“Bill proposed to exclude Chief Justice of India from panel for choosing Election Commissioners.”

In a highly debated and controversial move, the Union Government made a striking decision on Thursday, presenting a Bill that would eliminate the Chief Justice of India (CJI) from the three-member panel responsible for selecting the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners. This proposed alteration would see a restructured panel, composed of a Cabinet Minister, the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Lok Sabha, and the Prime Minister at its helm, instead of the CJI.

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Unveiled as the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, this legislation was formally introduced by the Law Minister, Arjun Ram Meghwal, in the Rajya Sabha. The presentation occurred amid the backdrop of disruptions and protests concerning Manipur-related issues.

March had witnessed a pivotal ruling by the Supreme Court, which outlined the composition of the selection panel as comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, and the CJI. This ruling was established as a temporary measure until Parliament could enact an appropriate law.

Prior to this Supreme Court verdict, the President held the authority to appoint Election Commissioners and CECs upon the government’s recommendations. However, the new proposed arrangement raised concerns within the Opposition ranks, as it effectively translated to the selection panel featuring two members from the ruling BJP – the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Minister.

A significant juncture approaches for the Election Commission (EC), as a vacancy is anticipated to arise in February of the following year, coinciding with Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey’s departure from office. This moment is likely to coincide with the announcement of dates for the 2024 general elections.

Elaborating on the Bill’s Statement and Objectives, it was clarified that in instances where a Leader of Opposition is absent from the Lower House of Parliament, the role would be assumed by the leader of the largest Opposition party.

The proposed legislation outlines an initial process of preparing a list of five individuals who would be evaluated by the selection committee for potential appointments as CEC and Election Commissioners.

In response to the Bill, the Opposition swiftly reacted, accusing the government of weakening the integrity of a Constitutional Bench order. K.C. Venugopal, Congress’ general secretary (Organisation), criticized the move vehemently, labeling it an overt attempt to subordinate the Election Commission to the Prime Minister’s authority. Expressing his concern on X (formerly Twitter), he questioned the necessity for appointing a biased Election Commissioner when the existing Supreme Court ruling emphasizes an impartial panel.

Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the CPI(M), drew parallels with Israel’s right-wing government, suggesting that the Modi government’s actions sought to emulate their approach of subjugating the judiciary. Highlighting the constitutional mandate for an impartial Election Commission, he denounced the move as a detriment to the EC’s neutrality, asserting that it undermined the Commission’s fundamental role in conducting ‘free and fair’ elections.

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