CEC Arora denies rift in poll panel, says members not clones of each other

Left: Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has denied rift, saying commission members are not clones of each other, Right: Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa has opted out of meetings over clean chit given to the prime minister's speeches
Under attack not just from the Opposition for what it has called “partisan” conduct but also facing dissent from one of his team members, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora on Saturday described as “unsavoury” and “avoidable” reports that fellow commissioner Ashok Lavasa had decided to recuse himself from meetings related to model code violations until he was allowed to record his disagreements.

Arora said members of the Commission were not supposed to be "clones" of each other, and that a divergence of views was natural. Lavasa, on the other hand, said it was an "internal matter" and he would like to offer no comment. 

In a strongly worded letter to Arora on May 4, Lavasa had said he was being forced to stay away from the meetings of the full commission since minority decisions were not being recorded. He also said his participation in the meeting was "meaningless" as his dissent remained unrecorded. Lavasa said his notes on the need for transparency had not been responded to so he had decided to stay away from model code-related complaints.

Lavasa had dissented in some of the 11 decisions the EC has taken over the course of the elections on complaints against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah for alleged model code violations. The EC gave them a clean chit in all cases.

The Congress demanded a probe into the charges made by Lavasa. It said that eroding institutional integrity had been the hallmark of the Modi government and asked whether the poll panel had become “Election Omission” and a “puppet” in the PM's hands.
The “full commission” would meet on May 21 to discuss the issue of dissent and related matters.

Arora said that in the last meeting of the Election Commission (EC) on May 14, it was "unanimously" decided to form groups to deliberate issues which arose in the course of conduct of the Lok Sabha elections. "Out of the 13 issues/areas which were identified, model code of conduct is one of them," he said in a statement, his first after reports last week that Lavasa was upset that the EC had not recorded his dissent.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Arora-led EC has come in for criticism from several opposition parties, the most recent being earlier this week when it cut short the duration of election campaign in West Bengal by 18 hours. 

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also heads the Trinamool Congress, shot off a letter on Saturday appealing to the EC to ensure that the last phase of elections in the state were completed “impartially” and “without any undue interference” of the Centre and “without any intervention of the ruling party at the Centre”.

In his statement, Arora said the report on Lavasa’s decision not to take part in model code related issues came at a time when the poll watchdog was gearing up for the last phase of polls and counting of votes. "The three members of the EC are not expected to be template or clones of each other. There have been so many times in the past when there has been a vast diversion of views as it can and should be. But the same largely remained within the confines of the EC," Arora said.

EC rules suggest preference for an unanimous view, but provide for a majority ruling in the absence of unanimity. 

The EC's legal division has said dissent cannot be recorded on decisions as model code violations are not part of a quasi judicial hearing where all the three — the CEC and two fellow commissioners — sign. The majority view is conveyed to the parties concerned.

The dissent remains recorded in the file only and not made public. 

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala asked whether the EC would save itself more embarrassment by recording Lavasa's dissent notes, as he accused PM Modi of "muzzling" democratic institutions.

“This is a daylight murder of Constitutional norms, set conventions and propriety. The poll panel's rules express preference for a unanimous view, but provide for a majority ruling in the absence of unanimity. Being a Constitutional body, the minority view has to be recorded, but this is being trampled to protect the Modi-Shah duo,” he said.

“Omitting the dissent of election commissioner, simply because he had asked for a notice to be issued to PM Modi, has severely tarnished the institutional integrity of the Election Commission,” Surjewala said.

Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel said: “There must be a thorough, credible inquiry into the issues raised by Lavasa and restoration of the Commission’s independent status as the watchdog of world’s largest democracy. Lavasa’s letter — contents of which have appeared in the media — is extremely serious. The sanctity of the electoral process and the institutional integrity of the Election Commission of India is in jeopardy.”

CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury asked if dissenting opinions made by judges in the Supreme Court could be made public, then why cannot those of the election commissioners.