CJI out, Cabinet minister in: Parliament passes Bill on Election Commissioners selection panel

The Rajya Sabha had already passed the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Bill, 2023.

BySouth First Desk

Published Dec 21, 2023 | 6:37 PMUpdatedDec 21, 2023 | 6:37 PM

Election commissioner

The Lok Sabha, on Thursday, 21 December, passed, after a brief discussion, a Bill which seeks to establish a mechanism to appoint the chief election commissioner (CEC) and election commissioners (ECs).

The Rajya Sabha has already given its nod to the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023.

In effect, the Bill allows for Chief Justice of India (CJI) to be replaced by a Union Cabinet minister in the panel that selects the chief election commissioner and election commissioners in the country. This comes ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Responding to the debate, Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal said that the 1991 Act on the service conditions of the CEC and the ECs was a half-baked attempt and the present Bill covers the areas left out by the previous legislations.

The Bill was then passed by a voice vote.

Related: Bill regarding CEC selection panel tabled in Rajya Sabha

The contents of the Bill

The Bill seeks to replace the Chief Justice of India with a Cabinet minister in the panel for selection of the CEC and ECs, in a move that will allow the government to have more control over the appointment of members of the poll panel.

The Bill also said that salary, allowances, and other service conditions of the CEC and ECs will be the same as that of the Cabinet Secretary, a change from their current parity with a Supreme Court judge. Critics have said it amounts to diluting the authority of the poll watchdog.

According to the Bill, tabled by Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal in the Rajya Sabha in August, a three-member Selection Committee comprising the Prime Minister, who will be the chairperson, the Leader of Opposition, and a Union Cabinet Minister, who would be nominated by the Prime Minister, shall select the CEC and ECs.

Related: Opposition members dub Bill on ECI appointments as ‘anti-Constitution’

The Supreme Court order

In March, the Supreme Court ruled that in order to ensure free and fair elections, the panel to select the CEC and ECs should comprise the Chief Justice of India, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha until the time Parliament enacted a law in this regard.

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had also insisted that executive dominance in the appointment of election commissioners was unconstitutional.

This Bill in its current form, however, gives an absolute majority to the executive in the process of appointing top election officers in the country. This also comes when the 2024 Lok Sabha election is less than a year away.

Meghwal moved the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, in the Upper House in the post-lunch session on 10 August.

According to the Bill, future CEC and ECs will be selected by a three-member panel headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Cabinet Minister, contrary to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s judgement that emphasised on the decision-making process being independent of government.

The new move is being seen as an attempt by the BJP-led government to exercise control over the appointments to the top positions of the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Opposition leaders, including from the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), immediately voiced their concerns and accused the government of diluting the order of the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench.

Congress General Secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal hit out at the government over the Bill, calling it a “blatant attempt at making the Election Commission a total puppet in the hands of the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi)”

“What about the Supreme Court’s existing ruling which requires an impartial panel? Why does the Prime Minister feel the need to appoint a biased Election Commissioner? This is an unconstitutional, arbitrary, and unfair Bill — we will oppose this on every forum,” Venugopal had said on X.

(With PTI inputs)