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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Election Commission: Sonia & Left in the dock

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Sonia Gandhi and her former Left comrades are in the dock in the current turmoil in the Election Commission, although it is true that the crisis began with BJP’s petition to President APJ Abdul Kalam seeking removal of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla on grounds of his pro-Congress affiliations.

As if to underline the extent to which constitutional bodies have been politicized by the Congress Party, the Assam State Election Commissioner Chandra Kanta Sarma resigned on 31 January 2009, and is now seeking a Congress ticket from Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency! Mr. Sarma was admitted to the Congress on 1 February, and submitted his request for the party ticket the same day.

Former Chief Election Commissioner Manohar Singh Gill is currently serving as a Minister of State in the UPA Government. Now, with a serving state Election Commissioner resigning to contest the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has called for a bar on former EC Members taking political posts or contesting elections, will have to take a call.

The CPM withdrew support from the UPA on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal last year, but has extended support to Mr. Navin Chawla and joined hands with the Congress in casting aspersions against Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami for recommending the removal of Mr. Chawla. This support is untenable and can be understood only when one perceives that like the Maoist regime in Nepal, the CPM is dominated by minorities, and this often gives the party a pronounced anti-Hindu edge.

The minority – or at least the non-Hindu – angle has played up at critical moments in national politics, and this may well be the time to ponder if there ought to be a statutory limit on the number of key constitutional posts that members of minority groups can hold at a given moment. This idea needs nation-wide debate, as the Hindu majority seems to be getting the short end of the stick in every crisis.

The current crisis broke into the public domain immediately after Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi (whose religious affiliations are self-evident) declared on an official trip to London that the Lok Sabha elections would be held between 8 April and 15 May 2009. The UPA took instant advantage of the information to sharply reduce the prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas; more populist announcements are reportedly on the anvil, which Congress is keen to announce before the model code of conduct becomes operative.

As for Mr. Navin Chawla, he owes his position as next CEC-designate to his proximity to the Gandhi family, which began during the notorious Emergency of 1975-77, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi was close to her brother-in-law Sanjay Gandhi, and joined some of his business ventures, as subsequently brought out by a commission of enquiry. While Mr. Chawla’s religious affiliations are not known, he owes much of his fame to authorship of two books on the Albanian nun, Teresa, whose so-called sainthood is subject of much controversy in the West as well as in India!

It is pertinent that in March 2005, just two months before his appointment as Election Commissioner, Mr. Chawla was bestowed the Mazzini Award by the Italian government. Ms. Sonia Gandhi, as is well-known, is an Italian-born Roman Catholic. Her son and Amethi MP, Rahul Gandhi, has studiously refused to answer questions regarding the nature of his citizenship (given the Roman law) and whether he also holds an Italian passport, a situation untenable in Indian law.

While Mr. Chawla’s appointment naturally created misgivings that he had a pro-Congress leaning, it became unacceptable once the media exposed that he had received undue favours from the Ashok Gehlot regime in Rajasthan, and that Congress MPs had made huge donations from MPLAD funds to a private trust owned by him and his wife.

It was in this backdrop that over 200 MPs of the NDA signed a memorandum requesting President Kalam to remove Mr. Chawla from office. Later, BJP leader Jaswant Singh filed a petition in the Supreme Court in May 2006, which it withdrew when CEC Gopalaswami filed an affidavit saying he had the power to remove any Member for substantial reasons. BJP then forwarded its petition to the CEC. The CEC’s power under Article 324(5) was affirmed by the Supreme Court in T.N. Seshan vs. Union of India (1995).

In his letter to President Pratibha Patil citing 12 instances of partisan behaviour by Mr. Chawla, one of the key issues pertains to the Order of the Leopold Award conferred by the Belgium Monarchy upon Ms. Sonia Gandhi. A controversy over the citation led to an opposition demand for disqualification of the Congress president, and Mr. Chawla roped in the Ministry of External Affairs to bail her out.

Sources say that the Commission deliberated for over five months, during which period the PM’s principal secretary T.K.A. Nair visited the Commission to plead that there was no case against Ms. Gandhi and that the PM had already examined the matter. Though the Commission finally decided to issue notice to Ms. Gandhi, Mr. S.Y. Qureshi reportedly changed his mind and felt the notice should not be served. Ms. Gandhi has since replied to the notice, but Mr. Chawla has failed to furnish his comments and hence the Commission has not finalized its views on the matter.

