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Electoral reforms to touch all areas

Electoral reforms to touch all areas
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EC and judicial intervention major cause of worry The Congress-led UPA Government has embarked upon electoral reforms, which may have a bearing on...

EC and judicial intervention major cause of worry

The Congress-led UPA Government has embarked upon electoral reforms, which may have a bearing on the powers of the Election Commission. There is growing unease that the Election Commission has arrogated to itself powers that are not available to it under the present dispensation. For instance, Election Commission has been given powers to register political party, but not to de-register the party. The Model Code of Conduct, as the nomenclature itself bears out, is advisory in nature and has no statutory status. But the Election Commission has invoked it and censured several political leaders for its violation. Similarly, disqualification of MP or MLA by the judiciary impinges on the powers of Presiding Officer.

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law, Justice, Personnel and Grievances Chairman Shantaram Naik, who has recently tabled Report on Electoral Reforms, covering the Model Code of Conduct for the political parties and the Anti-Defection Law, has favoured wide-ranging electoral reforms. It should not be done in a piecemeal manner but should be in done in a holistic fashion. Shantaram Naik has identified the problem areas as the powers of the Election Commission, the status of Model Code of Conduct, safeguarding the supremacy of parliament from judicial activism and the problem of Paid News. “Paid News has emerged as the biggest source of worry. We called it surrogate advertisement, appearing in the form of news, which is unofficially sponsored by the candidates in the print media to escape the laws of ceiling on expenses. The public is cheated as the amount spent on Paid News is never disclosed. Growing money power used by candidates to skewing election result in their favour has undermined the democratic norms in the country. The Press Council of India has to play a more important role to check this menace,” Parliamentary Standing Committee Chairman Shantaram Naik, in an exclusive interview to The Hans India, told Venkat Parsa.

You have recently recommended a wide-range of electoral reforms. Do you think there was a need now for raising this issue?

All that I have done is rationalise the system, which has been taken over by arbitrariness. Take the case of scrutiny of nomination papers. As the law stands today, in case of rejection of nomination papers of a candidate by the Returning Officer, the candidate has no option other than going to the High Court after the declaration of election results through an election petition, which takes years for the verdict to come. The Standing Committee took the view that the candidate should be provided an option to prefer an appeal against the decision of Returning Officer when his/her nomination papers are rejected. In a time bound manner, it should be decided, say within two to three days, even while giving flexibility for readjusting the poll schedule. Besides, the nomination papers are too cumbersome and candidates find it difficult to fill it up with ease and without tension. It was felt that there is a need for simplification of nomination papers. As far as election petition is concerned, it was felt that election petitions take long time for disposal. In some cases, these are not decided even when the next election approaches. The recommendation made was that Fast-Track Courts should be set up to dispose of election petition within a specified period of 12 months.

Have you taken into account the menace of Paid News?

Paid News has emerged as the biggest source of worry. We called it surrogate advertisement, appearing in the form of news, which is unofficially sponsored by the candidates in the print media to escape the laws of ceiling on expenses. The public is cheated as the amount spent on Paid News is never disclosed. Growing money power used by candidates to skewing election result in their favour has undermined the democratic norms in the country. The Press Council of India has to play a more important role to check this menace.

You held that Election Commission has no powers to de-register a political party?

It is important to understand how subtly the Election Commission has arrogated to itself the power that was not envisaged under the system. Through an amendment in 1989, Section 29-A was inserted in the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. This was done to empower the Election Commission to register political parties. But the power to de-register political parties was not given to the Election Commission. It can de-register a political party only when the party is declared unlawful or it was found to obtain registration through fraudulent means, by the judiciary. But the Election Commission, on its own, on February 18, 1994, inserted para 16-A in the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, assuming the power to suspend or withdraw recognition of the party as national party or State party in the case of violation of Model Code of Conduct.

On Model Code of Conduct, your recommendations were of far-reaching nature?

It was our recommendation that Model Code of Conduct should be given statutory backing. Presently, it is only advisory in nature. The Standing Committee strongly recommended that a law should be enacted to give statutory backing to the Model Code of Conduct, by making it part of the Representation of People Act, 1951. Presently, the Election Commission is claiming plenary power under Article 324 of the Constitution, which is residuary in nature. It has brought an amendment on February 18, 1994, by inserting para 16-A in the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968.

Can the Election Commission censure any political leader for violation of Model Code of Conduct?

As the nomenclature itself goes, it is Model Code of Conduct. It is not enforceable. It is only after giving it statutory backing that it becomes truly enforceable. Article 324 of the Constitution vests in the Election Commission the powers of superintendence, direction and control of the entire process for the conduct of elections. But Article 324 cannot be abused to acquire powers to legislate, which the Election Commission has done, by inserting para 16-A in the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968. This is a clear violation of the principle of Separation of Powers under the Constitutional scheme of things. The Constitution vests powers in Parliament and State Legislature to make laws with respect to elections, Articles 327 and 328 of the Constitution. This power cannot be exercised by any other agency or body. In fact, when the Election Commission derecognises a party, it takes away its symbol also, thereby, in practice, de-registering a political party. In fact, Parliament has not given power to Election Commission to de-register any political party.

You had made a major recommendation on reducing the period of enforcing the Model Code of Conduct during elections?

The Election Commission announces the schedule of election in a major press conference, weeks ahead of the actual commencement of the process through the issue of Notification. It enforces the Model Code of Conduct not from the date of Notification but from the date of the press conference. The date of announcement of election schedule cannot be more than three weeks anterior to the date of Notification. This issue has been settled by the Supreme Court that it could be enforced three weeks before Notification and later till the conclusion of the process. The idea is to minimise the period of enforcing the Model Code of Conduct. Reason is the state administration slips into a state of paralysis. Bureaucrats are on deputation to the Election Commission as observers. In fact, former bureaucrats can be considered for being appointed as observers.

Do you feel there is interference of judiciary in the working of the House?

Disqualification under the Anti-Defection Law should be left to the Presiding Officer of the House. The judiciary entering the domain and power of the Speaker or Chairman violates the supremacy of parliament and the principle of Separation of Powers between the three wings of Parliament, Executive and Judiciary.

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