Come election time, which in India is a rather frequent and grand affair, the Election Commission (EC) of India is thrown into a frenzy, what with the large numbers involved. Especially with the Lok Sabha elections, ensuring smooth polling for an electorate as large as that of India cannot possibly be an easy job.
And even as the drama around 2014 Lok Sabha elections unfolds, with the ongoing conflict between political leaders and the EC, it isn't the first of its kind nor is it the worst.
History of election controversy in India is vast, and marred with not just violations of norms and rules, but also a result of severe opposition to election reforms. Amit Shah, Azam Khan and Mamata Banerjee have only just joined, what is a series of battles in the 'EC vs the political elite war'.
The EC keeps a hawks eye out over actions and words of political leaders, and that has obviously, not been appreciated. A couple of years ago, Law Minister Salman Khurshid was caught in a raging controversy over his promise for a 9% sub quota for backward Muslims. The EC saw this as a "serious violation" of Model Code of Conduct, and slapped him with show-cause notice, asking why action should not be taken against him.
A very bitter, Salman Khurshid, following one among his many conflicts with the body, stated, “As I understand the broad philosophical approach is 'you should do and say nothing that wins you an election', you should try your best to lose elections.”
Not too long after, the newest entry to the Indian political landscape found themselves mired in EC controversy. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had hardly stepped into the political waters with the Delhi assembly polls last year, that they found themselves under the watchful eye of the EC. On November 2013, AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal was accused of violation of the Model Code of Conduct by way of an appeal on grounds of religion to Muslim voters to support his party in the Delhi polls. And then again a show cause notice was issued to Kejriwal over a discrepancy in the amount shown as poll expenses. And then once more in Gujarat, he was detained for violating the Model Code of Conduct by travelling in a long carcad.
Even the current Goliath of Indian politics, Narendra Modi, has not escaped the EC's pull. Modi's many speeches face tremendous scrutiny by the EC. And not too long before, Modi was caught in a battle of letters with the EC—who had issued Modi with a notice over a 'Khooni Panja' remark considered a violation of the model poll code.
But while the political leaders, and hopeful representatives of the union of India, frequently fall short on their conduct and obedience to the rules, the EC too has, on many occasions, tried to assert itself on to the political leaders.
For instance, during the 1993 elections in Tamil Nadu, the then Chief Election Commissioner of India TN Seshan had ordered the center to deploy troops into the state and asked the state to file a report of compliance with the EC. The Home Minister refused to comply stating that “states could not have a force foisted on them”. To this, Seshan decreed that no elections would be held in the country until the government recognised the power of the Election Commission. Sheshan relented when the matter was referred to the Supreme Court.
It was the same year that parliament, in an attempted to limit Seshan's power, amended the constitution to include two additional commissioner to share the power with chief commissioner.
Following another Supreme Court battle, it was decided that the power of additional commissioners cannot be equal to that of Chief Commissioner. It was also stated that while the commissioner may consider the advice of the added commissioners, s/he was not bound to follow it.
Sheshan regime, that way, was defined by his rebellion against those who refused to adhere to EC's very rigid 'Model Code of Conduct'. In 1992, EC called upon the government to ensure photo identity cards for all voters to curb issues of voter impersonation. The government then had resisted this move on trivial grounds, dragging any implementation of this reform for a couple of years. After a point, Sheshan went ahead to declare that if no identification cards were issued to voters, no elections would be held after January 1, 1995. As a result, some elections were postponed due to lack of photo IDs, until the Supreme Court intervened. Eventually the political masses relented started the issuance of ID cards and by 1996 two million voters already had them.
That said, long unceasing conflict between the EC and the political class India, is reflective of the India ongoing struggle with democracy.