Do not rule out fair exceptions
The recent resignation by Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, has raised eyebrows in many quarters.
The recent resignation by Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, has raised eyebrows in many quarters. The apparent cause of action for that somewhat strange decision was that Rawat felt that the Election Commission of India (ECI) would have difficulty in conducting the by-election (which he would have had to face in order to get elected and be eligible to continue as Chief Minister), given the Covid-19 situation in the state.
Strange the decision was, for several reasons. In the first place, the time to worry, as Atticus Finch keeps saying in 'To kill a Mockingbird,' had not arrived.
Elections have recently been conducted in Bihar as well as in West Bengal and fairly successfully. There is no evidence that the ECI has indicated its inability to conduct elections in Uttarakhand in the current situation. Rawat appears, unilaterally, to have assumed the role of the alter ego of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC)! The Commission is bound by Article 164 of the Constitution to conduct the byelection within six months from the date on which the present Chief Minister assumed office, as, on that date, Rawat was already a Member of Parliament (which he continues to be), and the Constitutional provision is clear.
Let us start at the beginning. We are a parliamentary democracy. The Constitution provides that people occupying the highest offices should be elected by the appropriate constituencies. The Prime Minister, for instance, by the Members of the Lok Sabha and the Chief Ministers by those of the State Assemblies. Implicit in these arrangements is the unstated expectation that the exercise of free will prevail and no outside influences enter the picture. And there lies the rub! It has become common practice now for the high commands of political parties to decide who will lead their party in Parliament or the State Legislatures and impose that decision on the Legislators. As a result, the entire concept of popular choice of leaders by elected people is compromised.
Be that as it may, another aspect of the issue is the question of one person holding two elected posts. Once again, the provision of the Constitution is unequivocal. While Article 101 says that if a person is a Member of both Houses of Parliament a choice must be made in favour of one of them. And, if elected to Parliament and the legislature of a state, a similar decision needs to be taken.
Another aspect of the development in Uttarakhand is the timing of Rawat's action. Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal is in an almost identical situation. MR Madhavan and SY Qureshi, the two interlocutors of a recent interview in 'The Hindu,' clearly pointed to the justifiable suspicion in the public mind that the Uttarakhand action was meant largely to prepare the ground to create problems in West Bengal when it is Mamata's turn to seek election to the State Legislature. No doubt, some of these perceptions are subjective and, perhaps, to some extent are indicative of the position one has taken in the prevailing political ambience of the country. Still, it can hardly be gainsaid that the possibility of creating such a suspicion in the public mind could have been averted. A touch of subtlety and suavity could have served the same purpose, without the possibility of such an adverse fallout.
Similarly, earlier in 2017, the Commission announced the dates for the Gujarat assembly polls, 13 days after the same had been announced for Himachal Pradesh. And the Government of India announced a platter of freebies, worth thousands of crores of rupees, in that hiatus. The Commission had, apparently, gone by the take of the Chief Secretary of Gujarat that a deferment was needed on account of the preoccupation of administration with relief work in the context of the devastation caused by the breaches in the Narmada canal. Strangely, in a press conference, it was pointed out then that the state government had gone on a five-day Diwali break, even in the flood-affected areas. Many doubts were also expressed about the amount of work the state government could have done, in terms of providing relief in that short period, when, as a matter of fact, the disaster had taken place some four months earlier.
In another incident, in April this year, the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court had made extremely disparaging remarks against the Commission, attributing to it the responsibility for the spread of Covid-19 in the state. He even went to the extent of saying that the Commission "should be put up for murder charges." The general feeling is that the Court was less than fair as, in the first place, Covid-19, at the relevant time, was showing signs of coming under control. Also, the Commission had, by and large, to go by the assessment of the state administration, in terms of the ability to conduct elections and the safety thereof. After all, it is not the job of the Commission to control pandemics! There are other agencies such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the NDMA to take care of that responsibility. There was also no plea in the petition, regarding the role of the Commission in the spread of Covid, or as regards violation of Covid protocols. The Commission had, in fact, formulated adequate guidelines for campaigning during the pandemic, restricting the scope thereof. The overall feeling was that the Commission was not wrong in ordering the conduct of the elections under the cover of its guidelines. Meanwhile, in a report, the Citizens Commission for Elections headed by Justice Lokur noted, in the concluding portion, that while there was need for the central government to take the initiative to strengthen the hands of the Election Commission of India in terms of the ability to conduct fair and impartial elections, it is also necessary for the Commission, on its part, fully to utilise the powers already vested in it by law.
Clearly, there appears to be much that can be said, on both sides. On one hand, it can hardly be gainsaid that the Election Commission has definitely left scope for the feeling that, perhaps, what happened in Gujarat could have been handled with greater wisdom and maturity. On the other, the criticism levelled against it in the context of the happenings in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal appears to be far from justified. And, so far as Uttarakhand is concerned, one must await the outcome of the present imbroglio.
What it all boils down to is the undeniable fact that the autonomy and freedom that attach to high offices, constitutional or statutory, must be fully preserved, protected and defended. At the same time, the authorities concerned must also realise that they need not only to act, but also appear to do so, in a manner which clearly sends a signal to the public that fear and favour cannot cross their thresholds.
Before we stop, I would like to point out that, quite in contrast to the feelings recorded earlier, elections to the highest offices in the states in the country do not necessarily always produce the best results only when the constituencies comprise directly elected representatives of the people. Two telling examples should suffice to demonstrate this point. Dr Manmohan Singh, let us not forget, was a Member of the Rajya Sabha when he was the Finance Minister of the country. Similarly, K Rosaiah served as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh State while being a member of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council. And I doubt that anyone would have the temerity to suggest that they performed less than outstandingly!
The lesson, therefore, seems to lie in the acceptance of the fact that, while rules and precepts are good as a general principle, the value of exceptions should not be ruled out.
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)