Sunday, Dec 03, 2023

The Letter Bomb

The Letter Bomb

The timing of the CEC's tirade against his colleague raises questions

The Letter Bomb Jitender gupta
What Chawla's Boss Thinks Is Wrong

Sources in the Election Commission said the following are the charges levelled against Chawla:
  • Navin Chawla leaked information to senior Congress leaders even as commission meetings were on
  • His conduct at the meeting that fixed the timing of the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections in 2007 was suspect. The poll dates were preponed and Chawla allegedly tipped off the then Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh.
  • Chawla's functioning was suspect when the communal CD distributed by the BJP during the 2007 Uttar Pradesh elections was taken up by the commission. The BJP was served a notice by the EC.
  • Chawla's views on delaying the Karnataka assembly elections last year matched that of the Congress. He seemed to be batting for the party.
  • Chawla's manoeuvres to stall the sending of the notice to Sonia Gandhi for accepting the Order of Leopold award from the Belgium government was questionable. The commission was forced to deliberate for five months before sending the notice.
  • The CEC cites Chawla's position on the scheduling of the Bhagalpur byelection and the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections to allege that his actions aimed to help the UPA
  • Whether Chawla agreed or disagreed with the CEC on matters of timing and notices, he leaked the information to senior Congress leaders who would then bring pressure on the commission
  • Corruption charges levelled by the BJP against Chawla are of a serious nature


The Election Commission is often described as one of the great institutions of India—free, fair, unbiased and with the authority to manage and execute what some believe is one of the most challenging democratic exercises in the world. But institutions are ultimately run by men of this world and those at the helm of affairs in the EC are currently engaged in a battle royale that has already undermined the commission and could possibly lead to a protracted battle in the courts. Worse, the battle between the two senior members of the three-member commission, chief election commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswamy and EC Navin Chawla, could cast a long shadow on the parliamentary polls to be held between April and May this year.

The commission is intended to be a high office whose members are free from political preferences. But CEC Gopalaswamy, who retires on April 20, thinks his successor Chawla is not fit to occupy the office because of his political bias towards the Congress party. Sources say he has argued his case forcefully in a letter to the President. The letter has over 800 pages of annexures.

But the Congress says it is nothing but a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The counter-argument by those in favour of Chawla is that "the EC may have a controversial past and be known to be close to Sonia Gandhi, but Gopalaswamy is acting on behalf of the BJP." As mud is flung about, it is the institution that is being undermined.

The issue will remain in the public domain as the BJP has decided to fight it at every level. Senior party leader Arun Jaitley told Outlook: "We will raise our voice against Chawla becoming CEC at every forum. It will be an issue for public agitation. We will raise it in Parliament and in the media. And if the government rejects the CEC's recommendations, which we believe are binding on them, then we will take the issue to the Supreme Court."

There are two views within the Congress. On the one hand, party functionaries say that they must back to the hilt someone who is believed to be close to 10 Janpath. That is possibly why Union law minister H.R. Bhardwaj announced, even before the president's view was obtained, that Chawla would be the next CEC. Yet, privately some Congress leaders say that Bhardwaj may have overshot his brief and Chawla could become a genuine embarrassment in the run-up to the elections.

Indeed, some Congress leaders do point out that Chawla is not the ideal person to hold the high office. The career bureaucrat has been investigated for his role in excesses committed during the Emergency. Last week, a court in Rajasthan admitted a complaint accusing Chawla of misusing authority to get land allotted in Jaipur.

And it is not as if the matter will be allowed to die down. Jaitley, who was also jailed during the Emergency, says bluntly: "If the Congress wants to reward Chawla, they should make him a governor of some state or a Rajya Sabha MP. I will personally hug him and congratulate him if that happens. But a man like him should by no means be in the EC." The BJP has submitted several petitions against Chawla to the CEC over the past few years.

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal says the party holds no brief for any one individual but "the BJP has made it a habit to attack all constitutional authorities." Party sources say they would soon have to take a call on whether Chawla is worth the trouble he is now causing. Chawla himself told Outlook: "What is paramount is the dignity of the office of the EC. This matter is now with the President and I would like to say nothing about it."

Legally, the Manmohan Singh government would be within its rights to let Chawla succeed Gopalaswamy. But if the matter is taken to the Supreme Court, as appears likely, then it will really boil down to the interpretation of the law of whether the CEC is within his rights to suo motu recommend the removal of one of his colleagues. Already, constitutional experts have given differing views on the matter.

Meanwhile, even if Chawla does take over, it would only be for 13 months. In July 2010 his term would end, and then the third member of the EC, S.Y. Quraishi, would take charge and continue till June 2012. That is why, presuming that the government continues to back Chawla, he would actually get to oversee half a Parliament election and the Maharashtra assembly election, which is due later. As a Congress MP asks: "Would it be worth it really? Because Chawla's presence in the EC will always give the BJP room to discredit the entire process."

As it is, a pliable CEC cannot really help a party win a poll. When T.N. Seshan was CEC, and assembly elections were announced in Bihar, there were apprehensions that he would come down heavily and Laloo Prasad Yadav's rjd would stand to suffer. But what happened was Yadav became chief minister, winning with a thumping majority. Similar fears were raised about J.M. Lyngdoh, perceived as anti-BJP, in the 2002 Gujarat elections. Eventually, it was the BJP that won decisively.

What a CEC can do is perhaps help in the matter of adjusting dates to suit a particular political party or be open to complaints lodged against rivals. BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad says: "We are not saying that anyone can or will rig the polls. But it is our contention that Chawla is not fit for such a position that requires the most unbiased individual to hold charge. He is bringing disrepute to the EC."

There are also suggestions that Gopalaswamy is close to the BJP. These are based on the fact that he is a Gujarat cadre officer and had been home secretary in the NDA government when L.K. Advani was home minister. There are also insinuations that during the delimitation exercise, he "may have acted in a way and taken steps that could have helped the BJP." But beyond vague allegations and charges there is actually very little hard evidence that the serving CEC is "a BJP man".

There are, however, serious questions on the timing of his missive to the President. Sources in the EC say he has always disliked and mistrusted Chawla and is doing "what he thinks is correct". Yet, was it right to discredit the institution on the eve of a general election?