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How fair and unbiased are the constitutional bodies?
Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra and leader of Shiv Sena, was up in arms against the decision taken by the Election Commission of India (ECI), which allotted the Shiv Sena symbol of 'bow and arrow' to the rival Eknath Shinde faction and recognised it as the real Shiv Sena.
Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra and leader of Shiv Sena, was up in arms against the decision taken by the Election Commission of India (ECI), which allotted the Shiv Sena symbol of 'bow and arrow' to the rival Eknath Shinde faction and recognised it as the real Shiv Sena. Uddhav even demanded that the Constitutional body be dissolved immediately and reconstituted through 'proper process.' He even went to the extent of predicting that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections may turn out to be the last elections in the country, as after that dictatorship will start. Thackeray further expressed the apprehension that what has happened to Shiv Sena may happen to other parties in future. Meanwhile, the Apex Court refused to stay the ECI order, though it agreed to hear the plea of the Thackeray camp. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, commenting on ECI decision, said that, "certain organisations have a responsibility to deal fairly with everyone." He also said that he had never ever seen the ECI taking away the total control of one political party and giving it another.
The ECI, a constitutionally guaranteed independent body constituted in accordance with Article 324, was established to conduct and regulate elections in the country, from the 'day one' when the Constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949. The body administers elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, State Legislative Councils and the offices of the President and Vice President of the country. ECI also monitors the political parties on certain aspects like registration, recognition, name change etc.
Chief Election Commissioner or an Election Commissioner shall hold office for a term of six years, or up to the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. Every State and Union Territory has a Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) as the representative of the ECI. In addition, State Election Commission formed after the 73rd and the 74th amendments, also an autonomous and Constitutional body, is constituted in States and Union Territories for ensuring conduct of elections in free, fair and unbiased way and is responsible for the elections for Urban Local Bodies. It is headed by State Election Commissioner. The global community witnessed the first general elections with great interest. World had taken notice of subsequent elections in India and journalists, politicians and observers from numerous countries descended upon India to see its novel experiment of adult suffrage. Whether this highly reputed constitutional body will keep up its tradition and past unbiased reputation in future also is a major concern, when we witness the way ECI has been functioning in the recent past, as rightly expressed by Uddhav Thackeray, may be in a different context. For instance, election expenditure and malpractices, normally and predominantly in by-elections continue unabated. Despite ECI having an elaborate system of surveillance and tracking at all levels, except symbolic confiscations of the ruling party that spends huge amounts, no stern initiative was taken. It seldom demonstrated its powers, and remained a silent spectator when parties and candidates did not observe its directives. There were of course significant exceptions at times, like that of Great Seshan's tenure. These give an impression that the ECI is not neutral and not fair.
There are about 20 constitutional bodies or institutions in India. They are all supposed to be impartial in their decisions for sustenance of healthy democracy. The members of Constituent Assembly recognised the need for independent institutions which can regulate sectors of national importance without any executive interference. As such, they introduced constitutional provisions, paving the way for creation of constitutional bodies. But over a period, thanks to successive governments' activism, the neutral nature of these bodies has become a bit controversial threatening the foundations of democracy.
The institution of Attorney General, Government of India's Chief Legal Advisor, normally an eminent jurist, is appointed by President, at the instance of the Union Cabinet under Article 76(1) of the Constitution. And hence he or she is not a neutral person. Nevertheless, it is a constitutional authority. The Attorney General who has no executive authority is assisted by a Solicitor General and Additional Solicitor Generals. On several occasions however, the opinions pursued by the Attorney General appear to have been extremely politicised. Niren De during Indira Gandhi regime replied to a question by Hans Raj Khanna (who attempted to uphold civil liberties during the time of Emergency in India in a lone dissenting judgement in 1976), stating that even the right to life can be suspended during emergency.
Another important constitutional body, the institution of Comptroller and Auditor General, is the supreme audit institution of India, established under Article 148 of the Constitution. They are empowered to audit all receipts and expenditure of the Union and State governments, including those of autonomous bodies and corporations substantially financed by the government as well as government-owned corporations.
Comptroller and Auditor-General of India is appointed by the President of India. To substantiate that there is scope for favoritism, notwithstanding the fact that the person chosen could be highly qualified, is the example of Girish Chandra Murmu, who served as Principal Secretary to Narendra Modi when he was the CM of Gujarat and later appointed as the present Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
Yet another constitutional body is the Finance Commission (FC). FCs periodically constituted once in five years, as an autonomous body, by the President of India under Article 280 to define the financial relations between the Union government and individual State governments. So far, 15 Finance Commissions have been constituted. As a federal nation, India suffers from both vertical and horizontal fiscal imbalances. FC was first established on 22nd November 1951 to address these imbalances. Excepting a few occasions, mostly, politicians from ruling party were appointed as the chairmen of the commission so far. FC seldom thought of leveraging the economy or changed its role in such a way that its functioning is not a mere routine affair. Even after the passage of 70 plus years since its establishment, there has not been a qualitative change in the FC approach. The broad fiscal policy decisions still remain with the Government of India. Devolution has been centralised. The growth of the state was not considered as the growth of country. The unhealthy practice of disincentivising the growing States is followed.
BRS President and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao in the proposed National Agenda and Constitutional Reforms rightly suggested for a permanent FC for assessing and leveraging the finances of Centre and States.
Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), one more Constitutional Body, is India's premier central recruitment agency for recruitment of Group 'A' officers under Government of India, which includes all of the central public sector undertakings and all of the central autonomous bodies. The commission is mandated by the Constitution for appointments to the services of the Union and All India Services. It is also required to be consulted by the government in matters relating to the appointment, transfer, promotion, and disciplinary matters. UPSC reports directly to the President. As per Art 316, the Chairman and other members of UPSC shall be appointed by the President. Similarly, Constitution of India provides for the establishment of PSCs for Union Territories and for each State.
The Constitution of India in Article 263 provided for an Inter-State Council (ISC) and gave an option to establish it to the President. This option was exercised only in 1990 and ISC was established as a Permanent Constitutional Body by a Presidential Order on the recommendation of Sarkaria Commission. The objective of the ISC is to discuss or investigate policies, subjects of common interest, and disputes among states. Prime Minister (Now Narendra Modi) is the Chairman and Chief Ministers are members of this body. The interstate council is intended to meet thrice a year but it seldom adheres to this. There is not any uniformity in the time interval between the two meetings. It goes without saying to what extent, since its establishment, the ISC served the purpose for which it came in to existence. Umpteen disputes between states remain unresolved.
In addition, there are other constitutional bodies like National Commission for Scheduled Castes established with a view to providing safeguards against the exploitation of Scheduled Castes; National Commission for Backward Classes established in 1993; National Scheduled Tribes Commission to oversee the implementation of various safeguards provided to Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution; State Finance Commission; Metropolitan Planning Committee to prepare a draft development plan for the Metropolitan areas as a whole; District Planning Committee (DPC) to consolidate the plans prepared by the Panchayats and the municipalities in the district and prepare a draft development plan for the district; Advocate General of State etc. While some of them function considerably well, the others require qualitative change.
(The writer is Chief Public Relations Officer to Chief Minister of Telangana).