December 21, 2021
What’s in a meeting?
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Good morning. Conspiracy theorists are in for a rude awakening. Some have been buying “anti-5G” jewellery to protect them from the network. However, the Dutch authority for nuclear safety and radiation protection (ANVS) issued a warning on ten such products saying they give off harmful ionising radiation. They warned people not to use these products as they could cause harm with long-term wear. Also, it should be noted, there is no evidence that 5G networks are harmful to health.
📰 FEATURE STORY
The PMO Meeting Election Commission Officials – Improper Or Much Ado About Nothing?
The constitution is a sacred document. It is definitely one that gets interpreted in many ways by various people and groups. As BR Ambedkar once said, “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated”. Among the tenets of the Indian constitution, the one about checks and balances is vital.
In a democracy, checks and balances are the guardrails against tyranny. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) meeting with officials from the Election Commission certainly raises eyebrows. However, is the hue and cry over the invite and meeting overblown?
If you’ve wondered who is in charge of elections in the world’s largest democracy, it is the Election Commission of India (ECI). By definition, it is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Law and Justice. The ECI was established by the Indian constitution to ensure free and fair elections.
Article 324 of the constitution gives the EC powers to direct and control elections to the parliament, state legislatures, and offices of the President and Vice President of India. The ECI was established in 1950 and is headed by the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). The current CEC is Sushil Chandra. At the state level, the EC is assisted by Deputy Election Commissioners, generally IAS officers.
Coming to the autonomous part, there has been some controversy about this in the recent past. In March, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE), chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur, submitted the second part of its report into India’s election systems. It was an indictment on the ECI’s autonomy. It pointed out various red flags – exclusion of marginalised communities from voter lists and the secrecy concerning electoral bonds and money in elections.
The Supreme Court also took notice. In 2019, the Commission handed out clean chits to politicians who made provocative political statements. The court questioned whether the ECI had the public’s trust. Pressure from politicians on the EC isn’t new. Under James Michael Lyngdoh’s tenure as Election Commissioner, he was under pressure to hold elections in the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat after Modi dissolved the assembly. However, as historian and author Narayani Basu pointed out, Lyngdoh didn’t succumb.
Invite and meeting not improper
As the opposition cried foul once the letter inviting Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra for a meeting with the PMO went out, the Union Law Ministry offered a straightforward clarification. They said the PMO’s legislative department had asked the secretary or an official representative to take part in discussions on electoral reforms.
The ministry also said that the PMO’s legislative department holds meetings with EC officials on poll reforms. It also stated that the cabinet secretary and the PMO held similar meetings earlier. The meeting in question was held to finalise some proposals and to iron out some aspects of the final draft of the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021.
The reaction to this meeting is overblown. Electoral reforms are important for any democracy and should happen from time to time. For this to happen, there has to be a meeting of the stakeholders – the Election Commission and the government in charge. As long as it does not include discussions on the conduct of elections, it is fine, and there is nothing suspicious. As PK Basu, former secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, wrote, officials meeting others from equally-placed branches of the executive will not compromise their independence.
Former CEC N. Gopalaswami did admit the letter itself was problematic. However, he said the EC and CEC didn’t surrender their independence as they only attended an informal session and not the meeting chaired by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Autonomy once again in doubt
It is clear CEC Sushil Chandra was not pleased with the invite. The Ministry itself said as much while offering their clarification. As former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi wrote, the PMO summoning the EC and CEC violates the constitutional spirit. Even if the issue at hand is urgent, the invite would’ve been a violation of the constitution.
According to some former CEC’s, governments have invited Election Commissioners for meetings. However, they never attended them. The optics alone are bad. Both the government and the Election Commission and its officials come off looking bad. A better option for the government would have been to seek written clarifications on the issue of the electoral reforms. It is important to keep in mind, the ECI conducts and supervises the electoral system. There has to be a high degree of trust in the process and results.
The entire episode gives more credence to the government not caring about the separation of constitutional powers. It shows that the Executive is willing to exert its power on administrative bodies that are supposed to be autonomous. For the EC, this isn’t the first time they have been involved in such transgressions. In 2017, a BJP-appointed Chief announced election dates for all state elections at the same time.
The most important point here is that in a democracy, institutions can function based on public trust. Over the past few years, that trust has eroded in general. The faith in the EC has taken a beating over recent decisions that have favoured the party in power. Several people have pointed out the partisan attitude of the EC. The invite and the meeting itself were unprecedented. Also, the timing is suspect given upcoming crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Personal Data Protection Bill: Overbroad Exemptions on Data Processing Dilute Govt’s Own Cause
For the Left:
Dichotomy Of Democracy: When Dynasts Call Themselves Democrats And Still No One Calls Them Out
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Advanced Biological Defence Lab (Madhya Pradesh) – In Gwalior, an Advanced Biological Defence Research Centre (ABDRC) will be set up to focus on dangerous viruses, their effects on humans and develop treatments. The new facility will use AI and cyber techniques to develop ways to repel viruses. It will also be Bio-Safety Level (BSL) 4, which only a few countries have.
Strike by power sector workers (Jammu & Kashmir) – More than 20,000 employees of the Union Territory’s power transmission and distribution corporations went on strike. They cited the administration’s decision to privatise assets and a delay in their salaries. As a result, the state government sought the Army’s assistance in restoring essential services. In some districts, local hospitals were affected. The strike comes in the wake of the administration announcing the merger of Power Transmission Corporation Limited (PTCL) and the Power Distribution Corporation Limited (PTDL) with the Power Grid Corporation of India.
Treatment for road accident victims (Tamil Nadu) – Chief Minister MK Stalin launched an initiative to save the lives of those involved in road accidents. Over 600 hospitals in the state have been networked to provide medical help during the golden hour. The scheme offers 81 recognised live-saving procedures to a maximum cover of up to ₹1 lakh to the victim. The beneficiaries can continue treatment at the same hospital, while those who don’t have insurance or aren’t covered will get free treatment at a government hospital.
New steel plant (Odisha) – Locals of the Kendrapada district are happy as Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik approved a steel plant by Arcelor Mittal. The hope is that the livelihoods of the people will be changed for the better and will create a new path of development for the state. Mittal is expected to invest over ₹1 lakh crores in the steel plant. It will be completed in seven years and is projected to generate 16,000 jobs.
Three new districts (Nagaland) – The state government has created three new districts, bringing the total under the administrative units to 15. The cabinet decided on forming Tseminyu, Niuland, and Chumukedima districts. The Tseminyu sub-division in Kohima district was upgraded to a district. Niuland and Chumukedima were carved out of Dimapur district. There were demands from at least 11 tribes for new districts. However, the government could consider only three. The inauguration of the new districts will happen soon.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
£50 million – The amount donated to the University of Oxford by billionaire Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute of India (SII). It is the “largest-ever gift for vaccines research” the university has received.