Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Election Commissioners Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey had participated in an “informal interaction” with the Prime Minister’s Office on November 16 despite voicing their reservations about it, The Indian Express reported on Friday.

The “informal interaction” took place a day after the electoral body received a letter from an official of the law ministry, which is the administrative body of the Election Commission.

The letter noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Principal Secretary PK Mishra will preside over a meeting on a common electoral roll and “expects CEC [chief election commissioner]” to attend it. But the letter’s wording was viewed as summons, which went against the constitutional norms and had no precedent, according to a poll panel official, reported The Indian Express.

The law ministry refused to answer The Indian Express’ questions on the note sent to the poll panel’s top officials.

On Friday, Congress MP Manish Tewari submitted an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha to discuss the “propriety and autonomy of Election Commission and the independence of institutions”, reported ANI.

Tewari moved the motion after taking note of the discussions between the chief election commissioner and the two election commissioners with the principal secretary.

Why does this raise questions?

The Election Commission is a constitutional body that functions independently from the executive branch and the three commissioners maintain a distance from the government. The wide berth is maintained by the poll panel to avoid any external pressure.

The Supreme Court, in its 1995 order in the TN Seshan vs Union of India case, had also stressed on the need for the Election Commission to remain independent.

The electoral panel’s discussions with the government related to polling is commonly restricted to the law ministry, and to the home ministry for security arrangements during voting days. According to protocol, if needed, the government officers schedule meetings with the three commissioners, but the latter do not attend meetings or discussions with the administration’s officials, The Indian Express reported.

On receiving the note, Chandra had voiced his displeasure to the law ministry and also refused to attend the meeting.

Apparently, Chandra, Kumar and Pandey did not attend the meeting as requested by the Prime Minister’s Office. However, as other officers of the poll panel attended the video call with Modi’s principal secretary, the chief election commissioner and the two election commissioners joined Mishra for an “informal interaction” after the meeting, reported The Indian Express.

A senior official told the newspaper that they discussed long-pending reforms, including multiple cut-off dates for a common electoral roll. “This was done to expedite reforms so that there is no gap in understanding and no delay,” the official said, according to The Indian Express.

The Cabinet approved these amendments on Wednesday.

The common roll for voting in the panchayat, municipality, Assemblies and Parliament polls was among the Bharatiya Janata Party’s promises in its 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto. This also falls in line with the party’s pledge to conduct Lok Sabha, Assembly and local body elections together.

When the senior officer was questioned about whether the “informal interaction” was appropriate, the person told the newspaper that the discussions were not part of an official meeting, reported The Indian Express. The official added that the three commissioners did not discuss any topic related the upcoming Assembly elections in five states.

Criticism against Election Commission

In 2017, the Election Commission, under then chief Achal Kumar Joti had been criticised for delaying the announcement of the schedule for the Gujarat Assembly election. The Opposition had alleged that this was done to give the BJP more time to campaign.

During the 2019 General Election, the Election Commission, led by Sunil Arora, had a divided response to complaints on poll code violations, including by Modi and then BJP national president Amit Shah.

The prime minister and Shah were accused of making references to the armed forces for “political propaganda”, which has been banned by the Election Commission. Modi had also held a rally after casting his vote in Gujarat on April 23, which was in violation of the poll code.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa had disagreed with the decisions of his fellow Election Commissioners with regard to complaints of Model Code of Conduct violations against Modi and Shah.

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.

Lavasa opposed five clearances that the poll panel gave to Modi and Shah. The commission cleared Modi in six such cases but Lavasa’s dissent was reportedly not noted in the poll panel’s orders.

The Election Commission had also been criticised by the Opposition for not putting an end to campaigns during the West Bengal elections held amid the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 22, the Calcutta High Court had said it was “unable to reconcile with the fact” that the Election Commission of India had failed to take any steps beyond “issuing circulars” to tackle the surge of coronavirus infections in West Bengal while conducting the Assembly elections.

Four politicians contesting in the state elections had died of Covid-19. The wife of Trinamool Congress candidate Kajal Sinha had also filed a murder complaint against the Election Commission in April.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had also alleged that election officials were transferred at the behest of the BJP.

Communication between election chiefs and government in the past

In the past, only a few former chief election commissioners have written to the prime ministers on problems that needed to be flagged. In 1999, former Chief Election Commissioner MS Gill sent a letter to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee about poll reforms.

In 2016, former Chief Election Commissioner Naseem Zaidi wrote to Modi about urgently releasing funds to buy voter verifiable paper audit trail machines.

“In both these cases, it was the Chief Election Commissioner flagging an issue to the executive on their terms, on a subject of their choice,” an official told The Indian Express. “In this case, it is the government effectively summoning the CEC to attend a meeting called by the PMO. This is very unusual.”