidelines, but leaves a more permanent, structural solution up to the legislature. It is for the Court to decide how best that might be achieved, but the guiding principles, at all times, must be functional and effective independence from the executive, from the moment of appointment to the retirement, and then beyond.