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Government’s Big Changes In Bill To Protect Top Election Commission Posts

Government's Big Changes In Bill To Protect Top Election Commission Posts

The bill will be tabled in the Rajya Sabha today.

New Delhi:

The controversial bill replacing the Chief Justice of India with a Union Cabinet minister in the selection panel for the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners will be tabled in the Rajya Sabha today, but the Centre has made some amendments to it following objections from the Opposition and some former chief election commissioners. 

The Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, has been brought in following a Supreme Court judgment in March, which had ordered the constitution of a panel consisting of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and the leader of the opposition for the selection of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners. 

If there is no leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, a representative of the single-largest opposition party would be on the panel, the Supreme Court had said in response to petitions seeking a collegium-like system for the appointment of the election commissioners to ensure transparency. 

The government had earlier intended to table the bill, which also strips the Chief Election Commissioner and other election commissioners of the status of Supreme Court judges, in the special session in September, but decided against it following strong resistance from the opposition. The bill proposed to bring the salary, allowance, and service conditions of the CEC and other ECs on a par with that of the Cabinet Secretary as opposed to those of Supreme Court judges currently.

While the government has retained the provision of replacing the Chief Justice of India with a Union Cabinet minister in the selection panel, it has decided to retain the status of the CEC and the ECs as equivalent to Supreme Court judges. This will also ensure protection for the Election Commissioners from removal except with a recommendation from the chief election commissioner, which was a key demand of the former CECs.

The bill had also proposed an initial search committee comprising the Cabinet secretary and two senior officials to prepare a panel of five names for consideration by the selection panel. Another key amendment that has now been made replaces the Cabinet secretary in this committee with the Union law minister.

The opposition has argued that replacing the Chief Justice of India with a Union Cabinet minister in the selection panel runs contrary to the judgment of the Supreme Court as it would place the power of picking the CEC and ECs back firmly in the hands of the executive, since it would have two of the three members in the committee. 

Former CEC SY Quraishi had also expressed concerns over the composition of the selection panel and the “downgrading” of the position of CECs and ECs to the level of the cabinet secretary. He had, however, also said that the bill has many positive features, including setting qualifications for the selection of election commissioners.

“Till today, there was no qualification (prescribed), anyone from the street can be picked up and made an election commissioner which was not good. The new bill says that only secretary-rank officers or their equivalents will be posted which is a good thing,” Mr Quraishi had said. 

“It (the bill) also talks of a shortlisting committee that is also a good idea because that is a practice in many countries, except that the composition can be improved a little and the most important thing is that we have been demanding protection from removal which is available to the CEC should be extended to the two election commissioners also. So, this new bill proposes that, this is an important thing,” he had told news agency PTI in October. 

Speaking to NDTV today, Mr Quraishi said a detailed representation was made to the government on the bill as per the spirit of the Constitution.

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