If the war of words between the Election Commission and the UPA government is about tension between institutions,its also playing out as one between individuals: Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi and Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid.
On the surface,there are no deep divides. Both Stephanians six years apart have an interest in drama; both boast of well-heeled antecedents. Khurshid is the grandson of the first Muslim president,Zakir Husain,who hails from Qayamganj in Farrukhabad,and Quraishi is from a well-established family in old Delhi. Quraishi read history,Khurshid studied English and then law at Oxford. Both make forceful interventions in public debate: Quraishi has written on family size and Islam; Khurshid is a playwright with his Sons of Babur drawing critical acclaim for tackling thorny and difficult themes.
So is it a battle of egos? Or a larger political war about the UPAs idea of controlling institutions whose heads it appoints?
The trouble began last year when,in the debate over an overarching Lokpal,Khurshid said that no institution was totally autonomous and even the Election Commission was overseen by the Law Ministry,which cleared their foreign trips and official activities. Khurshids camp says that was a routine statement,but it sent alarm bells ringing in Nirvachan Sadan.
The ECs autonomy has been central to its identity,reinforced by the manner in which it has dealt with all parties,be it the T N Seshan-Lalu Prasad Yadav spat or the J M Lyngdoh-Narendra Modi tussle. Quraishi sent a letter to the Prime Minister,who underlined that the EC had functional autonomy. Sources close to the CEC saw it as a qualified rebuttal of Khurshid and felt the PM could and should have gone further. The alarm bells quietened,Quraishi even attended the all-day Christmas open house at Khurshids home on December 18.
Then came Khurshids let-them-hang-me remark after the ECs notice to him on his Muslim quota announcement. An outraged Quraishi fired off a letter to the President and within days got Khurshid to send his regrets,saying he bowed to the wisdom of the EC. Sources said the CEC,being a Muslim,felt pressured to take this down to the wire and felt that Khurshid made an ill-advised attempt to emerge as a Muslim leader. Those close to Khurshid,however,say that the CEC was being selective and had not acted against Mulayam Singh Yadav for talking about 18 per cent reservation or the BJP for saying it will scrap the reservation should it come to power.
A source close to the minister said: Khurshid is not vindictive and has cleared another foreign trip of the EC for March 11.
However,for EC officials,this administrative control over the poll panel by the Law Ministry is exactly the problem. They point out that a proposed institute by the CEC is gathering dust,with the latest reason being cited ironically being that the conduct code is in place.
While Khurshid declined to comment. Quraishi told The Indian Express: With the code of conduct working so well for so many years,what is the need to tinker with it?