The Union law ministry on Saturday clarified that Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra was not invited for a meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office on November 16 and that its legislative department had asked the secretary or an official representative to participate in the discussion on electoral reforms.

In a statement, the ministry, however, acknowledged that Chandra along with Election Commissioners Rajiv Kumar and Anup Chandra Pandey took part in an “informal interaction” on that day.

The statement was issued a day after The Indian Express reported that Chandra and the two election commissioners had participated in the meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office last month despite expressing reservations about it.

The meeting raised concerns as 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 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 election commissioners, but the latter do not attend meetings or discussions with the administration’s officials.

In its statement, the law ministry on Saturday also acknowledged that Chandra had expressed his “displeasure” about the meeting.

It said that the legislative department had called for the meeting of Election Commission officials because of their “expertise and mandate” on a common electoral roll.

In view of this, the statement said, the department sent a letter on November 15 addressed to the secretary to the Election Commission to attend the meeting the next day.

“After receipt of the letter by the ECI, the Chief Election Commissioner spoke to Secretary, Legislative Department, expressing his displeasure over the expression in the middle part of the letter which gave an impression that it was expected of the CEC to attend the meeting,” it said.

The ministry said that the officials attended the meeting but some matters, including the number of qualifying dates for updating electoral roll and linking of Aadhaar cards, needed “further fine tuning”.

“After the official meeting, a separate informal interaction was held virtually with the Chief Election Commissioner and the two Election Commissioners,” it said. “It may be noted that the discussion was held together with all three Commissioners of ECI, and virtually.”

The ministry said that its legislative department organises meetings with Election Commission officials on matters of polls reforms and that cabinet secretary and the Prime Minister’s Office have held similar interactions earlier.

It said that November 16 meeting was held to finalise some of these reforms and the interaction with Chandra and the two election commissioners were meant to “iron out” two or three aspects for the final proposal of the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021.

The ministry added: “It is important to note that subsequent to these deliberations with the Election Commission, a proposal was drafted by the Legislative Department which was placed for consideration before the Union Cabinet that has approved proposal for introducing ‘The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021’ during the current session of the Parliament.”

The Cabinet approved these amendments on electoral reforms on Wednesday.

Opposition leaders on Friday question the credibility of the poll body after it was revealed that the top election officials attended the meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office. Congress MP Manish Tewari moved an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha on the matter. At least five former chief election commissioners also said that it was an unacceptable move.

Criticism against Election Commission

This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about the functioning of the 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.