Updated: December 17, 2021 12:08:20 pm
The Opposition demanded on Friday that the Lok Sabha discuss “autonomy of institutions being compromised” under the BJP-led government, in the backdrop of The Indian Express report that Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra and the two Election Commissioners, Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey, joined an online “interaction” called by the Prime Minister’s Office on November 16 despite reservations.
The Indian Express reported about the interaction on Friday.
Congress MP Manish Tewari said: “I have submitted a notice of adjournment motion with regard to the story that appeared in The Indian Express today essentially flagging the fact that the autonomy of the institutions has been compromised. Therefore under the circumstances it is extremely important for the House to discuss the issue.”
However, the proceedings were adjourned abruptly at 11.35 am till 2 pm as Opposition MPs, including Congress, TMC and DMK, stooped to the Well of the House demanding the dismissal of Union Minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son Ashish is accused in the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case. The House took up Question Hour, but couldn’t proceed, as the MPs refused to go to their seats despite repeated requests from the Speaker.
The CEC and the two Election Commissioners joined the interaction with the PMO a day after the EC received an unusually worded letter from an official of the Law Ministry – the administrative Ministry of the poll panel – that Principal Secretary to PM P K Mishra will “chair a meeting” on a common electoral roll and “expects CEC” to be present.
Such wording, an official told The Indian Express, caused a flutter since it read like a “summons” that breached precedent and Constitutional norms. At two previous meetings on the same subject – on August 13 and September 3 last year – EC officials took part, not the Commissioners.
Chandra was unavailable for comment but a senior EC official said that the CEC, on receipt of the note, made his “displeasure” felt to the Law Ministry and underlined that he would not attend the meeting. When asked about this note, a Law Ministry official declined to comment.
However, Chandra didn’t exactly put his foot down. So, while he and the other two Commissioners stayed away from the video meeting — in which their subordinates were present – as per precedent, the three did join an “informal interaction” with Mishra immediately after.
“They discussed long-pending reforms like multiple cut-off dates to facilitate a common electoral roll. This was done to expedite the reforms so that there is no gap in understanding and no delay,” said a senior official. In fact, these were part of the amendments cleared by the Cabinet Wednesday.
Asked about the propriety of the interaction between the full Commission and the PMO, the senior official said: “This was informal, not a meeting. The Commissioners did not discuss any matter pertaining to elections (the five Assembly elections for which notification is due soon). This was just for expeditious disposal of electoral reforms.”
Still, the interaction raises questions of Constitutional propriety. For, the three ECs usually maintain an arm’s length from the Executive to insulate the functioning of the poll panel, a Constitutional authority, from external pressure.
As a result, the EC’s communication with the government on election matters is usually limited to its administrative ministry, the Law Ministry. On arranging security forces for elections, the EC communicates with the Home Ministry. If and when needed, government officers call on the three election commissioners and not the other way round.
Significantly, the single voters’ list for elections to the panchayat, municipality, state assembly and the Parliament is among the promises made by the BJP in its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. It ties in with the party’s commitment to hold elections simultaneously to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and local bodies, also mentioned in its manifesto.
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