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Caught in controversies, Election Commission turns to 11 ex-chiefs for lessons before 2019

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The 21 May meeting is being viewed as a damage-control exercise after some political parties questioned the credibility and independence of the Election Commission.

New Delhi: The Election Commission of India (ECI), whose credibility and independence have been questioned by some political parties in recent months, has invited 11 former chiefs to help chalk out a strategy to “deal with the emerging challenges”.

The unprecedented meeting scheduled for 21 May comes in the run-up to crucial assembly elections due later this year and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Eleven former chief election commissioners (CECs) since M.S. Gill are expected to attend, highly placed sources told ThePrint.

While the ostensible purpose of the meeting is to discuss the challenges that the EC is likely to face while planning future elections, including the desire of the Modi government for simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, the poll panel will also ask the former CECs for their opinion on dealing with the criticism from some political parties that the panel was under the influence of the central government, the sources said.

“The objective is to consult, seek advice and suggestions and learn from their experiences on handling the tricky, complex situations and yet remain undeterred and maintain independence (from the government),” said an EC source.

Getting tips on how to conduct free and fair polls

According to the sources, the reason the EC has invited the former CECs is because several of them successfully warded off pulls and pressures from previous governments to ensure that the commission was always seen as independent and never succumbed to overt or covert pressure.

The meeting that is being termed extraordinary by the members of commission is also being viewed as a damage-control exercise as the commission has been in the news mostly for wrong reasons such as confusion over poll dates, malfunctioning EVMs, and the disqualification of Delhi’s AAP MLAs which was overturned by the Delhi High Court.

“BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya tweeted dates for Karnataka polls before CEC O.P. Rawat could announce it along with his two commissioners,” an ECI source said.

“S.K. Mendiratta, legal adviser to the EC and the one who has seen it all, was not consulted on conducting Gujarat and Himachal polls at different times. All these things have cast an aspersion on the role of the commission in election management,” the source added.

According to the sources, that current CEC O.P. Rawat and two commissioners —Sunil Arora and Ashok Lavasa — lack the experience of conducting general elections is also an issue at play.

While Rawat, who was appointed EC on 14 August 2015 took over as CEC on 23 January 2018. Arora was appointed EC in September 2017 while Lavasa took over on 23 January 2018.

Former CEC V.S. Sampath believes that the incumbent chief is trying to do his job and that one should not be sceptical about it.

“We will go with an open mind. We can tell them our experiences and it is their good sense that they have called this meet,” added Sampath.

On the issue of date leaks, Sampath said that the commission has a responsibility of discussing dates with every political party involved in the process after which a broader period of polls is given to all by the commission.

“And as we have friends all over who come and sit with us and discuss issues, they can get hints and talk to people. It cannot be considered a leak. We live in a glass house where we want our actions and discussions to be transparent,” added Sampath.

Former CEC N. Gopalaswami said that for now he has declined to attend the ECI meeting as the letter sent to him says it is tentatively scheduled for 21 May. “It means they must be trying to check with all about their availability. Secondly, let them send a list of issues which they would like to discuss with us,” he added.

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