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5 ex-CECs weigh in: Government note to EC unacceptable, interaction with PMO undermines poll panel

🔴 Quraishi, Krishna Murthy, Rawat say erodes perception of independence; Gopalaswami says don’t see a problem

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: December 18, 2021 7:28:30 am
The Election Commission will be announcing the dates today at 3.30 pm. (File Photo)

At least five former Chief Election Commissioners (CECs) told The Indian Express Friday that the Law Ministry’s letter to the Election Commission expecting the incumbent poll panel chief to attend a meeting chaired by Principal Secretary to Prime Minister P K Mishra was “unacceptable”. And that the subsequent informal discussion between the full Commission and Mishra could “erode” the EC’s image of independence.

This chorus of criticism was the response to The Indian Express report that revealed how, raising questions of propriety, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and the two Election Commissioners, Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey, despite expressing reservations, joined an online “interaction” called by the PMO on November 16.

This came a day after the EC received a letter from an official of the Law Ministry – the administrative Ministry of the poll panel – that Mishra  will “chair a meeting” on a common electoral roll and “expects CEC” to be present.

Such wording, an official said, read like a “summons” that breached precedent and Constitutional norms.

Calling the development “atrocious”, former CEC S Y Quraishi said: “This is unacceptable… Would the government call the Chief Justice of India along with all other Supreme Court judges for a discussion on judicial reforms? That’s the only analogy that applies in this case. So why call the (Election) Commission for a meeting? Even the Prime Minister cannot call the CEC for a meeting.”

Quraishi, who was the CEC from July 2010 to June 2012, added: “Any meeting taking place between these authorities (the commissioners and the government) is bound to raise suspicion. Our officers know everything. They are ones who process (electoral) reform proposals. The officers are trained precisely for this purpose and they go regularly to explain the Commission’s point of view in meetings of the government. There is no question of the commissioners attending an interaction sought by the government.”

Said T S Krishna Murthy, the CEC from February 2004 to June 2005: “All I can say is that Election Commissioners are not required to attend any meeting convened by officials, having regard to its Constitutional status. Of course, clarifications, if required by the government, can be sought from the ECI in writing, for which responses can be given in writing.”

O Rawat, who headed the EC in 2018, said: “Such a thing never happened when we were there. No ministry wrote informing about a meeting and asking the CEC to attend. In fact, when the government sought a meeting, their officers would come over and explain the facts to the Commissioners. For instance, when electoral bonds were introduced, (the then Finance Secretary) S C Garg came… These meetings were never held outside the EC or online or under the chairmanship of a government officer.”

In case the EC has problems, Rawat said, “CECs pick up the phone and speak to officers to clear roadblocks”. “But that is done at the EC’s initiative.” “It seems that the three commissioners fulfilled the call of propriety by not attending the formal meeting. But if the three Commissioners met informally online after the meeting, it seems a bit incongruous. It seems like they wanted to avoid any displeasure.”

A former EC chief, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the interaction was “100% avoidable”. “Attempts (to get the full Commission to attend government meetings) have been made in the past too. But we never went for these. It should not have happened,” the former head said.

Another ex-CEC said that the optics of an interaction with the government so close to the announcement of elections to five states does not look good for the Commission. Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur are set to go to polls early next year.

“Frankly no one comes off looking good after such a meeting. Neither the government nor the EC. While they may have discussed reforms, the point is that we have certain established norms and protocols. And these norms and practices are there in place because they serve a purpose. The neutrality and independence of the Commission and even the perception of independence have to be preserved. In my experience as CEC, it’s possible to get your proposals through without causing any erosion of your perceived independence.”

A dissenting note came from former CEC N Gopalaswami: “I don’t see a problem here.” Gopalaswami, who was in the post from June 2006 to April 2009, added: “If the formal meeting (chaired by Mishra) was over and then the three commissioners interacted (with principal secretary) separately, then there’s nothing that should stop them from sharing facts and opinions. That’s because after the formal meeting is over, no one is chairing the interaction. It’s just an exchange of views.”

Chandra was unavailable for comment but a senior EC official said Thursday 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.

But 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 thereafter.

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