The ongoing battle between Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi and Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed on the appropriateness or otherwise of the latter's promise of reservation to minorities in the course of election speeches in Uttar Pradesh is not the first time the two men have clashed in recent months.

Last year, after Mr. Khursheed told a TV interviewer that technically, the Election Commission of India (ECI) came under the Law Ministry, and cited the example of Election Commissioners getting their tour bills cleared by it, an irate Mr. Quraishi shot off an angry letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh sent back a bland reply, stressing that the UPA government was “committed to uphold the functional autonomy that the Constitution guarantees” to the ECI.

Mr. Khursheed had quoted the instance of the ECI and the Law Ministry, while explaining that even if the Lokpal were to be given constitutional status, it would not be totally de-linked from the government on administrative matters.

Then, last month, the two men crossed swords again, this time after the Law Ministry raised questions on the ECI's proposal to launch, under its aegis, the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIDEM), an “advanced resource centre” of research and training in election management, to “globalise its success story.” The project is stuck because the Law Ministry, the administrative ministry under which the ECI falls, has been saying that the External Affairs Ministry has not taken a final view as to who should set up the IIDEM.

When the matter surfaced in the public domain, Mr. Quraishi told journalists: “We don't need the Law Ministry to tell us what kind of training programmes to run and in what manner. It is mischievous on the part of some Law Ministry functionaries to launch a campaign against the ECI...some people in the government have still not come to grips with the idea of an independent ECI. They want to treat us as a section of the Law Ministry. This shows their mindset. But the ECI knows how to deal with such elements and do its job.”

Soon after this, came the reservation controversy, ending with Mr. Quraishi seeking the immediate intervention of President Pratibha Patil on the matter, following which it was despatched to the Prime Minister for appropriate action. Mr. Khursheed is expected back in the capital on Monday night.

Within the Congress, there is a sense that while Mr. Khursheed need not have adopted an extreme posture after being censured by the ECI, Mr. Quraishi, too, is blowing up the issue. For the record, the party has indicated that the ECI needs to be respected. Party's general secretary and media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi spoke on Sunday of the need for Congressmen to speak “as per the norms of public life and the law of the land.”

On Monday, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, speaking in Allahabad, said “people occupying posts of responsibility should speak responsibly.” But Priyanka Gandhi, campaigning in Rae Bareli, struck a conciliatory note, expressing the hope that the row between the Law Minister and the Election Commission would be sorted out. “These things do happen during elections...One is free to voice his opinion during elections. So is the Election Commission,” she said.

Statutory status

Meanwhile, in Delhi, Congress spokesman Manish Tewari added a fresh twist to the controversy, suggesting that, in the context of the ongoing discussions on election reform, perhaps there should be a debate on whether the ECI could be given statutory status: currently, it has no penal powers. “While we have every respect for the EC and its record of conducting free and fair elections,” he said, “political parties also need to be able to get across their views. It is a difficult balance, but it needs to be maintained.”

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