Navin Chawla and the Great Indian Political Circus

February 4, 2009

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 This petition was subsequently withdrawn when the chief election commissioner (CEC) contended that he had the power to remove another election commissioner.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?

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10 Responses to “ Navin Chawla and the Great Indian Political Circus ”

  1. Vijay on February 4, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    This is a very well presented summary of these events! I didnt know the entire sequence of events till now. Thanks!

  2. Poonam on February 5, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Much as we are protesting against it, Congress will get away with it. Yet again.

    For example, in Delhi, with BRT trouble (its still not really improved, just people got used to it), making of commonwealth games village on yamuna banks whoch experts say can cause floods, then there ahd been blasts, yet Congress had clean sweep.

    As soon as it came onto power, it approved 3 more BRT projects, as court did not stay order for Commonwealth games village, construction is on full speed (and a Cbrainwash COmmitte is reviewing simultaneously whether its ok to have these construction at Yamuna banks), and blast, well they may happen anytime. Thing is, it happens, because we dont have any choice. There is no other righteous party in sight.

  3. The Quirky Indian on February 5, 2009 at 6:01 am

    That’s a very thorough and interesting post, AD.

    It is amazing how we all have started thinking of this as a Congress-BJP fight and formulating our ideological positions accordingly, when it’s actually a lot more critical than a political spat.

    BS Raghavan, the author of one of the articles you have linked to, was a member of the Justice Shah commission that indicted Chawla. He very rightly says:

    “Simply because the CEC’s report on Chawla is apt to please the BJP, some commentators have taken umbrage at Gopalaswamy’s recommendation and imputed motives to him…….It is incumbent on mature and dispassionate analysts not to look at the CEC’s report through political or ideological spectacles and import into it hidden purposes and meanings.”

    And as you have pointed out, what has also got lost in this hungama is the fact that the CEC wrote two more letters to the President, in which he has asked that CECs and ECs, after retirement, should not be allowed to hold government posts or even join political parties. A very valid point. Look at MS Gill!

    This is a critical issue that is going to have significant impact on our democratic system, and we should look at it objectively. Of course, knowing us Indians, I’m not holding my breath. Chances are, we will continue being the fools we are.

    Quirky Indian

  4. amreekandesi on February 5, 2009 at 8:25 am

    @Vijay - Thanks!

    @Poonam - It is a very sad state of affairs indeed. Sometimes it feels like the choice is between the lesser of two (or more) evils. But eventually the government is answerable to the public, and if there is enough public opinion against its actions, it will have to take notice.

    @QI - Very true. This is not a Congress-BJP fight, but a bigger issue concerning the democratic process. Unfortunately, all ruling parties are guilty of abusing their power to influence the election commission.
    The solution is to really decouple the commission from the government, like the judiciary.
    Will that ever actually happen? God knows.

  5. Chirag on February 6, 2009 at 2:39 am

    As you said, It is a very sad state of affairs indeed! Our choices are most of the times limited to Evil A vs Evil B

  6. amit on February 8, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    The dilemma is all about-who is the smaller thug?

  7. Chiranjib on February 10, 2009 at 8:08 am

    You have been tagged :D

  8. Nikhil on February 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

    “Apparently, the election commissioner used bathroom breaks during meetings to pass on information to Congress members.”

    Sheeeesh!! What are we, 12?? This is so ridiculous! What, they have answers written on chits and stuff them in their underwear too?? WTF..!! :D

  9. Vikas Gupta on February 14, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Well researched with an undercurrent of humour!

  10. amreekandesi on February 15, 2009 at 2:27 am

    @Chirag and @Amit - That indeed is the sorry state of affairs we are facing!

    @Chiranjib - Thanks! Will do it soon :)

    @Nikhil - haha…this is just too ridiculous. Who would have thought all those school time tricks would come in handy in old age as well!

    @Vikas - Thanks for the compliment :)

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