After a stint of over two years, 28 months to be exact, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora demitted office yesterday and the senior-most Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, a former chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, assumed charge as the CEC today.
There are many who assert that during his stewardship as head of India’s election regulator, Arora, a 1980 batch officer of the Indian Administrative Service from the Rajasthan cadre, facilitated compromising of the autonomy and independence of the Election Commission (EC), almost turning it into a wing of the Central government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But, the rot, it must be said, had set in much earlier – Arora’s immediate predecessors also left a lot to be desired, often acting as the ruling party’s election agent instead of being the independent regulators that they were appointed to be.
But it was under Arora that the transformation – from an often-bullied but effective election authority to a meek, submissive extension of the Union Law Ministry – was cemented.
Take, for instance, the ongoing elections to four state and one Union Territory legislative assemblies. That the EC decision to hold elections to the West Bengal assembly in an unprecedented eight phases left even its die-hard supporters flummoxed would be an understatement.
There are many who argue that the eight phases were aimed at allowing the BJP to have a better shot at the hustings in the state where it has been working tirelessly to replace Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Some of its orders, including the one in which the EC barred BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma from campaigning for 48 hours, only to reduce the period to 24 hours, left tongues wagging.
The stated reason behind the EC action barring Mamata Banerjee from campaigning for 24 hours was her “highly insinuating” and “provocative remarks”, including her repeated remarks against Central forces deployed in the state for elections. The EC banned BJP leader Rahul Sinha for 48 hours for saying that security forces should have killed eight people instead of four at a polling booth in the Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency on 10 April. The EC let off TMC defector-turned-BJP candidate Suvendu Adhikari, who is contesting against Banerjee from Nandigram, with a warning for his communal remarks about how vote for a “begum” would lead to a “mini Pakistan.”
Over a period of time, the impression that has been created is of the EC being proactive in laying down the law as far as the Opposition is concerned, but when it comes to the BJP, acting only when its hand is forced.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Arora and Chandra, the incoming CEC, disposed of a complaint against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for allegedly misusing the NITI Aayog to further the electoral prospects of the BJP.
What added fuel to the controversy was the fact that the third Election Commissioner, Ashok Lavasa, who later resigned to join the Asian Development Bank, had favoured seeking more information from NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. Lavasa was however overruled by the majority of Arora and Chandra, with Arora even refusing to allow his dissent to be recorded in the order.
Under Arora, the EC took strong action against Samajwadi Party leader for his shameful comments about his opponent’s undergarments — he was banned from campaigning for three days. But the same EC chose to ignore the polarising words of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath until the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure, as well as the majority-minority narrative promoted by the Prime Minister himself, even allowing him to invoke the armed forces while campaigning in the general election in 2019, despite its own directive barring political propaganda involving defense forces.
And, these are just some of the reasons why Arora’s tenure at the helm at Nirvachan Sadan, the seat of Election Commission of India, will remain etched in our memory for a long time, but for the wrong reasons.
Arora, incidentally, isn’t the first or only EC who was appointed to his post due to his perceived closeness to the powers that be.
Old-timers in the fourth-floor of Shastri Bhawan, where the Legislative Department of the Union Ministry of Law and Justice is located, often recount how a former CEC N. Gopalaswamy sat patiently awaiting his turn in the waiting room for a meeting with the then Law Minister Arun Jaitley, hours before his name was cleared for appointment as Election Commissioner in 2004 by the BJP-led NDA government. Rumour had it that the Gujarat cadre IAS officer, who was Union Home Secretary before his appointment to Nirvachan Sadan was close to some BJP leaders, particularly then Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and then Law Minister Arun Jaitley.
But as Election Commissioner and thereafter as Chief Election Commissioner, Gopalaswamy, conducted himself with the dignity required of a person heading a constitutional body. Nobody doubted the integrity of his action, for instance, when he wrote to the President, arguing that Navin Chawla, his likely successor at that time, be ignored due to his perceived closeness to the Congress.
Even Chawla, after he was appointed CEC, despite Gopalaswamy’s damning letter, conducted himself with the dignity due to his office.
S.Y. Quraishi was appointed Election Commissioner by the Congress-led UPA government. But who can forget how the EC under him took on the then Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid for his controversial remarks about nine percent sub quotas for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, aimed at undermining the authority of the poll body. (Technically, the Law Ministry is the administrative ministry in-charge of the Election Commission).
Quraishi had gone to the extent of shooting a strongly-worded letter to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, bringing to his attention Khurshid’s remarks. Khurshid was forced to beat a hasty retreat, even issuing a statement, going back on his earlier words.
Once when the Law Minister wanted to hold a meeting to discuss poll reforms, it was suggested to Quraishi that he and the other two Election Commissioners could visit Shastri Bhawan. Quraishi politely but firmly refused, arguing that doing so would not send the right signal. The Law Minister also agreed and the meeting was eventually held in the Nirvachan Sadan.
In recent times, CECs are known to have visited the residences of serving ministers.
It is often said that a chair doesn’t define a man; it is the other way round.
T.N. Sheshan redefined the powers of the EC, often attracting the charge that he had gone berserk and was dictatorial. But such was the aura of the EC under him that very few cast aspersions on his actions.
Arora, however, will be remembered for having facilitated the government’s thinly veiled attempts at usurping the independence and authority of the ECI.
(Maneesh Chibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author).