The Supreme Court said State Election Commissioners (SECs) across the country should be independent, and not persons holding office with the central government or a state government.
The observation came in a case relating to the municipal elections in Goa;
- The Supreme Court directed the Goa government to redo the exercise of delimitation and reservation of municipal wards for women and SC/ST candidates in five municipal councils.
- Appoint an independent SEC, which the government is now in the process of doing.
State Election Commission role in conducting elections for urban and rural local bodies:
Even though more than a quarter century has elapsed since the Constitution was amended to make urban and rural local bodies a self-contained third tier of governance, it is often agreed by experts that there is inadequate devolution of powers to them.
This may somewhat explain their relative lack of autonomy.
However, an entirely different facet of the way these local bodies function is that the manner in which their representatives are elected is often beset by controversies.
Local polls are often marred by violence, and charges of arbitrary delimitation and reservation of wards.
About State Election Commissioner:
- The State Election Commission has been entrusted with the function of conducting free, fair and impartial elections to the local bodies in the state.
- Under 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts, State Election Commissions were created for every state to conduct elections to panchayats and municipalities
- He/She is appointed by the Governor. His conditions of service and tenure of office shall also be determined by the governor.
- SEC shall be removed from his office in the same manner & ground as a Judge of a High Court.
- A judge of a high court can be removed from his office by the President on the recommendation of the parliament.
- Article 243K(1): It states that the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to the Panchayats (Municipalities under Article 243ZA) shall be vested in a State Election Commission consisting of a State Election Commissioner to be appointed by the Governor.
- Article 243K(2): It states that the tenure and appointment will be directed as per the law made by the state legislature. However, State Election Commissioner shall not be removed from his/her office except in like manner and on the like grounds as a Judge of a High Court.
Independence and autonomy of State Election Commissioner:
- A key factor in any local body polls being conducted in a free and fair manner is the extent to which the State Election Commissioner, the authority that supervises the elections, is independent and autonomous.
- Unfortunately, most regimes in the States appoint senior bureaucrats from among their favourites to this office.
- In practice, SECs frequently face charges of being partisan. Routine exercises such as delimiting wards, rotating the wards reserved for women and Scheduled Castes and fixing dates for the elections become mired in controversy.
- As a result, as the Opposition tends to believe that the exercise is being done with the ruling party’s interest in mind.
- Even though this cannot be generalised in respect of all States and all those manning the position, it is undeniable that SECs do not seem to enjoy the confidence of political parties and the public to the same extent as the Election Commission of India as far as their independence is concerned.
What did the Supreme Court rule on the State Election Commissioner?
- It is in this backdrop that the Supreme Court’s judgment declaring that a State Election Commissioner should be someone completely independent of the State government acquires salience.
- It has described the Goa government’s action in asking its Law Secretary to hold additional charge as SEC as a “mockery of the Constitutional mandate”.
- By invoking its extraordinary power under Article 142 of the Constitution, the Court has asked all SECs who are under the direct control of the respective State governments to step down from their posts.
- In practice, most States appoint retired bureaucrats as SECs. Whether the apex court’s decision would have a bearing on those who are no more serving State governments remains to be seen.
- However, it is clear that these governments will now have to find a way to appoint to the office only those who are truly independent and not beholden to it in any manner.
The SEC has to be a person who is independent of the State Government as he is an important constitutional functionary who is to oversee the entire election process in the state qua panchayats and municipalities
The present verdict of Supreme court will help secure the independence of SECs in the future.
More significantly, the Court has boosted the power of the election watchdog by holding that it is open to the SECs to countermand any infractions of the law made by the State government in the course of preparing for local body polls.
Regimes in the States would have to wake up to the reality that they cannot always control the local body polls as in the past.