Murky Politics Govern India's Election Commission

This is one political squabble that India could well have avoided on the eve of a crucial national election. The country's Election Commission, a three-member body constitutionally empowered to ensure the smooth conduct of polls, is embroiled in an ugly spat between its top office bearers which is threatening to snowball into a constitutional crisis.

The controversy began last month when the commission's head, Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami, recommended the ouster of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, who is scheduled to succeed him on his impending retirement, for "acting with bias in favor of the ruling Congress party". Allegedly Chawla had leaked several important commission decisions to the ruling Congress party in exchange for personal favors.

What gave added momentum to Gopalaswami's action was a previous petition filed by the country's largest opposition party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to the then President A P J Abdul Kalam in 2005, seeking Chawla's removal on grounds of partisanship. The BJP had alleged that Chawla's proximity to the Congress might impact the latter's neutrality in then-upcoming May polls. Complaining that the ruling Congress government was not acting on the charge, the BJP took the matter to the Supreme Court. Gopalaswami, in the meantime, sent out an 800-page charge sheet including the BJP petition, demanding his colleague's removal.

In his affidavit, Gopalaswami claimed that as elections chief he can recommend removal of an election commissioner. The move, the first by an elections chief in the last six decades, has triggered a political maelstrom. Gopalaswami's critics are arguing that the timing of his action is suspect, coming as it does on the eve of national elections, which must be held by March 7.

This is all the more so considering Gopalaswami is on the verge of retirement on April 20 and Chawla would be entitled to step into his shoes as his senior-most colleague.

Expectedly, the Congress-led government has squashed the Gopalaswimi's recommendation to remove Chawla, charging him with bringing petty politics into the office of the Commission. Said Law Minister H R Bhardwaj, "Gopalaswami should do his job in the Commission and not behave like a political boss".

Speaking to local media, the minister underscored that the election commission should not become an object of public ridicule. "At this stage to create a crisis of this kind is wholly improper and the CEC ought to resign," said Bharadwaj hinting that Chawla will in all probability become the next elections chief despite Gopalaswami's objections.

As the drama was unfolding, political parties scrambled to gain political mileage from the commission members washing their dirty linen in public. Welcoming Gopalaswami's recommendation for Chawla's removal, the BJP said the move would "strengthen the autonomy and the impartial nature of the poll panel". More than 200 BJP MPs had petitioned the President seeking the Chawla's removal.

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The Congress promptly scuppered BJP's move, asserting it was a deliberate ploy to thwart the upcoming elections. It emphasized that the Election Commission works on the principle of consensus and not by arbitrariness.

However, this isn't the time first the current EC has been caught in the eye of a storm. The business of the current three-member commission has often been marked by sharp differences over crucial decisions. Last May, Chawla had raised serious objections to the holding of assembly polls in Karnataka but was overruled by Gopalaswami. He was similarly sidelined when he expressed his reservations over the conduct of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2007.

However, this time, constitutional experts are questioning Gopalaswami's action demanding Chawla's scalp when the commission should be working to ensure smooth conduct of polls. He is also being accused of creating a national crisis which carries the whiff of "political motivation". "How can the commission ensure an impartial conduct of national polls when its commissioners can't even see eye to eye?" asked Vivek Bhambri, a political analyst.

Maintaining that Gopalaswami has brought the high office into controversy, Congress says it is not binding on the government to accept his recommendations. However, Gopalaswami vehemently defended the timing of his recommendation for Chawla's removal. "The timing was determined by circumstances beyond my control," Gopalaswami told local media, adding that he gave his report to the president on January 16, a little over a month after he had received Chawla's response to his accusations.

According to a senior parliamentarian, the credibility of the election commission has been undermined irreparably due to the current controversy. "In the absence of firm action, the fairness of the commission would naturally be suspect, posing a grave threat to our elective democracy," says the parliamentarian.

Threat or not, the Constitution is clear that while the elections chief is the senior most, the two other election commissioners have equal standing. The only way an election cCommissioner can be removed is through impeachment. Gopalaswami's recommendation for Chawla's removal can thus be ignored.

Even as the issue of the CEC's successor remains mired in controversy, constitutional analysts are emphasizing the need to reform India's complex selection of its election commissioners. This is all the more imperative in view of the vital role they are expected to play in these politically turbulent and multi-party times.

Though currently the Indian President appoints the commission chief on the recommendations of the government's Council of Ministers, there's a growing consensus that this process should be amended to allow a bipartisan, broad-based committee – comprising of one Opposition member as well – to elect the Commissioner. This would automatically preclude a politically-biased appointment and eliminate any partisan decision in favor of the ruling party part from offering a protective shield to the CEC from political or executive meddling.

But regardless of when this recommendation comes into force, there's no denying that the controversy has damaged the commission's credibility. The issue has been politicized to such an extent that it is likely to impact the electoral process and the democratic ethos of the Constitution, analysts say.