It’s unfortunate that, with general elections around the corner, the Election Commission is in the news for the wrong reasons. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswami may have tried to explain away the timing of his ‘recommendation’ to remove his colleague in the Election Commission (EC), Navin Chawla. But Mr Gopalaswami’s charge against Mr Chawla of political ‘partisanship’ itself could be interpreted as partisan action. After all, it was the BJP’s filing a petition against Mr Chawla in January 2008 that prompted the CEC to write a letter to his colleague in July 2008. The divided house that is the EC is not something that does any good for the reputation, let alone the functioning, of the institution. But beyond the nitty gritty of what led to what, and who is entitled to make charges of ‘political bias’ against whom, comes the broader question of the CEC’s legitimacy to ‘recommend’ the removal of a fellow Commissioner.
If one is to go by the rulebook, Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj’s response to the whole brouhaha is valid. Mr Bhardwaj pointed out that the President is the appointing authority of the Election Commissioners — the CEC included — and it was only she who, after consultation with the members of the Cabinet, could actually dismiss any of them. Mr Gopalaswami, who steps down from his post in April, has overreached his brief, and thereby departed from Article 324(5) of the Constitution that gives presidential rights of appointment and dismissal.
There is, however, an even larger question that requires attention. How can one ensure that pivotal constitutional posts like the ones in the Commission are quarantined from political bias and interference? The issue predates the current public airing of the Gopalaswami-Chawla spat. One has only to recall the heavy elbowing that former CEC J.M. Lyngdoh faced from the BJP while he overlooked the election process under trying conditions. The answer to being a non-partisan institution — and being perceived as one — is to proactively dispel any notion of bias. This is something that Mr Gopalaswami has not been good at. The need for the EC to work as an independent institution above party politics is paramount. Whoever the President appoints as CEC after Mr Gopalaswami’s departure on April 20 should be aware of that. And to drive home the point that the EC is immune to political interference, let the new CEC be selected by an independent commission, so that there is no whiff of the political baggage he or she brings to the office.