'Atrocious', 'Just a Discussion': The Range of Ex-CECs' Reactions to Nov 16 Talks With PMO

While most ex-CECs said no one comes off as looking good from such a meeting, one disagreed.

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New Delhi: The report of a letter from the law ministry seeking the presence of the Chief Election Commissioner in a November 16 meeting on common electoral rolls that was to be chaired by Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister has irked former CECs.

Terming the demand an attempt to undermine the office of the Election Commissioner, the former CECs said the incumbents made the right choice by not attending the meeting.

Some of the former CECs added that it would have been better if the three Commissioners had also not taken part in the informal discussion with the Principal Secretary to the PM, P.K. Misra, which followed the formal meeting.

However, one voice from among the former CECs supported their participating in the informal discussion claiming that there was nothing wrong in it as long as they were not going to the Principal Secretary’s office or attending a meeting chaired by him.

On November 16, the Union law ministry wrote to the Election Commission that the principal secretary to the PM will “chair a meeting” on a common electoral roll and “expects the CEC” to be present, the Indian Express, which broke the story on Friday, reported.

Subsequently, the report, citing a senior EC official had stated that CEC Sushil Chandra made his “displeasure” known to the ministry and declared that he would not attend the meeting. While he and the other two commissioners, Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey, did not attend the video meeting, it was attended by their subordinates.

However, the three commissioners later attended an online “informal interaction” with Mishra soon after the formal meeting got over.

‘Even PM cannot call EC for a meeting’

While Election Commission officials did not come on record on the episode, the Indian Express cited at least three former CECs as saying that the government’s letter to the CEC was “unacceptable”. It quoted former CEC S.Y. Quraishi as saying, “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.”

Terming the development as “atrocious”, Quraishi also contended that “any meeting taking place between these authorities (the commissioners and the government) is bound to raise suspicion (in the minds of people). Our (EC) 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.”

The report also cited another former CEC as saying that the interaction was “100% avoidable” and while governments in the past too have made attempts to get the EC to attend their meetings, the Commissioners never went for them.

Also read: ECI’s Conduct of 2019 Elections Raises ‘Grave Doubts’ About Its Fairness: Citizens’ Report

‘Image of EC ahead of polls could be impacted’

Another former CEC said “no one comes off looking good after such a meeting” and that the optics of the interaction coming soon before assembly polls in five states had not done the poll panel any good.

Former CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy too decried the move saying that “Election Commissioners are not required to attend any meeting convened by officials” and that “clarifications, if required by the government, can be sought from the ECI in writing, for which responses can be given in writing.”

The report also cited a senior EC official as saying that the interaction between the ECs and the PMO was about “long-pending reforms like multiple cut-off dates to facilitate a common electoral roll”, and was meant to “expedite the reforms”.

The official also said that the interaction was “informal”, it was “not a meeting” and the Commissioners did not discuss anything related to the elections.

‘CEC, two ECs did right’

Speaking to The Wire, former CEC N. Gopalaswami said that while the contents of the letter were indeed problematic, the CEC and the ECs did not surrender the status of the EC as they only attended the informal session and not the meeting chaired by the Principal Secretary to PM.

“Attending the online session is fine. What prevents you (EC) from discussing an issue with anybody? After all he is not saying that I am principal secretary and therefore you come and attend the meeting. If someone says attend the meeting with me, I would like to discuss things with you – then it is absolutely fine,” he contended.

Going into the larger issue, Gopalaswami said, “The issue is not who calls the meeting, the issue is what is to be discussed. As long as it is an exchange of opinion, there is nothing wrong with it. After all you are part of the system in which conduct of elections is your responsibility and so if someone wants to discuss elections, then by all means it is fine as long as you do two things – you don’t go to their office showing your office in a lesser light; and suppose they come to your office it is fine. But online you can discuss because it is all equal at that point of time.”

‘Discussing an issue is not surrendering of status’

Gopalaswami added that the CECs have in the past too gone and talked to the PMs if necessary. “There have been instances. You are not surrendering your status as the CEC, you are discussing an issue with the head of government.”

On the objection raised by one of the former CECs that this episode was akin to the Centre summoning the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and brother judges for a meeting, Gopalaswami said there is a difference because the Chief Justice does not discuss matters with the government which are of mutual interest. “If there is such a matter, then what is wrong? Suppose there is a meeting to discuss pendency of cases or the like, why should anyone have a problem. The problem only arises if the President or the PM says why a particular case is being handled in a particular fashion.”

So, he concluded saying, “The letter may be a problem and if they had acted on that letter and gone to the Principal Secretary’s office or attending a meeting which he was presiding over then too it would have been problematic. But if after the meeting he requests a discussion, it is absolutely fine.”