In a controversial move, the Union Government on Thursday introduced a Bill removing the Chief Justice of India (CJI) from a three-member panel to select the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners. Instead of the CJI, the three-member panel, when formed, would consist of a Cabinet Minister besides the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Lok Sabha, and the Prime Minister, who would head it.
The Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, was introduced by Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal in the Rajya Sabha amid din over protests on Manipur.
In March, the Supreme Court had ruled that the selection panel should comprise the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in Lok Sabha and the CJI. The court had said the order would hold good until a law was made by Parliament.
Till this SC ruling, Election Commissioners and CECs had been appointed by the President after recommendations from the government.
The Opposition was quick to point out that this would put a question mark on the neutrality of the Election Commission (EC) as the selection panel would effectively have two members of the BJP — the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Minister.
The EC would see a vacancy in February next year when Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey demits office, possibly days before the dates for the 2024 general election are announced.
According to the Statement and Objectives of the Bill, in case there is no LoP in the Lower House of Parliament, the leader of the single-largest Opposition party would be considered the LoP.
At first, a list of five persons would be prepared for the selection committee’s consideration for appointment as the CEC and Election Commissioners.
The Opposition seized the opportunity and accused the government of diluting a Constitution Bench order.
Congress general secretary (Organisation) K.C. Venugopal hit out at the government over the Bill, calling it a “blatant attempt at making the Election Commission a total puppet” in the hands of the Prime Minister.
“What about the Supreme Court’s existing ruling which requires an impartial panel? Why does the prime minister feel the need to appoint a biased Election Commissioner? This is an unconstitutional, arbitrary and unfair Bill - we will oppose this on every forum,” Mr. Venugopal said on X (formerly Twitter).
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury too posted on X: “Modi govt seems to ape Israel’s extreme right wing govt’s efforts to make Judiciary subservient. Constitution of India mandates an impartial Election Commission to conduct ‘free and fair’ elections. This move destroys ECs impartiality.”
(With inputs from Sobhana K Nair)