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01 February, 2009

Partisanship in the Election Commission

The controversy precipitated by Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami’s communication to the President seeking removal of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla highlights the need to establish reliable procedures to choose impartial Election Commissioners.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has been gunning for Chawla for a long time. He became Election Commissioner in May 2005. By the following March the party had collected 205 MPs’ signatures on a petition to the President seeking his removal. The President sent the petition to the government. The party sent a copy of the petition to the CEC too. Neither the government nor the CEC acted on it.

The BJP then took the issue to the Supreme Court. Apparently sensing that the petition was unlikely to succeed, it later withdrew it and made a representation to Gopalaswami, who had by then become the CEC.

According to media reports, although the BJP representation was Gopalaswami, he has acted suo motu in recommending Chawla’s removal.

The Election Commission now consists of three members --the CEC and two ECs, all of whom are appointed by the President. All three incumbents are former IAS officers. While Gopalaswami was brought into the Election Commission by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, Chawla and the third Commissioner, S.Y. Quraishi, were brought in by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

According to BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley, Gopalaswami “appears to have recommended removal of Shri Chawla on the ground of political bias.” This was the ground on which his party had approached the President, the Supreme Court and the CEC for his removal.

The BJP has not pointed to any instance of biased conduct on Chawla’s part. Jaitley argues that since the EC meets behind closed doors the public is not privy to the biased conduct of a member and the CEC alone is in a position to adjudicate whether a member’s conduct suffers from bias or not.

In its various petitions, the BJP has mentioned Chawla’s presumed closeness to Congress leaders as the basis of its objection to him. It has also dropped hints about his role during the Emergency. These are charges which can also be levelled against T. N. Seshan, who was perhaps the most independent Chief Election Commissioner in the republic’s history. After laying down the CEC’s office he had contested the Lok Sabha elections on the Congress ticket!

Chawla’s stand on the application to disqualify Congress President Sonia Gandhi as MP for having accepted a foreign honour does not seem to bear out the BJP’s charge of bias. If published reports are correct, he agreed with Gopalaswami on sending notice to Ms. Gandhi, while Quraishi opposed it. Chawla and Quraishi agreed on seeking further details from the External Affairs Ministry, but Gopalaswami was against it.

Considering the BJP’s communal platform, there is reason to suspect that what annoys it is Chawla’s reputation as the biographer of Mother Theresa.

Gopalaswami’s conduct is also suspect. A few months short of his own retirement as CEC, he has shot off the missile against Chawla after having worked with him for three and a half years, unmindful of the factors which, in his opinion, render him unsuitable to hold the EC’s post.

Evidently his purpose is to prevent Chawla, who is the seniormost EC, from succeeding him and presiding over the Election Commission during the coming Lok Sabha elections. The BJP, which brought him into the Commission in the first place, is sure to show its appreciation of the gesture.

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