Navin Chawla and the Great Indian Political Circus
It is election season. Congress is in power, and BJP in the opposition. The games have begun.
Navin Chawla, a 1969 cadre IAS officer born three years before Gandhi died, is at the center of the latest controversy. The chain of events kicked off a few years back is finally reaching the end game.
BJP is seeking termination of his duties as one of the gang of three super powerful election commissioners, on grounds of political bias towards the Congress.
The story began in 2006 when the BJP presented a memorandum signed by 200 MPs to the then President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, requesting removal of election commissioner Chawla.
The 13-page memorandum says: “We believe that the Election Commission must be absolutely impartial. It must also appear to be impartial. The degree of close proximity that Mr. Chawla has to one political party and its leadership does not indicate any form of impartiality.
A few months, a petition was filed with the supreme court seeking Chawla’s termination. This petition was subsequently withdrawn when the chief election commissioner (CEC) contended that he had the power to remove another election commissioner.
Earlier Navin Chawla was in the news for his role as secretary to the lieutenant governor of Delhi during the 1975 emergency.
Shah Commission which inquired into the excesses during the Emergency, indicted Mr Chawla for having been ‘authoritarian and callous’ and for gross misuse of power “in cynical disregard of the welfare of citizens”. [link]
He was very close to Sanjay Gandhi and wielded unprecedented power in his official capacity as Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Delhi Kishan Chand during the emergency in 1975-77. [link]
Not confining himself to dictating to his boss as to the persons to be arrested, he also prescribed how they were to be treated in prison. [link]
Last year, BJP submitted another memo to the chief election commissioner to remove Chawla. After a long drawn out drama, the CEC finally recommended his removal to president Pratibha Patil.
A major part of the CEC’s complaint relates to the manner in which Chawla is believed to have leaked information to outsiders — in most cases Congress leaders. [link]
Apparently, the election commissioner used bathroom breaks during meetings to pass on information to Congress members.[link]
President Patil in turn forwarded this request to the PM’s office. Funny, since the Congress party appointed Chawla in the first place. This is a classic conflict of interest. The same party/person responsible for his appointment is also the only one with the power to remove him!
How do we have free and fair elections if the body responsible for overlooking the election process is biased towards the ruling party?
Mockery of democracy, did someone whisper?
The CEC also wrote another letter to the president regarding the need for neutrality in the appointment process, and also a suggestion that the election commissioners not be allowed to join any political party for ten years following their term. This step would go a long way towards removing political bias from this post, but only time will tell if this proposal gets accepted.
The Congress is understandably not happy. Union law minister H Bharadwaj slammed CEC Gopalaswami for recommending removal of Chawla, saying that he has overstepped his powers.
“The CEC overstepped his powers. His allegations are unfortunate. He cannot behave like a political boss.”[link]
This quote is particularly interesting. The CEC cannot behave like a political boss? What exactly constitutes a ‘political boss’? Removing people unfit for their job? Making sure that the democratic process is not dragged into the ground by political appointees?
For now, Chawla is all set to take over as the CEC once Gopalaswami retires in April.
The election commission is one of the rare agencies that Indians still believe in. Incidents such as these tarnish the image of what is supposed to be the enforcer of the democratic process. What happens when the democratic process gets subverted at the election commission itself?