State Election Commissions must be further empowered to independently and adequately fulfil their mandated tasks
Of the three constitutional institutions, namely the State Election Commission, District Planning Committee and State Finance Commission, the State Election Commission is the only active body but it is also belittled by many of the state governments through their delayed discharging of their responsibilities. This came to my notice when I participated in the conclave of State Election Commissioners at National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj on 9th and 10th of January 2020, Hyderabad. The problems are so serious yet the State Election Commissioners are able to conduct the elections by facing a plethora of problems. The panellists and experts have made presentations on the problems faced by the State Election Commissions in conducting free and fair elections to local bodies in Indian states. Almost all the State Election Commissions have been facing problems as most of the state governments are reluctant to have local body elections in time. There are a few exceptions like Kerala. The state governments create roadblocks to delay the conducting of elections by using their powers to procrastinate the completion of their responsibilities of redrawing the wards, effecting rotation of offices and fixing reservation of seats.
On many occasions, state governments did not cooperate with the State Election Commissions in conducting elections for the local bodies. The state governments do so covertly. The State Election Commissions cannot criticise the state governments as it would harm the whole process of the conduct of the elections. In many of the states, local body elections are being conducted as pressure has been exerted on the State Election Commissions by the judiciary. It was learnt from the presentations of the State Election Commissioners that the State Election Commission found more clarity in the judgements of the Supreme court rather than the directions of the High Courts. Article 83 of the Constitution of India is meant for laying down the procedure for conducting elections for the state legislature and the parliament. This article does not say that it is mandatory on the part of Election Commission of India and yet it takes place regularly. But Article 243 says that it is mandatory that election has to be conducted for local bodies every five years and the whole process of election will be over before the expiry of the term of the office. Yet local body elections are not being conducted regularly. There is yet another instrument, "Peoples representatives Act 1951" that can be used for conducting local body election as local bodies are integrated into part IX and IXA of the Constitution of India. Despite the availability of all those instruments for the support of the State Election Commissions, elections are not conducted in time. Periodically the State Election Commissioners use to meet but they were not serious about articulating the problems of the State Election Commissions. But the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj and the State Election Commission of Telangana took serious note of the problems associated with the State Election Commissions and organised a conclave of State Election Commissioners. While deliberating on the issues, it has been argued that the state governments have retained many of the responsibilities of the State Election Commission which are to be completed in time to conduct the election to local bodies in time. State governments rarely complete the work of fixing rotation, reservation and delimitation of wards. Unless the above tasks are completed in time, the State Election Commissions cannot conduct the election in time. If all the above work is vested with delimitation commission, one can expect the elections for local bodies would be conducted in time. The State Election Commissions have been created in such a way that they have to be at the mercy of the state governments for finance to run the whole machinery and carry out the mandated responsibilities.
It is a pity that there is no public pressure for the conduct of free and fair elections in time. Neither the central government nor the political parties or even the media show concern on the serious issue of the regular conducting of elections for local bodies. By bringing an amendment to the Constitution of India, the State Election Commissions can be integrated with the Election Commission of India. Otherwise, through yet another amendment, the State Election Commissions should be given the responsibility of fixing reservation, rotation and redrawing of the wards. While doing so, enough care has to be taken to ensure regular flow of funds to the State Election Commissions to discharge the mandated responsibilities. Furthermore, the State Election Commissioners have to be appointed through a collegium consisting of Chief Minister, Chief Justice of the High Court of the state and the opposition leader of the State Legislative Assembly. The issue has to be properly analysed by looking at Article 83, Article 243 and People's Representative Act, 1951. Otherwise, the local government becomes a laughing stock. It is a serious issue which needs the attention of the central government opinion makers, media and the research institutions. Central government role does not end with amending the constitution to create new local bodies. Its responsibilities lie in implementing the same letter and spirit that is the need of the hour and it has to see whether enacted legislation is being properly implemented.
The author is a former Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. Views expressed are strictly personal