Wednesday, July 18, 2007

EC's stand on abstention inconsistent

THE Election Commission has issued a clarification regarding the BJP's demand to declare the United National Progressive Alliance (The Third Front)'s decision to abstain from the Presidential elections. The clarification is entirely unconvincing and inconsistent. First it says, political parties cannot issue any direction or whip to their members to vote in a particular manner or not to vote at the election leaving them with no choice, as that would tantamount to the offence of undue influence within the meaning of section 171C of the IPC.

This point is well taken, and the E.C. has for the first time taken a formal decision in this regard, which is welcome. In 1997, the E.C. had declined to endorse the Election Commissioner, G.V.G.Krishnamurthy's personal opposition to the issue of whip as being unconstitutional, even though political parties had broadly accepted his appeal.

Having said that, the E.C.'s press note says those electors defying such a directive from the party, to give effect to their free will at the election will not come within the ambit of disqualification under the 10th Schedule to the Constitution.

The point is that the parties comprising the Third Front could threaten expulsion of the defiant Members from their parties for the defiance, even if they don't suffer disqualification from the House. Forget expulsion, there can be other forms of retribution against a defiant elector, who is willing to risk party indiscipline. Unlike cross-voting (which is impossible to detect due to secret ballot) , it is easier to detect those Members who don't abstain from voting. In a party like AIADMK, which is part of the third front, the prospect of retribution for defiance can make the Member succumb to undue influence, rather than follow his free will.

The E.C. in my view, has misconstrued the scope of Section 171A (b) of IPC by equating voters who have the right to abstain with parties' freedom to request or appeal to abstain. In our democracy, the parties internally don't appeal or request their Members. They just decide, and the decision is binding on all Members of the parties. Hence the cover of 171A(b) cannot be made available to the political parties or a grouping of political parties to decide on behalf of the electors to abstain from voting. Just imagine what would happen, if all political parties decide to abstain. It would defeat the very objective of the election to choose a President in time to fill the likely vacancy in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Can all political parties have similar freedom to request their Members to abstain from voting? Needless to say, such an interpretation would make no sense at all.

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