THE Lahore High Court’s decision on Friday to restrain returning officers from putting “random intrusive and inquisitive questions” to candidates filing nomination papers is timely and was necessary. Many overzealous returning officers have created an utter mess, overshot their mandate and embarrassed and in some cases rejected the nomination papers of quite a few candidates after subjecting them to asinine questions. Often, the scrutiny took the form of interrogation. In our comment on Friday we had occasion to dwell upon some of the ROs’ proclivity for the laughable. Evidently, the absurdity of some of the ROs’ bird-brained approach to the issue and protests by rights groups and segments of civil society seem to have had an effect, for the LHC’s interim order appeared nearer to the meaning of the Constitution’s Articles 62 and 63, themselves controversial. In its ruling, the court told the ROs to question a candidate only if what he had said in the declaration on oath conflicted with tangible and credible information available on record or from other authorised agents. Obviously, the ROs’ conduct of scrutiny had incensed the higher judiciary, compelling Justice Mansoor Ali Shah to aver that the ROs’ aim should not be to carry out a “witch-hunt or demean the politicians”.
The order to bar TV from covering the scrutiny process was prompted by some ROs’ tendency to play king before an audience of millions. The media will still cover the scrutiny process, but the ban on TV coverage inside the courtroom should serve to restrain the ROs and take away a bit of the McCarthyism that has been in evidence in their disposition. More important, before the candidates appeal against their disqualification, the ROs should themselves have the good sense to review the cases where the rejection stemmed from questions which had, to quote Judge Shah, “no nexus with information” given in the nomination papers.
Although better sense has finally prevailed and the Election Commission of Pakistan has instructed the ROs not to continue with their irrelevant questions, the ECP certainly took its time to assert itself, initially refusing to own responsibility for the ROs, who it said were members of the judiciary. No doubt this is the case but they are working for the ECP. Their functions and actions in their official capacity have a bearing on the electoral process and it is a relief that the ECP finally appears to have woken up to the significance of this.