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Navin Chawla and the biased media

Navin Chawla and the biased media

Author: Editorial
Publication: Free Press Journal
Date: February 4, 2009

If the image of the Election Commission has taken a beating, it is the controversial Election Commissioner Navin Chawla who is clearly to blame. Given his poor record as a bureaucrat, and his close ties to the Congress Party, Chawla, in the first place, should not have been nominated to the post. For, an election commissioner not only should be free and fair, but must also appear to be so. Chawla was anything but independent. He was a Congress loyalist who had subverted the system all through the 19-month Emergency. His record as a bureaucrat was so poor that he took recourse to extraordinary methods to get promotions to the level of full secretary to the Government of India. These are facts which can be easily verified from official records and from his peers in the service. But if a section of the media is now distorting the actual picture in order to reveal him in good light than is warranted by the cogently argued basis on which his removal has been recommended by the Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami, it is because Chawla most shamelessly is exploiting his friends in the media. And his media friends, unmindful of professional ethics, are presenting a wholly one-sided picture. Indeed, in the current controversy, Chawla behaved like the burglar who rushes to the police after committing a theft to deflect the attention away from him. The tilted manner in which the original newspaper report was presented bore the stamp of its prime inspiration. Gopalaswami, a civil servant of sterling qualities and unimpeachable professional integrity, is being most unfairly criticized. Neither on the question of his constitutional right to recommend the dismissal of the EC nor on the timing of his recommendation can he be faulted.

It is utter nonsense, as the oafish Law Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj has claimed, that the CEC cannot, on his own, recommend to the President the dismissal of an EC. He can do so, according to Bhardwaj, only if the President seeks his opinion. This, of course, is preposterous nonsense. No less than the highest court in the land has very clearly stated that the power to recommend the dismissal of an EC vests with the CEC. Besides, it is plain commonsense that the CEC alone would be in a position to evaluate the performance of fellow ECs. Now, if an EC habitually comes to office drunk, misbehaves with female staff, generally takes a wholly partisan position on all official matters, it will be for the CEC, who watches his misconduct first hand, to recommend his dismissal. The President cannot be aware of the misbehavior of the EC unless the CEC brings it to her notice and calls for suitable disciplinary action. It is significant that while calling for the dismissal of Chawla, Gopalaswamihas relied almost exclusively on his conduct as an EC and not, as the BJP petition had argued, on the basis of his misconduct as a bureaucrat. There are instances galore to substantiate the charge that Chawla was working as the mole of the Congress Party in the Election Commission. The cause of Indian democracy is ill-served by people like Chawla who subvert the independence and fairness of the constitutional body by their rank partisanship. There can be no place in any fair system for such amoral men who seek to curry favour with politicians by virtually becoming their agents in the all-important watchdog of Indian democracy.

As for the timing, it has now been revealed that the CEC received the BJP petition in January last year. Because of their preoccupation with the Karnataka Assembly election, the CEC sought Chawla's explanation a few months later. In the meantime, Chawla had taken a month-long leave. And then he sat on the CEC letter, replying to it only on December 10. And it was on January 14 this year when the CEC wrote to the President, Pratibha Patil, recommending the removal of Chawla. To say that Gopalaswami delayed the action against Chawla till a few months short of his own retirement on 20th April is to disregard entirely the actual chronology of correspondence between him and Chawla.

But then partisanship can not only destroy the credibility of a great constitutional institution such as the Election Commission, it can expose to public ridicule and readerrejection once great newspapers hitherto known for independence and courage. It is most churlish to bracket Gopalaswami with the BJP merely because he too has independently come to the conclusion that Chawla's partisanship makes him unfit to be an EC. The sun rises in the east both for crooks and saints, does it or does it not? The sine qua non of any journalism of courage is an open mind and a capacity to rise above personal and corporate agendas. Unfortunately, the personal seems to have overwhelmed the professional in a couple of newspapers desperately seeking to defend the indefensible Navin Chawla.

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