With the general elections just weeks away, the Election Commissioner Arun Goel resigned from his position on Saturday. The Election Commission now has just one office bearer, the Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, as another Election Commissioner, Anup Chandra Pandey, had completed his tenure in February.

This means that the Centre will have to fill two vacancies in the poll body ahead of the elections.

That reasons for Goel's sudden resignation are not known adds to concerns over transparency and independence in the functioning of the Election Commission under the Narendra Modi administration. Especially when considering the fact that a law passed by Parliament in December now allows the government to control appointments.

What happens next?

A meeting of a panel, headed by Modi, to pick election commissioners is expected be held on March 14 or March 15, The Indian Express reported on Sunday. The Modi-led selection committee was formulated under the law passed in December.

The committee consists of the prime minister (as chairperson), the leader of the Opposition or the single-largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha and a Union cabinet minister nominated by the prime minister. The Cabinet minister, who will be part of the committee, has not been named yet. But the composition of the committee means that Modi and his Cabinet colleague will enjoy a 2-1 majority over Leader of the Opposition Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury if there is a difference of opinion over the choice of election commissioners.

The new law to appoint election commissioners did away with an arrangement put in place by a Supreme Court judgement in March last year that had formed a selection committee consisting of the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India. The court had said that this committee will remain operative till Parliament came up with a law for the appointment of election commissioners.

The Supreme Court-mandated selection committee had been formed to shield the Election Commission from executive influence. Before this judgement, appointments to the commission were made at the sole discretion of the Centre. However, the new law, by replacing the chief justice with a Cabinet minister, brought the selection of election commissioners back under the Centre’s control.

Easy come, easy go

Goel’s resignation comes across as a surprise as he was involved in key meetings of the Election Commission till a day before his exit. Even officials in the Election Commission said that they were “caught off guard” by the turn of events, The Indian Express reported.

On March 4, Goel, along with Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, held a meeting with district and police officials in West Bengal to review preparations for the Lok Sabha elections in the state.

The next day, however, Goel was not present at a press conference held in Kolkata where Kumar and other officials briefed the media about their visit to the state. Before the press conference, a presenter told reporters that Goel was absent due to “health reasons”.

On March 8, just a day before he resigned, Goel was part of the Election Commission team that held meetings with home ministry and railway officials on the deployment and movement of security personnel, according to a PTI report.

Goel quitting within a day of being involved in the Election Commission’s functioning mirrors, in a way, the chain of events leading to his appointment. Goel was the Union heavy industries secretary – slated to retire on December 31 – when he opted for voluntary retirement on November 18. Just a day later, he was appointed election commissioner.

Non-government organisation Association for Democratic Reforms had challenged Goel's appointment in the Supreme Court, arguing that it was “arbitrary and violative of institutional integrity and independence of Election Commission Of India”. The court, however, dismissed the petition and turned down the plea to quash Goel’s appointment.

Cloud over independence

The new law to select election commissioners and the abrupt nature of Goel’s appointment and resignation reflect concerns raised by civil society and Opposition parties about the lack of transparency and independence in the Election Commission’s functioning under Modi.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, friction arose even within the Election Commission, when former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa disagreed with the decisions of his colleagues on complaints of Model Code of Conduct violations against Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Lavasa had opposed five clean chits that the poll panel gave to the two leaders.

The rift in the poll body became public after Lavasa wrote a letter saying he would stay away from the commissioners’ meetings since “minority decisions” were not being recorded.

Soon after the 2019 elections, the Income Tax Department issued notices to Lavasa’s wife, son and sister on allegations of using unaccounted cash to build a house and of having cash deposits worth nearly Rs 5 lakh in bank accounts after demonetisation.

Lavasa’s family members were cleared of the charges in February 2020. Lavasa resigned from the Election Commission in August 2020, but not before observing that “honesty always comes at a price”.

Former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. (Photo: PTI)

The 2019 Lok Sabha polls saw the Election Commission come under the scanner over a number of other instances as well.

The poll body had failed to stop the airing of election-related content on NaMo TV – a television channel dedicated to Modi that the BJP had launched – during the 48-hour “silence period” before polling for the sixth phase.

In April 2019, during campaigning for the polls, the Election Commission had ruled it was not a misuse of state machinery for bureaucrats to be asked to send the Prime Minister’s Office inputs on local area knowledge ahead of the leader’s visits to these places. The complaint was based on an investigation by Scroll.

In a third incident of alleged impartiality, ahead of the last phase of polling in 2019, after violence erupted at a college in Kolkata, the Election Commission had announced that campaigning in West Bengal will end a day before schedule. Opposition parties, however, pointed out, the Election Commission allowed campaigning to continue for 48 hours after the violence. This window allowed two of Modi’s scheduled rallies to continue.

More recently, the Supreme Court, while hearing petitions seeking directions to ensure fair functioning of the Election Commission observed that the government was only offering “lip service” to the independence of election commissioners.