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Chawla should step down

Chawla should step down

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 10, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/155464/Chawla-should-step-down.html

Some sections of the chatterati, which are obviously not well-groomed in the democratic tradition, have been trying relentlessly over the past week to whip up public sentiment against Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami for recommending the removal of his colleague, Mr Navin Chawla, for his avowed pro-Congress leaning.

The arguments advanced by Mr Chawla's supporters centre around two points: The CEC has overreached himself in recommending the removal of an Election Commissioner; and, second, it is wholly inappropriate of Mr Gopalaswami to make the recommendation just before the general election. Members of this group, however, make no mention of the allegations against Mr Chawla. Their deafening silence in regard to the controversial Election Commissioner's appalling curriculum vitae tells its own story about the democratic upbringing of his promoters. However, this is an aspect on which we need to turn the spotlight if we are genuinely committed to democracy and political plurality.

Those who advance the argument that the CEC is not constitutionally equipped to sit in judgement over his colleague are obviously under the spell of a modern day legal luminary called HR Bhardwaj. We must appeal to them to turn their attention instead to the opinion given by a lawyer who rose from humbler circumstances like BR Ambedkar.

Introducing Article 289 (now Article 324) in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar took pains to explain why the CEC could be removed only through the process of impeachment, but an Election Commissioner could be removed on the recommendation of the CEC. Ambedkar said the idea was to have a centralised Election Commission and "to have permanently in office one man called the Chief Election Commissioner". Thereafter, it would be up to the President to appoint additional Election Commissioners and Regional Election Commissioners.

As regards conditions of service, it was decided to give the CEC the same status as a judge of the Supreme Court. In other words, he cannot be removed by the executive through a mere fiat. "We, of course, do not propose to give the same status to the other members of the Commission. We have left the matter to the President as to the circumstances under which he would deem fit to remove any other member of the Election Commission, subject to one condition that the Chief Election Commissioner must recommend that the removal is just and proper," Ambedkar said.

Later, while responding to the debate on this Article, Ambedkar reiterated that while the President would have the power to remove an Election Commissioner, this power "is subject to a very important limitation", namely that "the President can only act on the recommendation of the Chief Election Commissioner". He told the Constituent Assembly that with this safeguard, the provisions for the removal of an Election Commissioner "are adequate and nothing more is necessary for that purpose".

The Constitution-makers saw the CEC as embodying the independence of the Election Commission and placed him above the other Commissioners. Therefore, the conduct of Mr Gopalaswami is constitutional and strictly within the scheme envisaged by Ambedkar. Any argument to the contrary only smacks of constitutional illiteracy or, worse, an attempt to subvert the Constitution to suit the petty interests of a political party and an individual like Mr Chawla.

The second argument against the CEC's recommendation pertains to its timing. On July 21, 2008, the CEC sought Mr Chawla's comments on the BJP's petition. Mr Chawla sent his reply on December 10, 2008. The CEC's recommendation to the President is dated January 16, 2009. Pray, how could the CEC have taken a decision earlier when Mr Chawla sent his reply only last December? Therefore, if there is some political game in the timing, should not the finger point in the direction of Mr Chawla?

Finally, a word about the fascist tendencies displayed by Mr Chawla during the infamous 19-month Emergency imposed by Mrs Indira Gandhi during 1975-77. A reading of the Shah Commission's well-documented report provides us a frightening panorama of the diabolical goings-on during those months of dictatorship. It also gives us a glimpse of Mr Chawla's democratic credentials.

The Shah Commission found that though Mr Chawla, a Sanjay Gandhi crony, was Secretary to the Lt Governor, he took undue interest in Tihar Jail and interfered in its administration. Mr Batra, the superintendent of the jail, told the Commission that when he informed the Government about the inadequacy of cells to house so many political prisoners, Mr Chawla asked him to "bake them" in cells with asbestos roofs. The Commission was also informed that on another occasion Mr Chawla suggested that certain "troublesome prisoners should be kept with the lunatics".

This was not all. The Shah Commission found evidence of Mr Chawla's involvement in the interrogation of opponents of the Emergency regime. He came up with the idea of a special sub-committee "to interrogate certain persons who had tendered apology for their past political activities". This sub-committee included a psychiatrist. The Commission also found clinching evidence of him ordering arrests without valid grounds and threatening non-complying district magistrates with arrest.

All this convinced the Shah Commission that Mr Chawla had become a law unto himself. The Commission's report said: "It is clear on the evidence that S/Shri PS Bhinder, KS Bajwa and Navin Chawla exercised enormous powers during the Emergency because they had easy access to the then Prime Minister's house. Having acquired that power, they used it without considering whether the exercise was moral or immoral, legal or illegal."

The Shah Commission was of the opinion that "though the involvement of these officers may vary slightly in degree, their approach to the problems of the period relating to the citizens was authoritarian and callous. They grossly misused their position and abused their powers in cynical disregard of the welfare of citizens and in the process rendered themselves unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others. In their relish for power they completely subverted the normal channels of command and administrative procedure". In its concluding remarks, the Commission said, "Tyrants sprouted at all levels overnight - tyrants whose claim to authority was largely based on their proximity to power."

Therefore, while the Congress tries to deflect the debate onto the CEC, we need to go back to the basics and ask whether a person like Mr Chawla, who has been described as a "tyrant" and declared "unfit" for any public office, should have been appointed an Election Commissioner in the first place. It is not too late. The President must act on the advice of the CEC and remove Mr Chawla.

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