Updated: December 19, 2021 7:07:18 am
ACKNOWLEDGING that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) had expressed “displeasure” over its letter about a meeting on the common electoral roll, as reported by The Indian Express on December 17, the Ministry of Law and Justice, in a statement Saturday, said that it was “clarified” that the letter was for “Secretary or a representative of the CEC familiar with the subject” to attend the meeting.
The statement of the Law Ministry — the administrative Ministry for the poll panel — is the first official response after The Indian Express reported that Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra and the two Election Commissioners, Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey, despite expressing reservations, did join an online “interaction” called by the PMO on November 16.
This was a day after the EC received a letter from a Law Ministry official that the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, P K Mishra, will “chair a meeting” on a common electoral roll and “expects CEC” to be present.
The Law Ministry statement said that the November 16 meeting was to finalise the Cabinet note on some long-pending reforms and was held virtually. “The subsequent interaction with the Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners was an informal one and meant for ironing out two or three aspects for the final proposal,” the statement said.
The Law Ministry said that the original meeting notice from the PMO dated November 12 was addressed to the Cabinet Secretary, Law Secretary and Secretary, Legislative Department, and not to the CEC.
The Ministry further said it had sent a letter inviting representatives of the EC to the PMO meeting since the poll panel has the “necessary expertise and mandate regarding Electoral roll.”
According to the statement, the Law Ministry’s letter was addressed to a Secretary-level officer in the Commission and that the “final operative paragraph of the letter also requested Secretary, Election Commission of India to attend the meeting.”
However, the subject line of the letter dated November 15, as reviewed by The Indian Express, reads: “Video Conference on Common Electoral Roll with PMO – interaction with CEC – reg.”
The letter states: “I am directed to enclose a Note dated 12.11.2021 received from PMO and to state that Principal Secretary to PM will chair a meeting on Common Electoral Roll on 16.11.2021 at 4 pm through video-conferencing and expects CEC to be present during the conference.”
The Law Ministry said that after receipt of the letter by the ECI, “the Chief Election Commissioner spoke to Secretary, Legislative Department expressing his displeasure over the expression in the middle part of the letter which gave an impression that it was expected of the CEC to attend the meeting. Secretary, Legislative Department, clarified that the letter was for Secretary or a representative of the CEC familiar with the subject to attend the meeting.”
The Ministry further said: “This meeting on 16.11.2021 was a virtual meeting and no physical meeting was organized in the PMO. The said virtual meeting was attended by the Officials of Government of India and officials of Election Commission of India. After the meeting of officials, certain issues required further fine-tuning. These issues include the number of qualifying dates for updation of electoral roll, some aspects of Aadhaar linkage and requisition of premises.
“After the official meeting, a separate informal interaction was held virtually with the Chief Election Commissioner and the two Election Commissioners. It may be noted that the discussion was held together with all three Commissioners of ECI, and virtually.”
The Indian Express had quoted a senior EC official as having said that the interaction was “informal.”
The Law Ministry said that the November 16 meeting was held to discuss the electoral reforms in The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021 that was recently approved by the Union Cabinet.
The statement said that several EC proposals regarding electoral reforms have been pending.
“Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) has addressed several letters (February 2011, May 2013 and July 2020) to the Law Minister that the pending reforms may be considered expeditiously. Legislative Department is the nodal department regarding matters related to Election Commission and regular interaction takes place between officials of ECI and Legislative department…Previously, several meetings were held by the Cabinet Secretary and the PMO regarding Common Electoral roll.”
At least five former Chief Election Commissioners (CECs) have told The Indian Express that the Law Ministry’s letter to the Election Commission was “unacceptable”. And that the subsequent informal discussion between the full Commission and the PMO could erode the EC’s image of independence.