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India’s Experiment with Democracy

Reviewed by TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Published : Saturday, 18 November, 2023 at 12:00 AM  Count : 662
S Y Quraishi

India’s Experiment with Democracy

India’s Experiment with Democracy

The book talks about the poll panel's powers, its ties with the govt and simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and Assemblies

This book carries 21 endorsements by persons of Sunil Khilnani's 'Idea of India' persuasion. Also, during its launch a few weeks ago, which I watched on YouTube, it was praised to high heavens by none other than Fali Nariman, one of India's leading experts on the Constitution and democracy.

So I write it not as an expert but as a reasonably well-informed layman. The author comes from a family of Islamic scholars. The family lived in old Delhi in the Ballimaran area where Ghalib once lived.

Quraishi went to the right college in the right university of those times. He is thus the perfect representative of the elite that dominated the Indian worldview until recently. He joined the IAS in 1971. And while in service he acquitted himself as well as anyone. His eventual reward was his appointment as the Chief Election Commissioner of India.

Bunch of thoughts

As to this book itself, it's what might be called a bunch of thoughts, a collection of long and short essays. There are numerous sections which have been arranged subject wise. Quraishi says you can read the essays in any order. That's nice. Unfortunately, it also makes it appear like Wikipedia, which it is not. There's far more opinion than Wiki would allow.

Quraishi raises many questions. Amongst them is a very important one: should the Election Commission have the powers to punish that are similar to the contempt of court power of the judiciary. The Commission thinks it should. It has given three examples of why. Two of these involve Arvind Kejriwal who has called the ECI uncomplimentary names and accused it of being partial to the BJP. Kejriwal also accused two election commissioners of "being close to the BJP''. One of them recused himself from the case before the EC.

Quraishi differs. He says "I don't think the proposal is well considered". It's not entirely clear why because later on in the chapter he says the EC should be able to penalise political parties. This is not the same as the power of contempt, of course, but it's a similar power. He wants the EC to have the power to punish errant political parties that disobey rules about submitting accounts and not conducting internal party elections.

EC appointments

He also discusses the appointment of the election commissioners. At present, as with other institutions, the government is the appointing authority. It exercises the kind of discretion that gives it comfort.

Quraishi says India is unique in this regard because nowhere else in the world do governments unilaterally appoint the commissioners. Indeed, even in India, for many other institutions, this 'meri marzi' system isn't allowed and the government has to consult others.

Another reform he suggests is that the commissioners should not be removed except by impeachment, as is the case for the CEC. The commissioners "should not be made to feel like probationers trying to please the government".
He concludes the chapter saying Narendra Modi has a new vision for India. So why not include these suggestions also in that new vision?

Quraishi is also sceptical about the practicability of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State assemblies. He raises many valid doubts.

But not once does he remind himself that such simultaneous elections had been held from 1952 to 1967.
It was only in 1971 that the Lok Sabha elections were held a year earlier because Indira Gandhi couldn't be bothered by the consequences that would follow.

Govt-EC relationship

The book discusses many episodes both during and after the author's tenure as CEC. You will have to read the book to get a sense of the relationship between the government and the ECI. But here's a stark example of that.

In one chapter he says he was appalled that the Prime Minister's principal secretary had asked or 'invited' the chief and the other two election commissioners to the PMO for an 'informal interaction'. He compares this to such an invitation to all the judges of the Supreme Court and adds that the PMO official would immediately be in contempt.

The Law Minister, he says, should go to the EC and not the CEC to the Law Minister. He says when he, as CEC, was similarly invited by the then Law Minister Veerappa Moily, he politely told the Minister to come over instead.

Finally, there's the most important question regarding the rock band Quraishi was part of at his college and at the civil services Academy in Mussoorie. What did he do in it? Sing or play some instrument? He must answer. The nation wants to know.

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