CEC, colleague fracas overshadows meeting with political parties (Second Lead)

February 3rd, 2009 - 9:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Pratibha PatilNew Delhi, Feb 3 (IANS) The row over Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla overshadowed a crucial meeting of the poll panel Tuesday, with political parties stoutly maintaining that the commission uphold high standards of neutrality in the run-up to the general elections. This was the first time the three members of the Election Commission sat together with political parties to chalk out a strategy for the April-May Lok Sabha elections after the standoff between Gopalaswami and Navin Chawla came out in the open last week.

An unseemly fracas has gripped the poll panel with Gopalaswami writing to President Pratibha Patil last month that he found Chawla’s behaviour to be partisan and he should be removed from the post.

While parties across the political spectrum expressed their concern over the controversy at the meeting, the war of words between the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the issue continued later.

BJP general secretary Arun Jaitely accused the Congress-led government of being “partial to Chawla” and dictating terms on a constitutional body.

Congress leader Kapil Sibal gave it back and stated that the “BJP had no right to speak about constitutional bodies since it had often in the past abused constitutional bodies, including the Election Commssion and the Supreme Court.”

Representatives of at least seven national parties and 32 regional parties attended the meeting, the first of a series of conferences convened by the Election Commission to prepare for the Lok Sabha polls.

Besides expressing concern over the free and fair conduct of the polls in the light of the stand-off between Gopalaswami and Chawla, all parties were united in their stance that there should not be too many polling phases and the exercise not stretched long.

Both Gopalaswami and Chawla walked in together smiling and posed for cameras before getting down to business in the conference room.

Participating in the proceedings at the meeting, Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, representing the Congress, said: “We expect that the Election Commission acts fairly. People are expecting a fair attitude in the conduct of elections.”

BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who attended the first of a series of meetings before the elections, told reporters: “We are concerned that a constitutional body like the Election Commission has been shrouded in controversy just when it is performing the most important democratic exercise.”

“It is not about protecting an individual but about a crucial constitutional body, for a free, fair and impartial conduct of elections,” Naqvi said at the meeting.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) was pleased to see all the three election commissioners together. “We are happy to see all the three of them together,” party leader Sitaram Yechury said.

The commission has also convened a review meeting Wednesday with chief electoral officers of all states and union territories. Issues related to electoral roll revision and the status of photo electoral roll will be taken up.

Later this week, the Election Commission will hold discussions with the chief secretaries and directors general of police of all states and union territories on law and order issues and the deployment of security forces for the elections.

The commssion said in an official statement in the evening: “The political parties gave their views on the time and phasing of elections. Most parties suggested shortest possible duration of the process, while taking into account various national and state holidays, board exam schedules and other sensitivities.”

While the Congress left it to the Election Commission to decide the poll dates, CPI-M’s Yechury insisted that the schedule should not be stretched beyond three weeks.

The BJP said the bottom line should be that the people of all sections of society were able to vote freely and fairly.

“Special observers should be appointed and arrangements made to check use of money and muscle power,” BJP’s Naqvi said.

The Election Commission statement said: “Most parties stressed the need to have central police forces at all places for ensuring a free and fair poll, while a few parties had the view that this should be need based.”

“We also told the members that there should be a universal policy on poll advertisements of all forms. It is necessary to monitor surrogate advertisements,” Naqvi told IANS.

The commission said the parties “almost unanimously pleaded for effective measures to combat surrogate advertisements and attempts to misuse the print idea to plant customised reports projecting particular candidates/parties.”

Several parties also demanded a ban on opinion surveys and exit polls to ensure the voters were not influenced in making their independent choices.

The CPI-M also stressed that single-phase polling should be maintained in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu where elections are usually held over a day.

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