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Arun Goel Resigns, Election Commission of India Down to Just One Member on Election Eve

The Wire Staff
Mar 10, 2024
Arun Goel’s appointment to the job had been hurried and controversial. Elections in the country are due in weeks, there is also a crucial Electoral Bonds hearing on Monday, where the EC’s stand will be vital

New Delhi: Election commissioner Arun Goel resigned Saturday night, leaving the Election Commission of India (ECI)  – normally headed by three commissioners – done to just one member, chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar – weeks before India is due to hold crucial general elections.

An official notification has been issued placing the acceptance of his resignation on record.

Goel, who would ordinarily have served as an election commissioner till December 2027,  gave no reason for his sudden departure. The third election commissioner, Anup Pandey, retired from office on February 15 and has yet to be replaced. While the ECI’s depleted leadership is bound to have an adverse impact on the commission’s handling of the upcoming Lok Sabha election, the timing of Goel’s resignation is also critical as the Narendra Modi government and Election Commission itself face serious questions about the funding of political parties via electoral bonds.

The opaque, anonymous system of election financing that the top court last month struck down as unconstitutional will come up again  before the Supreme Court on Monday when a five-judge bench will hear the State Bank of India’s plea that it will only be in a position to reveal the identity of the donors to the Bharatiya Janata Party and others at the end of June, after the elections are over. The SBI had been ordered to make all details public by March 6 and the court is also due to take up a contempt petition against the government-owned bank filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms on March 11.

An Election Commission which now just has one election commissioner gives an impression of governance in disarray. The government has been unable to appoint Pandey’s replacement nearly a month after his slot became vacant and has not even convened a meeting of the three-remember selection committee.

Apart from overseeing and ensuring free and fair voting in all 543 parliamentary constituencies, the three election commissioners are also tasked with making sure all political parties and leaders stick to the letter and spirit of the election law, especially the Model Code of Conduct, which prohibits the misuse of government machinery by ruling parties as well as the use of appeals to religion and hate speech as a means of gathering votes.

Goel’s resignation – both its unexplained nature and the timing – will raise concerns about the integrity of India’s key electoral institution and the processes in place for its autonomous functioning. It is upon the ECI’s independence that claims of ‘free and fair elections’ in India rests on.

A controversial appointment

If Goel’s exit has raised eyebrows, so did the manner and speed with which he was appointed to the crucial job in 2022.

On November 17, 2022, the Supreme Court began hearing a petition challenging the government’s right to appoint election commissioners of its own choice and arguing that this process violated the constitutional requirement that the ECI be independent of the executive. Even as the apex court was seized of the matter, the Modi government rushed through Goel’s appointment. A serving bureaucrat at the time, he resigned from the Indian Administrative Service on November 18, 2022, and was appointed as election commissioner the very next day.

Though the Supreme Court eventually dismissed a petition challenging Goel’s appointment, it made scathing comments on his hurried appointment.

“All the procedures commencing with the proposal, processing of the same at the hands of the Minister for Law, the further recommendations of the concerned officers, the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the acceptance of the application of the appointee seeking voluntary retirement, waiving the three months period and the appointment by the President under Article 324(2), which came to be notified, took place in a single day,” the court noted.

On March 2, 2023, a constitution bench said that all those appointed as election commissioners, including the CEC and his/her two colleagues, should be appointed by the president of India only on the advice by a committee comprising prime minister, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha or the leader of the single largest party in opposition and the chief justice of India.

But the Modi government disregarded this judgment and instead passed a law which set up a committee comprising the PM, the leader of the opposition and a third member, described as “a Union Cabinet Minister to be nominated by the Prime Minister”, thereby giving the executive the same power of appointment that the Supreme Court had sought to curtail.

Earlier resignation

Goel’s is the second unusual departure of an election commissioner in the ECI’s history, and both of these exits have happened during the Modi government’s tenure.

In August 2020, Ashok Lavasa, then an EC, resigned and  joined the ADB in Manilla. He was slated to go on to become CEC as per the seniority principle among the ECs.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, he was the only election commissioner “who refused to give a clean chit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in the matter of electoral process violations”.  A few months after the election, his wife was served with an income tax notice and stories began appearing in the press questioning his family’s purchase of a flat.

Lavasa’s personal mobile number was also on the list of numbers found on a leaked database of likely targets of Pegasus spyware.

The records show that Lavasa was selected for potential surveillance weeks after he had dissented not once but in five different matters of alleged violations of the Model Code of Conduct by then BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi. Of the five matters, four related to complaints of alleged violations by Modi.



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