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Chawla was always close to Gandhis

Chawla was always close to Gandhis

Author: Seema Mustafa and Sanjay Basak
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: March 19, 2006

The colourful personality of Election Commissioner Navin B. Chawla has stirred the stoic Indian officialdom with the very generous donations he received from senior Congress leaders for a family trust becoming the subject of animated discussion within the government. Colleagues and politicians recalling his long innings in the field point out that Mr Chawla hit the spotlight during the Emergency as a close Sanjay Gandhi hand who wielded unprecedented authority in the otherwise not very high profile post of secretary to the lieutenant-governor of Delhi and was named by the Shah Commission inquiring into Emergency excesses.

Mr Chawla, in a comeback mould after some years in political wilderness, touched new heights again when the UPA government returned to power. As the secretary of information and broadcasting, he was presented with the Mazzini Award by the Italian ambassador in New Delhi last year in what the embassy said was in recognition of his efforts "to forge a new relationship with Italy and existing bonds".

Highly-placed sources said that his comeback could be directly traced to the close friendship between his wife Rupika and Congress president Sonia Gandhi developed during a Sihare course on the restoration of Indian art many years ago.

The Election Commission, that is charged with the onerous duty of checking corruption in the political class, has now to deal with strong allegations against its own senior, with the NDA formalising these through a memorandum to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In response to media reports about MPLADs contribution by prominent political personalities to his Lala Chaman Lal Educational Trust for Boys and Smt. Bhagwan Devi Educational Trust for Girls in Jaipur and the Lepra India Trust in New Delhi, Mr Chawla admitted to having received generous donations from Congress leaders A.R. Kidwai, Karan Singh and Ambika Soni. However, he insisted, "I have to categorically state that there has been no conflict of interests whatsoever in my discharge of constitutional responsibilities since I took over as Election Commissioner. I fully understand my constitutional responsibilities and I would like to assure one and all that I have not allowed and will not allow anything to come in the way of the discharge of my constitutional responsibilities."

Politicians close to Sanjay Gandhi and active during the Emergency do not remember Mr Chawla with any affection. One story says that he tried to strike a deal with the Janata government to bring him back from Lakshadweep where he had been summarily sent, by agreeing to depose against Sanjay Gandhi before the Shah Commission but it backfired as the government fell. Mr Chawla, the story goes, apologised to Sanjay Gandhi but the latter was in no mood to forgive and he had to work out his tenure in the islands.

Mr Chawla served subsequently in the Union Public Service Commission and came back to the official mainstream after the Congress returned to power under Mrs Sonia Gandhi, with appointments in the home and information and broadcasting ministries. He was tipped at one stage to become the Union home secretary but the appointment was stopped, according to sources, by the Prime Minister himself. Mr Chawla served as information secretary and would have retired on July 31, 2005 but the appointment as Election Commissioner extended his term in the government till 2010.

Tales of corruption have, unfortunately, hounded this official in many of his postings with the latest controversy centring around his trusts in Jaipur and Delhi. The BJP has alleged that a six-acre plot was allotted to him by the Jaipur Development Authority when Congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot was in power. The power wielded by him during the Emergency in Delhi is legendary with several journalists at the time recalling his "arbitrary authority" that, according to one of them, had "terrorised all officials in those days".

He was perceived as the right hand of Sanjay Gandhi, working closely with him. He has, in a detailed statement, denied all charges about undue favours for the trust, maintaining that it was a charitable organisation and all money received and spent was accounted for.

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