Changes to the process of selecting election commissioner: Significance and challenges – Explained, pointwise

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In the case of Anoop Baranwal v. Union of India, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a powerful committee must choose the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners. This committee has the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India as members (ECs). 

About the case

Selection of election commissioners

Read here: President to appoint CEC, ECs on advise of committee comprising PM, LoP, CJI: Supreme Court

What are the changes introduced by SC regarding selecting Election Commissioner?  

Selection of Election Commissioner
Source:  Business Standard

There are just five Articles (324-329) in Part XV (Elections) of the Constitution which deals with CEC and ECs. The Constitution does not lay down a specific legislative process for the appointment of the CEC and ECs. Currently, the President makes the appointment on the advice of the Union Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. 

The SC has now given the Opposition and the judiciary a say in the matter, ruling that the CEC and ECs must be appointed by the President on the advice of a committee comprising the PM, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India. 

Other observations made by SC in respect of the election commission are: 

Secured Tenure: The SC noted that the conditions of service of Election Commissioners, after appointment, should not be varied to their disadvantage”. These directions hold that the tenures of the Election Commissioners should not be disturbed in any way. The Election Commission (Conditions of Service of Election Commissioners and Transaction of Business) Act, 1991 requires that the CEC and Election Commissioners must hold the post for a period of six years. 

Expenses from the Consolidated Fund of India: The court has made an appeal to the Parliament and the Union Government to set up a permanent secretariat which draws its expenses directly from the Consolidated Fund of India and not the government.

What is the need for the change in selecting Election Commissioner?

To uphold the constitution: Article 324(2) of the Constitution stipulated that the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners shall be appointed by the President subject to the provisions of any law made on that behalf by Parliament. It may not have happened in the last 70 years. This change will help make the constitutional requirement happen. 

To ensure free and fair elections: As a constitutional body vested with plenary powers of superintendence, direction and control over elections, the ECI is a vital component of the republic that requires functional freedom and constitutional protection to ensure free and fair elections. 

To end monopoly: To end the government monopoly and exclusive control” over appointments to the highest poll body. 

To bring uniformity: The judgment also brings a certain uniformity in appointment procedures across institutions and statutory bodies responsible for independently maintaining democracy and institutional autonomy. 

To fulfil the historical demand: The demand for an independent system for the appointment of members of the Election Commission goes back nearly 50 years. It has been repeatedly recommended in various committees such as the Justice Tarkunde committee 1975; the Dinesh Goswami committee, 1990; the second administrative reforms commission, 2007, and by the Law Commission of India in its 255th report, 2015.

Read more: Supreme Court verdict will ensure a more independent Election Commission

What are the advantages of the changes to the process of selecting election commissioners?  

The advantage of the neutral selection committee for selecting election commissioners are a) It addresses the conflict of interest inherent in the current selection process for election commissioners, b) Enforces the EC’s credibility and insulates the EC from political attacks, c) Can act as a constitutional lesson in India’s troubled times, and d) Recognises the fine distinction between conventional democracy and constitutional democracy. 

Read more: Supreme Court calls out Centre over short tenures of Chief Election Commissioners

What are the challenges associated with the changes to the process of selecting election commissioner?

Highlights “judicial activism”: According to the government, “in the absence of a law, the President has the constitutional power.” Hence, Judiciary’s committee guidelines are seen as the era of judicial activism by some experts. Even the government has also asked the court to exhibit judicial restraint. 

Note: The ruling cites past instances of the Court stepping in to fill a gap in the law, including the Vishaka guidelines to curb sexual harassment in the workplace, and the interpretation of the process of appointment of judges.

Against the “doctrine of separation of power”:  The constitution has given powers to the Parliament to frame the law with respect to the appointments of the election commission. The Supreme Court’s intervention in this domain is regarded as a disregard for the doctrine of separation of powers. Thisis also against the “basic structure” of the Constitution.   

Against the idea of “constitution is supreme”: The words “subject to the provisions of any law made on that behalf by Parliament” mentioned in Article 324(2) have been included only after prolonged discussions in the Constituent Assembly. This highlights that the government can decide and frame any law. 

The debates made clear that a) The Parliament will step in and provide norms to govern the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners, b) A law by Parliament is final and not the executive who exclusively calls the shots in the matter of appointments to the Election Commission.

At this juncture, the involvement of the Court in the selection process has highlighted that the judiciary is the sole impartial body capable of ascertaining the best interests of the country.

Success is uncertain: For the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a similar panel for making appointments has been set up. There is no clear proof that the CBI Director maintains independence.    

Also, having the CJI on appointing committees could give all appointments extra legitimacy and make it harder for judges to look objectively for mistakes or flaws in the process. 

What should be done forward?

  • Extend safeguards to other Election Commissioners: The procedural safeguards in place for effecting the removal of a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) should be extended to the Election Commissioners under the first proviso to Article 324(5) of the Constitution. A CEC, like Supreme Court judges, can be removed from office only by way of a parliamentary process. However, no such protection of tenure is available to the Election Commissioners. 
  • The retired member of the Election Commission shall be prohibited from taking any office of profit under the state.  
  • Similarly, he shall be prohibited from joining any political party for at least 10 years after relinquishing his office. 
  • Constitutional functionaries have to be not just appointed fairly, but also held to account thereafter. So, the EC and other regulatory bodies should be made autonomous of the executive and held answerable to designated committees of Parliament or committees of legislators.

The SC’s attention to the functioning of EC is timely. The ruling examined a number of provisions in the Constitution, including the ones relating to the powers of the Supreme Court and High Court; establishing the SC, ST and Backward Classes Commissions, etc. But the judgement also raises questions about the selection process for the judiciary. The selection process for the judiciary to needs reform.

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