Removal of ECs Should be Like CEC: Chawla

New Delhi/V S Chandrasekar and M V Meenakshisundram
Removal of ECs Should be Like CEC: Chawla
After the unprecedented recommendation by his predecessor, Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla wants the Constitution to be amended so that the removal procedure for the Election Commissioners should be similar to that of the CEC.

Seven months after he assumed charge in the Constitutional post, he considers the amendment as a "last mile" which is a "priority" for him.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview to PTI, the CEC spoke his mind on electoral reforms including barring candidates with criminal background, de-registering non-serious parties which have mushroomed, how Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are reliable and paid news syndrome in the media during elections.

Chawla, who assumed the office after the first phase of Lok Sabha polls after government rejected his predecessor N Gopalaswami's recommendations for his removal on the alleged ground of "partisanship", said he will write to the government making his recommendations for the Constitutional amendment.

"Now after the Supreme Court judgement in the Seshan case and after the statutory amendments, I am firmly of the view that the removal procedure for the other two Commissioners must also be similar to that of the CEC.

"When there is no difference in our powers, no difference in our emoluments, when two can overrule the third, it is just that last mile that needs to be undergone," he said.

Despite the bitter final days with Gopalaswami, the CEC would not enter into any discussions on his recommendation to the President for his removal.

"I am not answering that. I have great respect for the work he had done. He had done some innovative things. We must remember and respect that. For me dignity and integrity of this fine organisation is paramount," he said when asked about Gopalaswami's action.

Under the Constitution, the CEC can be removed from his office only through the impeachment procedure like a judge of the Supreme Court. It also says that any other Election Commissioners shall not be removed from office except on the recommendation of the CEC.

In the mid-90s, the Supreme Court upheld a Parliamentary law that equated the powers, salaries and perks of the CEC and the other Commissioners. But the removal procedure remained as prescribed under the Constitution.

Buttressing his argument that the three were equal, Chawla said even for half a day's casual leave, they have to apply to the President and not to the CEC.

He said that by a change he had recently made, the three Commissioners write the confidential records of all officers and work in complete harmony.

The CEC said that if the Supreme Court had realised it at that time in the judgement, he was sure it would have included this (removal procedure).

One important area that Chawla wants to address is the need to check the growth of non-serious parties.

"We have the power to register parties. But we do not have the powers to deregister them. Successive Commissions have been addressing to the government," he said adding the government should fix a time limit of one, three or five years for de-registering a party if it does not contest elections.

He said while a reasonable time could be given, the question was one of manifestation of the intent.

"This applies where the manifestation of intent is something other than electoral process.

"Let the government decide or the Parliamentary committee decide the time limit. At this point, there are about 1050 parties. It is very high," he said.

On the demand for some measures to bar candidates with criminal background from contesting elections like even those against whom courts take cognisance of criminal charges, he said the EC had made such a recommendations in 2004.

Chawla said he and his two colleagues intend to examine new areas and problems in the next few weeks but declined to go into specifics.

He said he would like a debate among political parties and the media on sharing time over television channels during elections. There was a time when Doordarshan and All India Radio were the only medium and now there were so many private channels.

"We need to at some point sit and engage ourselves and engage the media to a model code with equitable apportionment of time. It is a very complex matter. There are no easy answers here but it is necessary to begin a debate," he said.

Asked about the reported growing trend of newspapers selling space to parties and candidates during elections that could have a bearing on free and fair elections, the CEC said noted journalist Kuldip Nayyar has sought time with the EC to discuss the issue.

So far no political party except CPI(M) and CPI have mentioned this issue to the Commission, he said adding some others including civil society groups have also expressed their desire to meet the Commission on the issue.

He said he cannot take a position on the issue without consulting his colleagues.

 Rejecting suggestions that EVMs could be manipulated, Chawla said that the EC was "absolutely and totally convinced" about the reliability of the EVMs.

To support his argument, he said that in the recent assembly polls to Maharashtra, an independent candidate in Latur assembly constituency demanded that the votes be counted for three times over to prove his point that a trojan horse would be activated. The EC did the counting four times, there was absolutely nothing changed, he said.

The Commission would be filing an affidavit in the case pending before the Delhi High Court, citing the Latur example, he said.

Observing that incidents of violation of model code of conduct had "decreased" and that there were "hardly any" violation in the recent assembly polls to three states, the CEC said "there are still some violations" but fewer.

Appearing relaxed after the completion of the assembly poll processes in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh and the Lok Sabha polls, which involved 814 million voters, Chawla said the scale was enormous which makes it the largest management exercise in the world.

Compared to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the 2009 General Elections had the advantage of improved technology with 60 per cent of the country connected with mobile phones, induction of 79,000 video cameras and approximately 140,000 micro observers to ensure free and fair polls, he said.

"We would like to express our gratitude to our own officials, CEOs, DMs and SPs across the country and a vast number of cutting edge officials who are involved in the election process without whom free and fair elections on such a huge scale will not be possible," the CEC said.

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