Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Naveen Chawla, the Election Commissioner who has been facing allegations of political partisanship almost since the day he was appointed to what is supposed to be a neutral body, has taken over as the Chief Election Commissioner(CEC) today. Despite the written recommendation of his predecessor, N Gopalaswamy, that he was unfit to hold this high constitutional office, the government has chosen what the whole world believes is favoritism over fairness.

The role of the three Election Commissioners in ensuring free and fair elections is vital to the survival of democracy. At the time of the elections, they have sit in judgment over incidents and complaints of electoral malpractices by various political parties and candidates. Therefore, they have not only to be spotlessly fair, but have to be seen to be so. For that, no one in his right mind can disagree that all political parties should consider them to be politically neutral. The Caeser's wife principle has to apply to them.

In the appointment of Naveen Chawla as the CEC, the Congress has brazenly ignored that touchstone. As a result, the Election Commission is now a body in whose impartiality virtually no political party except the Congress has faith. By rewarding one individual for what a lot of people perceive is his close association with the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress has shaken the very foundation of the institution.

Already, noises are being made about the political partisanship of the Election Commission. It started with the Varun Gandhi case when the commission issued an unprecedented advice to the BJP to avoid fielding him as a candidate due to his hate speech. This hurried decision was based on the CDs of the hate speech which the commission, trusting the eyes and ears of the three ECs, found to be not tampered with. The same commission has not taken any action on the hate speeches being repeatedly made by Sanjay Dutt to anger Muslims and get their votes. For those who might not know details, Sunil and Nargis Dutt's son, is going around the country telling voters that he was beaten up in jail because he was a "musalman ka bachcha" (child of a Muslim), his mother being Muslim, and that other Muslims in jail with him faced similar treatment. For decades he did not make such an allegation to anyone, including his father, who was a Congress MP.

There are other cases of hate speeches too which the EC has ignored. It may have done so on merit. But the perception that it is a biased body is not going away, as the Congress should have known, as should have Naveen Chawla himself. Had the perceptions been voiced respectfully to express disagreements with the views and decisions of the EC, all would have appeared fine. In fact all political parties are giving that respect to the commission, partly because in the middle of elections they were wary of annoying the wise ECs.

But Mayawati is not one to couch truth, even a ounce of it, in sophisticated words that give the recipient of her fury a respectable escape route. She fired the first salvo against the Commission when it ordered the removal of the Principal Secretary (Home) of UP. Not only did she show that finger by appointing him almost immediately as Principal Secretary in the CM's secretariat, she hit back by saying that the transfer was "politically motivated" and warned that the EC would be responsible if any there were any law and order problems. No prizes for guessing who was the "motivator" she was referring to.

As per news being flashed on various channels, she has shed even that small pretence and has now openly called the Election Commission a "stooge of the Congress" and attacked even the other EC, SY Quraishi. This is something that almost all non-Congress politicians have been wanting to say but were afraid to. This is in response to the orders of the EC transferring three police officers in connection with the death under suspicious circumstances of a candidate, Bahadur Sonkar, who was found hanging from a tree. No matter what some people might say about Mayawati, she is the CM of India's biggest state and might well be the PM next month if the results do not throw up a clear winner.

There are still more than three weeks to go before the last phase of the elections. Undoubtedly, more complaints will be made and more decisions taken by the Election Commission. With Naveen Chawla as the CEC, there is little doubt that the Commission is going to face many more charges of being an extension of the Congress party rather than being the impartial body it is supposed to be.

There is little doubt that many of these allegations will be "politically motivated". But, can the fact be denied that by letting what many believe is its obsession to ensure that the EC does not work against its interests, the Congress has opened the doors to the denigration of the institution itself? Is there anyone who thinks that Chawla's appointment was free of partisan interest?

The serious damage that has been done to the image of the EC can now not be undone. But, this should set alarm bells everywhere including in the media. It needs to be mentioned that had the media been more alive to their responsibilities as a neutral watchdog, perhaps things would not have come to this sorry pass. Something needs to be done to ensure that this does not happen again.

No matter which political party is in power, as long as it has the sole discretion to appoint guys who have to sit in judgment over it, it will succumb to the temptation to pick someone who will act as its agent in the Commission. That is an unpleasant fact that cannot be denied. Therefore, if the sanctity and authority of the EC has to be safeguarded then it has to start from the selection of the ECs itself. There have been suggestions of involving the Leader of the Opposition, among others, in the selection process. The basic principle that needs to be followed in adopting a new system is that there should be no scope for any insinuation that an EC has been appointed on the basis of political partisanship. The Caeser's wife principle has to applied without any reservation.

After the Varun Gandhi episode, there has been a lot of talk about giving more "teeth" to the EC. Sure, that change is sorely needed. But that must not be even thought of as long as the political party in power remains the sole appointing authority of the three Election Commissioners.
Readers may also read:
1. Election Commissioners and Caeser's wife
2. EC biased towards Congress, alleges Mayawati