[We are quoting this article from Supreme court’s recently passed judgment ‘Anoop Baranwal v. UOI (2023)’.]
The basic and underlying principle central to democracy is power to the people through the ballot. Abraham Lincoln declared democracy to be Government of the people, by the people and for the people. A political party or a group or a coalition assumes reigns of governance. The purpose of achieving power is to run the Government. No doubt, the Government must be run in accordance with the dictate of the Constitution and the laws. Political parties not unnaturally come out with manifestos containing a charter of promises they intend to keep. Without attaining power, men organised as political parties cannot achieve their goals.
Power becomes, therefore, a means to an end. The goal can only be to govern so that the lofty aims enshrined in the directive principles are achieved while observing the fundamental rights as also the mandate of all the laws. What is contemplated is a lawful Government. So far so good. There can be no doubt that the strength of a democracy and its credibility, and therefore, its enduring nature must depend upon the means employed to gain power being as fair as the conduct of the Government after the assumption of power by it. The assumption of power itself through the electoral process in the democracy cannot and should not be perceived as an end. The end at any rate cannot justify the means.
The means to gain power in a democracy must remain wholly pure and abide by the Constitution and the laws. An unrelenting abuse of the electoral process over a period of time is the surest way to the grave of the democracy. Democracy can succeed only in so far as all stakeholders uncompromisingly work at it and the most important aspect of democracy is the very process, the electoral process, the purity of which alone will truly reflect the will of the people so that the fruits of democracy are truly reaped.
The essential hallmark of a genuine democracy is the transformation of the ‘Ruled’ into a citizenry clothed with rights which in the case of the Indian Constitution also consist of Fundamental Rights, which are also being freely exercised and the concomitant and radical change of the ruler from an ‘Emperor’ to a public servant. With the accumulation of wealth and emergence of near monopolies or duopolies and the rise of certain sections in the Media, the propensity for the electoral process to be afflicted with the vice of wholly unfair means being overlooked by those who are the guardians of the rights of the citizenry as declared by this Court would spell disastrous consequences.
Rule of law, fundamental rights and an independent election commission
The cardinal importance of a fiercely independent, honest, competent and fair Election Commission must be tested on the anvil of the rule of law as also the grand mandate of equality. We expatiate. Rule of law is the very bedrock of a democratic form of governance. It simply means that men and their affairs are governed by pre-announced norms. It averts a democratic Government brought to power by the strength of the ballot betraying their trust and lapsing into a Government of caprice, nepotism and finally despotism. It is the promise of avoidance of these vices which persuades men to embrace the democratic form of Government. An Election Commission which does not ensure free and fair poll as per the rules of the game, guarantees the breakdown of the foundation of the rule of law. Equally, the sterling qualities which we have described which must be possessed by an Election Commission is indispensable for an unquestionable adherence to the guarantee of equality in Article 14.
In the wide spectrum of powers, if the Election Commission exercises them unfairly or illegally as much as he refuses to exercise power when such exercise becomes a duty it has a telling and chilling effect on the fortunes of the political parties. Inequality in the matter of treatment of political parties who are otherwise similarly circumstanced unquestionably breaches the mandate of Article 14. Political parties must be viewed as organisations representing the hopes and aspirations of its constituents, who are citizens. The electorate are ordinarily, supporters or adherents of one or the other political parties.
We may note that the recognition of NOTA, by this Court enabling a voter to express his distrust for all the candidates exposes the disenchantment with the electoral process which hardly augurs well for a democracy. Therefore, any action or omission by the Election Commission in holding the poll which treats political parties with an uneven hand, and what is more, in an unfair or arbitrary manner would be anathema to the mandate of Article 14, and therefore, cause its breach.
There is an aspect of a citizen’s right to vote being imbued with the fundamental freedom under Article 19(1)(a). The right of the citizen to seek and receive information about the candidates who should be chosen by him as his representative has been recognised as a fundamental right. The Election Commissioners including the Chief Election Commissioner blessed with nearly infinite powers and who are to abide by the fundamental rights must be chosen not by the Executive exclusively and particularly without any objective yardstick.
Anoop Baranwal v. UOI (2023)