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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Election Commission divided: One EC objects to panel asking court for gag order on media

One of the Election Commissioners, it is learnt, strongly objected to the contents of the affidavit filed in Madras HC and the SLP.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: May 5, 2021 9:11:33 am
CEC Sushil Chandra (left) and EC Rajiv Kumar. (Express Photo)

The Election Commission (EC) is split down the middle over its response to the censure by the Madras High Court on its role in conducting elections during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Indian Express has learned that the poll panel’s plea in the Madras High Court to gag the media from reporting oral observations of judges and its subsequent Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court against the Madras High Court’s “murder-charges” remark were not unanimously approved by the Commission.

One of the Election Commissioners, it is learnt, strongly objected to the contents of the affidavit filed in Madras HC and the SLP.

He is said to have advised against calling for a gag on the media. His feedback,being currently discussed by several officials within the EC, was overruled.

After Sunil Arora’s retirement as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on April 12, the three-member Commission has Sushil Chandra as CEC and Rajiv Kumar as Election Commissioner. The position of the third EC is vacant.

The poll watchdog has been under a harsh glare over its handling of the Assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Puducherry with parties, mainly the Trinamool Congress, accusing it of being biased in favour of the Centre.

On April 26, the Madras High Court came down heavily on the EC for “not stopping political parties” from violating Covid protocols during their campaign rallies last month. In its oral observations, the HC lamented that perhaps murder charges should be imposed on the panel for being “the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today”.

Despite the TMC and the Congress petitions urging the EC to end campaigning or reschedule the dates given the Covid spread, the EC put curbs as late as April 22, an hour after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his four rallies scheduled there the next day.

After the Madras HC censure, the EC put measures in place for the day of counting on May 2, including mandatory testing of all candidates and their counting agents and a ban on victory processions.

However, the Commission also went back to the Madras High Court with a plea seeking directions to be issued to the media to confine their reports to observations recorded in orders or judgments and refrain from reporting oral statements made during court proceedings since the remarks had caused it grave prejudice. The HC didn’t entertain the plea.

The poll watchdog eventually went to the apex court last week against the Madras HC’s remarks, which it described as “uncalled for, blatantly disparaging and derogatory”. The High Court, which is an independent Constitutional authority, had made “serious allegations of murder on another independent constitutional authority (ECI) without any basis, which has ultimately dented both the institutions”, the Commission said in its plea to SC.

In its SLP, the EC said that the oral comments made by judges during a hearing were reported as the “views of the Court”, which amounts to “undermining the Constitutional authority of the Hon’ble Court” as some see the court as “exceeding the boundaries of judicial propriety.”

Hearing the matter Monday, the apex court said that the observations made by judges while hearing cases are in the “larger public interest” and the media cannot be stopped from reporting them.

Justice M R Shah remarked that “sometimes when something is observed, it is for the larger public interest. They (judges) are also human beings. Sometimes they are frustrated, angered.” Asking the Commission to take it in the “right spirit”, he added that “your subsequent decisions after the remarks, matter”.

The SC’s order in this matter is expected Thursday.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there was a serious difference of opinion within the Commission when then Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa had opposed the clean chit given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former BJP president Amit Shah on charges of violating the election model code of conduct.

Soon after the elections, three members of the Lavasa family, including his wife, had come under the scanner of the Income Tax Department for alleged non-declaration of income and disproportionate assets.

His son Abir Lavasa’s company – Nourish Organic – and Lavasa’s sister Shakuntala Lavasa, a paediatrician, were also served income tax notices. The family members denied allegations made by the I-T department. Lavasa quit EC in August last year to join the Asian Development Bank as one of its vice presidents.

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