Precisely these stonewalling tricks were deployed by Mr. Chawla in the matter of the CEC’s show-cause notice on the BJP petition. He sought the opinion of the Union Law Ministry, which has now publicly taken the stand that the CEC does not have the authority to take suo motu action on such petitions. Yesterday (2 February), Law Minister Hansraj Bharadwaj went a step ahead and declared Mr. Chawla as CEC-designate (Mr. Gopalaswami retires on 20 April 2009).

Mr. Gopalaswami’s recommendation for removing Mr. Chawla for ‘‘partisanship’’ comes close to the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections because the latter submitted his reply to the charges only on December 10. The CEC then submitted his report to the President on 16 January 2009.

The CEC delayed seeking Mr. Chawla’s explanation for six months, sending the notice only on 21 July 2008, owing to differences with the latter over the timing of the Karnataka elections, which ended in May 2008. On 12 September 2008, Mr. Chawla wrote that he was seeking the Law Ministry’s opinion on whether the CEC had the power to make a suo motu inquiry against an Election Commissioner. After the Karnataka election, Mr. Chawla went on a month’s leave, and this further delayed matters.

Although Mr. Gopalaswami wrote back on 17 September that he had the power to take cognizance of BJP’s petition even without a reference from the government, the Law Ministry on 7 November opined that the CEC could not proceed without a reference from the government. But the CEC persisted and Mr. Chawla finally replied on 10 December 2008. Thereafter, Mr. Gopalaswami sent his report to the President on 12 January 2009. He might have refrained from making the matter public, but for the indiscretion of Mr. Qureshi.

Amongst the instances of Mr. Chawla’s “partisan” behaviour, the CEC has cited his role in deciding the poll dates for Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2007, besides his unilateral and startling decision to consult the Ministry of External Affairs about the notice to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for accepting a Belgian honour.

The CEC has also raised questions about Mr. Chawla’s role in the BJP’s CD case and the Bhagalpur by-election. When the Commission was discussing dates for the Gujarat election, Mr. Gopalaswami supported the state chief electoral officer’s suggestion for a three-phase poll; Mr. Chawla disagreed. The Home Ministry made arrangements of central paramilitary forces for a three-phase poll.

The three-phase poll was still an internal decision of the EC when a senior Congress leader called the Commission and asked why it could not be a two-phase poll. The CEC reportedly mentioned the unavailability of forces, but the person said the Home Ministry would help. Within hours, Mr. Chawla informed the CEC that more forces would be made available for Gujarat! And within the next few hours, Home Ministry officials called the Commission and offered more forces. Gujarat finally had a two-phase election.

Mr. Chawla also differed on the timing of the Himachal Pradesh polls, and tried to delay finalizing his decision on some pretext or other. He repeated these tactics when the Commission was discussing the schedule for the UP election, and Congress learnt of the dates.

Notwithstanding the desirability of his removal, it is evident from the brazen approach of the Congress and UPA government that Mr. Chawla is not only going to stay for the duration of the Lok Sabha elections, but going to be elevated as Chief Election Commissioner thereafter. Commissioner Qureshi has already proved convenient to the UPA government.

In these circumstances, a parliamentary election conducted by these two officers will lack public confidence and credibility. Hence it would be in the fitness of things if all political parties decide to complete the election process by 20 April 2009, when all three Commissioners are in office. As the current Parliament's term ends in April, this would be appropriate.

As for the BJP – if Mr. L.K. Advani is serious about becoming Prime Minister and not just NDA’s candidate for PM – it should train its guns on the foreign origins of Ms. Sonia Gandhi. There can be no doubt that as in the coloured and failed revolutions in the former Soviet Republics, external forces are monitoring and mentoring the rise and rise of Ms. Sonia Gandhi, triggering one crisis after another to expose national and societal weakness, and make inroads in critical areas of the polity, economy, and society.

The nation has never been in such acute danger as at present. The US-led West seems determined to aggravate tensions in our part of the world, from a troop surge in Afghanistan to increased strikes in Pakistan, and it is still unclear whether Washington is ultimately going to opt for peace with Teheran, or war.

Either way, the West needs a compliant India. Moreover, Britain seems determined to carve out an independent Kashmir, and it will suit London to have the Gandhi family at the helm if this is to be executed. After all, Ms. Sonia Gandhi met Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in London, and Mr. Rahul Gandhi agreed to give Foreign Secretary David Miliband a conducted tour of India’s rural poverty despite his execrable remarks about Kashmir being the core issue between India and Pakistan.

Mr. Advani will have to decide if he wants to fight and win, or play second fiddle to the Kuru-Gandhis. The abiding lesson of the Mahabharata is that victory belongs to the one who shoots the eye of the fish – not to those who skirt around the tail.

The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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