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Goel’s Abrupt Resignation Reflects Mounting Rot That's Eroding ECI’s Independence

S N Sahu |
From Modi’s remarks on James Lyngdoh in 2002 to Ashok Lavasa’s resignation in 2020, and now Arun Goel’s -- the independence of ECI is being gradually endangered.

The advisory issued by the ECI asserts that any act in violation would result in severe consequences

The sudden resignation of Election Commissioner Arun Goel on March 9, 2024 when general elections are round the corner has perplexed the whole nation. Questions are being raised if the impartiality and integrity of the Election Commission (EC) has been severely compromised, and the public perception that fairness of its functioning as an independent body has come under cloud, is further deepening. Media reports indicate that Goel tendered his resignation on account of persistent differences with Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar. It was also reported in several media, including social media, that he resigned because of the diktat of the powers that be.


The Case of Ashok Lavasa

Goel’s resignation reminds one of Ashok Lavasa who resigned from the same position in the Election Commission of India (ECI) in August 2020, two years after his appointment to the high office. It was widely written in media then that Lavasa’s continuance as EC became difficult after he gave several dissenting notes on the ECI’s decision to clear Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah of all charges of violation of the model code of conduct while campaigning for their party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Apparently, several members of Lavasa’s family were subjected to a probe by income tax authorities.

It is significant to note that Goel and Lavasa submitted resignations during the tenure of Prime Minister Modi, and there is no such example in the past history of ECI, which has been empowered by the Constitution to conduct free and fair elections.


Independence of ECI and Ambedkar’s Apprehensions


Two Election Commissioners quitting in a gap of four years, and that too during the tenure of the same Prime Minister, is indeed unprecedented in the annals of our Republic. This raises several questions. Is it because the ‘powers that be’ did not approve of their conduct and impartiality anchored in the ideals of neutrality, impartiality and non-partisan approach, which are central to ECI’s independence? Or are the election commissioners now functioning as part of the executive machinery of the political regime?

Such questions are bound to arise in the minds of voters and citizens against the backdrop of a report published in the Indian Express on December 17, 2021, which said that that on November 16 that year, then CEC, Sushil Chandra, and two ECs, Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey, attended an online interaction with the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary after getting a letter from the Union Law Ministry. Is the CEC expected to do so?

It was a demonstration of the CEC and ECs coming under the “thumb of the executive”, an expression used by Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 to express his apprehension that in the absence of any provision in the Constitution to prohibit the political regime of the day to appoint unworthy people in the ECI, it would remain subordinate to those wielding power.

If reports in the social media are true, that Goel resigned because he was told to so owing to his views that were not in tune with that of the CEC, then Ambedkar’s apprehensions have come true at a time when the Prime Minister is projecting India as the ‘Mother of Democracy’ in the national and global arena.


How Modi as CM Treated CEC Lyngdoh

When he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi used unacceptable language against the then CEC James Michael Lyngdoh when he did not accede to his request to conduct Gujarat Assembly elections on October 2 that year after the House was dissolved prematurely. Taking into account the bloody riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002 and the fear that prevailed among people on account of that tragedy, Lyngdoh had postponed the polls. Modi presumably believed that he would lead the BJP to an electoral victory if elections were held in an atmosphere of marked religious consolidation and polarisation.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre approached President APJ Abdul Kalam and requested him to make a reference to the Supreme Court under the relevant provisions of the Constitution. But the apex court refused to interfere in the decision of the Election Commission.


In August 2002, Modi said: “Some journalists asked me recently if Lyngdoh came from Italy. I don’t have his janam patri [birth chart]. I will have to ask [late former prime minister] Rajiv Gandhi.” When a journalist asked, “Do they [Lyngdoh and Sonia Gandhi] meet in church?” Modi replied, “Maybe they do.”


Journalist Lakshmi Iyer wrote in India Today magazine on September 9, 2002, about how Modi targeted Lyngdoh by using Christian faith. She wrote: “Modi had accused Lyngdoh of postponing elections in Gujarat to help fellow Christian Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president.” Prime Minister Vajpayee, who had asked Modi to follow Raj Dharma during those days, said, “I may have differences over the decision [to delay elections] or the attendant observations of the Election Commission... There are constitutional means to deal with such matters, and no one should use improper language or make indecorous insinuations in expressing their views....”


Senior BJP leader Murali Manohar Joshi, the then Human Resource Development Minister at the Centre, also said, “No one, not even a chief minister, should make such remarks against a constitutional authority.”


But those sane voices were of no consequence for Modi. History has recorded how unfairly treated the then CEC in 2002.


SC Decision on Electoral Bond Scheme Raises Hope


It is against this backdrop that we need to evaluate the resignation of Goel. The case of Lavasa’s resignation in 2020 further bolsters the perception that the independence of ECI has been greatly endangered during the past several years. The categorical imperative for all concerned is to summon all might to restore the ECI’s independence.


The recent Supreme Court decision, declaring the electoral bond scheme as unconstitutional and upholding the right of voters to information concerning details of funding received by political parties so that they can make informed choices before casting their votes, is a huge step in restoring the integrity of ‘free and fair’ elections.


The apex court’s rejection on March 11, 2024, of the application by State Bank of India seeking over three months’ time to disclose donor details and its order to hand over that information to ECI by March 12, 2024 so that it could upload them by March 15, is a truly inspiring move to salvage the electoral process from the adverse impacts of money power. One hopes this will lead to the independence of the Election Commission being upheld.


The writer served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan. The views are personal.

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