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Ashok Lavasa may be guilty but timing and nature of probe likely to threaten the very edifice of Election Commission

  • The government sent a confidential letter to 11 PSUs asking them to look into an any exercise of undue influence by EC Ashok Lavasa during his tenure in the Power Ministry

  • Ashok Lavasa and his family have been under the Income Tax scanner since after the Lok Sabha elections in April

  • Lavasa is set to be the next CEC following the convention that the senior-most EC is appointed as CEC, with Sunil Arora set to retire in April 2021

The government has written, confidentially, to at least 11 Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) asking them whether Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa used "undue influence" during his tenure in the power ministry (2009-2013). The latest controversy brings focus back on the functioning of the Election Commission and its officials.

As The Indian Express reports, the letter states that during his stint in the Ministry of Power, Lavasa "used his official position to exercise undue influence to benefit few companies/associate companies". The ministry has sent a list of 14 companies and 135 projects related to power and renewable energy involving Lavasa's wife Novel Lavasa.

 Ashok Lavasa may be guilty but timing and nature of probe likely to threaten the very edifice of Election Commission

File image of Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. Image courtesy: PIB

This is not the first time that Lavasa and his family have come under the scanner of investigative agencies. During the Lok Sabha elections this year, Lavasa had dissented from the majority view that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah violated the Model Code of Conduct. As The Indian Express reported in May 2019, "Lavasa opposed the all-clear to Modi for his minority-majority speeches in Wardha on 1 April and Nanded on 6 April, and the clean chit to his appeal to first-time voters by invoking the Balakot airstrikes, in Latur and Chitradurga on 9 April. He also disagreed with his colleagues’ view that Shah’s speech in Nagpur on 9 April, when he likened Wayanad, the second seat from where Congress president Rahul Gandhi is contesting, to Pakistan was not violative of the MCC."

In a letter dated 4 May, Lavasa had said that he had recused himself from cases relating to violation of the Model Code of Conduct as minority decisions were not being recorded. Lavasa had reportedly dissented in as many as five EC decisions reportedly involving complaints against Modi and Shah.

Months later, in September, Lavasa's wife, an independent director on the boards of some companies, was served a notice from the Income Tax department. She had resigned from the State Bank of India after 28 years of service in 2005 and joined the boards of some companies as an independent director.

On 9 September between 11 am and 9 pm, Novel said she was subjected to multiple rounds of hostile and irrelevant questioning under constant threats of prosecution, even though she repeatedly registered her discomfort and distress. All this was done without the presence of any woman in the room, Frontline reported. She said that the manner in which the probe was being conducted and actions such as pressuring her to disclose her email passwords and downloading her personal emails of several years had caused mental trauma.

While Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala pointed out the harsh treatment being meted out to the “neutral referee”, the party’s secretary Pranav Jha asked if it was the government’s ploy to force an honest officer to resign.

Lavasa’s daughter Avny Lavasa has also been in the limelight at the time she was the Leh district election officer, a post she held since September 2017, when she pulled up the BJP for violation of the Model Code of Conduct. She had initiatied an inquiry into a complaint filed by the Leh Press Club into charges that Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief Ravinder Raina had tried to bribe journalists on 2 May in order to facilitate publishing of reports favouring BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. After merit was found in the bribery allegations, an FIR was filed in the matter.

She also wrote a letter on 10 May to the General Officer Commanding, 14 Corps regarding a complaint in which a Ladakh candidate alleged that commanding officers were asking army jawans to communicating their voting preferences telephonically instead of giving them ballot papers. Any Lavasa was transferred in July and posted as CEO, Jammu and Kashmir Economic Reconstruction Agency (JKERA).

Ashok's son Abir also came under the Income Tax department’s scanner. The books of accounts of Nourish Organic Foods Limited , a company in which he is a director, were surveyed. One of the allegations against Abir involved a suspicious transaction worth Rs 7.25 crore from the investor Saama Capital in March 2019. He was subjected to questioning for more than six hours.

Meanwhile, Ashok's sister Shakuntala, a paediatrician by profession, was served a notice from the Income Tax department for a house in Gurgaon that she had purchased from her brother in 2017-18 for Rs 1.86 crore. In addition, the tax department has reportedly questioned Rupali Buildwell Private Limited, a builder firm that constructed the four-storeyed building in Gurgaon.

Intent and nature of the probe points fingers at the way EC is being run and managed

The actions being taken against members of the Lavasa family following Ashok Lavasa’s dissent shows the Election Commission’s departure from its intended purpose of being an autonomous body. Even before the Lok Sabha elections, 66 top bureaucrats in a letter to the President had expressed concern that the poll body was "suffering from a crisis of credibility and endangering the integrity of the electoral process", the Deccan Herald reported.

The letter criticised the Election Commission’s weak-kneed response to the “misuse, abuse and blatant disregard” of the poll code by the BJP. The bureaucrats’ message about the evident partiality, not expected of the country’s nodal election body, came as a warning sign regarding the endangering of the electoral process.

No objections were raised by the Election Commission against the announcement of the successful anti-missile test (ASAT), while the Modi biopic's release was only pushed after a significant uproar. Yogi Adityanath’s ‘Modi ji ki sena remark only got a showcause notice, while NaMo TV was allowed to air pre-certified content, disappearing off all platforms after the end of the parliamentary election.

From staggering the number of phases for the Lok Sabha polls in Odisha to four to the Modi government and the Election Commission’s opposing stands on electoral bonds in the Supreme Court, the poll body’s decision swung between protocol and possible political interference. The decision to curtail campaigning in West Bengal for less than a day by invoking Article 324 created a stir in the state which was already witnessing poll-related unrest, with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress coming down heavily on the ruling dispensation at the Centre.

The cancellation of elections to the Lok Sabha constituency in Vellore, Tamil Nadu following the seizure of around Rs 12 crore in cash from a DMK leader's associate in raids is an indicator of the power that the Election Commission possesses, which can be an effective tool in retaining the sanctity of the electoral process.

The Model Code of Conduct's primary goal is to reduce poll-related violence, incendiary speeches, misuse of money and power and other electoral malpractices. To ensure that the political system remains sound and democratic, the independent functioning of the Election Commission holds utmost importance.

The refusal to disclose the dissent note by Ashok Lavasa under the RTI Act cast a shadow on the transparency of the nodal election body’s functioning. The Election Commission said it was exempted information which may "endanger the life or physical safety" of an individual. The 'full commission' of the panel also decided that dissent notes and minority views would remain part of records but would not be part of its order, as the poll code violation cases are not quasi judicial in nature and that they are not signed by the chief election commissioner. Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, however, had told PTI there are times to remain quiet and times to speak up, indicating the issue could have been raised after the Lok Sabha elections.

Lavasa’s absence from the press conference held last week to announce the Jharkhand Assembly election (to be held from 30 November) may have indicated to the rift within the election body over its fair and efficient functioning. However, it was later reported that he was in Australia to receive an award at the Southern Cross University.

Lavasa is set to be the next CEC following the convention that the senior-most Election Commissioner is appointed as CEC, with Sunil Arora set to retire in April 2021. The cases against him and his family might have been initiated to prevent that outcome, observers told Frontline. While the EC can be dismissed by an order of the President, the CEC can only be impeached if it is approved by two-thirds majority of the Parliament.

Updated Date: Nov 05, 2019 15:09:45 IST