The Centre on Thursday tabled a contentious bill in Rajya Sabha that seeks to replace the Chief Justice of India with a cabinet minister in the panel for selection of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners, in a move that will allow the government to have more control in the appointments of members of the poll panel.
The bill comes months after the Supreme Court in March ruled that a three-member panel, headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India, will select the CEC and ECs till a law is framed by Parliament on the appointment of these commissioners.
According to the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, tabled by Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal in the Upper House, a three-member Selection Committee comprising the Prime Minister, who will be the chairperson, the LoP and a Union Cabinet minister, who would be nominated by the Prime Minister, shall select the CEC and ECs.
The Bill was introduced amid an uproar by the opposition parties, including the Congress and AAP that accused the government of “diluting and overturning” a Constitution bench order.
A vacancy will arise in the Election Commission (EC) early next year when Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey demits office on February 14 on attaining the age of 65 years.
His retirement will come just days before the likely announcement of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls’ schedule by the EC. On the past two occasions, the commission had announced parliamentary elections in March.
The apex court in its March verdict had aimed at insulating the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners from the Executive’s interference.
It had ruled that their appointments would be made by the President on the advice of a committee comprising the Prime minister, LoP in Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Justice KM Joseph, in a unanimous verdict, held that this norm will continue to hold good till a law on the issue is made by Parliament.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners were appointed by the President on the recommendation of the government.
Reacting to the government’s move, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan said that even if the bill is passed in Parliament, it would be “unconstitutional” in his view and it was likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said he has always maintained that the government will overturn any Supreme Court order that it doesn’t like and this is a dangerous situation that can impact fairness of elections.
The proposed panel will have two BJP members and one from the Congress, and therefore, whoever is selected to the poll panel will be loyal to the ruling party, alleged Kejriwal, who is also Aam Aadmi Party’s national convener.
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 (Narendra Modi)”.
“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,” Venugopal said on social media platform ‘X’.
Congress MP and the party’s whip in Lok Sabha, Manickam Tagore, alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah want to control the Election Commission by bringing the bill.
According to the bill, the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners “shall not be invalid” merely because of any vacancy in or any defect in the constitution of the selection committee.
In case there is no LoP in the Lower House of Parliament, the leader of the single largest party in opposition in the Lok Sabha will be deemed to be the LoP.
The Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners will be appointed from amongst persons who are holding or have held a post equivalent to the rank of secretary and shall be persons of integrity, who have knowledge of and experience in the management and conduct of elections.
As per the Bill, a ‘search committee’ headed by the cabinet secretary and comprising two other members not below the rank of secretary, having knowledge and experience in matters relating to elections, shall prepare a panel of five persons for consideration by the selection committee, for the appointments.
The existing law does not contain provisions regarding the qualifications of the candidates, the constitution of the search committee and the selection committee for appointments of CEC and ECs. (PTI)