Gopalaswami wants him out, Chawla not to quit (Lead)

January 31st, 2009 - 6:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyNew Delhi, Jan 31 (IANS) The Election Commission was embroiled in an ugly row ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, with Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswami recommending the removal of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla on grounds that he was partisan and the latter refusing to resign.The unseemly fight in the autonomous poll panel sparked a war of words between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which for years has been seeking the removal of Chawla saying he was pro-Congress. Leading constitutional experts were divided on the issue.

Gopalaswami refused to provide details when he met reporters in Mumbai, but he did not deny a published report Saturday that said he had told President Pratibha Patil that Chawla be eased out.

Gopalaswami merely said that he had submitted “a privileged document to the government” which he would not discuss with the media.

“That’s all I can say, I will not talk any more about it,” he said, on the sidelines of a seminar on electoral reforms.

Asked when he submitted the report to the president, Gopalaswami replied: “When the president received it.” A Rashtrapati Bhavan official said the communication came last week.

Chawla, who has been tipped to succeed Gopalaswami as CEC when his term ends in April this year, remained defiant Saturday, insisting that he had no intention of stepping down.

“Why should I resign?” Chawla told IANS. “We have to conduct the (coming) general elections unitedly and with dignity.”

“I have no idea about the letter. I am not aware about this (letter),” he added, referring to Gopalaswami’s reported communication.

“The Election Commission has delivered flawless elections to the country for the last several years. We will continue to do so,” Chawla said.

There was no reaction from the central government, but Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government was “seized” of the issue.

The Congress accused the BJP of politicising the issue. The BJP has urged President Patil to intervene at the earliest “for the removal” of Chawla since otherwise the election panel would be eyed with suspicion ahead of the general elections, expected in April-May.

“It is unfortunate the BJP is politicizing the issue of Navin Chawla,” Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh said. “We also have things to say about other members (of the Election Commission, but we are not doing it. The issue will be decided by the government on merit.”

BJP general secretary Arun Jaitely told reporters: “Navin Chawla suffers from political bias. He is biased in favour of the ruling party. Political detachment was never a strength or virtue of Chawla.”

The BJP, which had been gunning for Chawla for the last two years, wasted no time in demanding that he be removed.

“It is important for the president to intervene for the removal of Navin Chawla. (Otherwise) the office of Election Commission will become suspect” ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.

Chawla, who had been tipped to take over as the CEC after Gopalaswami retires, has been targeted by the BJP, which also went to the Supreme Court against the Election Commissioner.

Legal opinion was divided over the CEC’s recommendation.

Constitutional expert K.K. Venugopal said the CEC was not empowered to seek the removal of an Election Commissioner. “This is wholly unjustified as the constitution assigns no role or power to the CEC.”

Noted constitutional expert Fali Nariman also took exception to Gopalaswami’s action.

Praising Gopalaswami for having been an “excellent chief election commissioner”, Nariman said that he should not have made the suo motto recommendation about Chawla’s removal.

But constitutional expert Rajiv Dhawan felt differently. “Being the CEC, it is his moral and legal duty to preserve the purity and fairness of the electoral process.

“And if he finds that one of the Election Commissioners is partisan, he is constitutionally fully empowered to recommend his ouster to the president,” he said.

The issue dates back to March 2006 when BJP and its leader L.K. Advani and 204 MPs submitted a petition to the president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam seeking Chawla’s removal.

The petition was sent to the Congress-led government, which saw no merit in it.

The BJP dragged the issue to the Supreme Court but its arguments seemed to make no headway. The petition was withdrawn in August 2007.

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