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The buck must stop at EC's door

By A K Bhattacharya
May 06, 2009 10:36 IST
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A few days ago, the Union government appointed Arvind Jadhav as the new chairman and managing director of National Aviation Company of India Limited.

Mr Jadhav, a Karnataka cadre IAS officer, has been given a three-year tenure to run Nacil. The change of guard took place suddenly. Sometime last month, Raghu Menon, another IAS officer who was appointed to head Nacil on April 1, 2008, decided to go on leave.

There were reports that Mr Menon had serious differences of opinion with civil aviation minister Praful Patel. And as expected, Mr Menon did not return from his leave, although he had more than two years of his tenure left.

The civil aviation ministry, in the meanwhile, convened meetings and decided to shortlist Mr Jadhav as its candidate to succeed Mr Menon. It was not clear if the ministry's wishes would be granted by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet.

And even if the ACC cleared it, there were doubts if the Election Commission would oppose the move citing the code of conduct which was in operation in view of the ongoing general elections.

Eventually, no such hurdles came in the way of Mr Jadhav's appointment. The ACC approved the proposal and then there were no directives from the Election Commission either on postponing the implementation of such a decision. In the process, a chief executive of a public sector undertaking was appointed for three years at a time when general elections were being held to elect a new government.

Many questions arise. Should the Manmohan Singh government have allowed a change of guard in one of its PSUs and appointed a new chief executive during the last days of its five-year tenure?

More importantly, should the Election Commission have ignored these developments and not pulled up both the minister in charge of the civil aviation ministry and the bureaucrats in the ministry who had co-operated with the minister in effecting these changes at Nacil?

The bigger problem is that the Manmohan Singh government has been quite inconsistent on the question of taking decisions when the Election Commission's code of conduct is in operation. For instance, some ministers have been extremely cautious and have even declined invitations to become chief guests at meetings during this period.

Manmohan Singh has held his own meetings with media editors, not at his official residence, but at a public auditorium.

The government has not taken any decision on the communications ministry's proposal for appointing the next chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

Even the release of the consumer price index data for the month of March has had to be withheld because the Election Commission did not give clearance to the government's proposal to make that information public.

One could, of course, argue that the Election Commission had no business to stop the release of routine data that were due to be made public in the normal course. 

The point to be noted here is that the Election Commission has been inconsistent in its approach to the entire issue.

If the release of consumer price index data is to be avoided because of the code of conduct, then the proposal for appointing a new chief executive of a PSU too should have been subjected to its clearance. What is not known is whether the government had sought the clearance of the Election Commission before going ahead with the appointment of Mr Jadhav as Nacil's chairman and managing director.

It is likely that the Election Commission may not have been kept in the loop as far as this decision is concerned.

In that case, the problem gets even more complicated. General elections in this country are held every five years in the normal course. Why can't we have a system in place to ensure that all decisions of the government, taken after the notification of the polls, are vetted and cleared by the Election Commission without any exception?

A better alternative is to create a mechanism within the government that reviews all proposals mooted by ministers after the elections are announced.

In 1991, the office of the Cabinet Secretary played a crucial role in reviewing all proposals mooted by the Chandra Shekhar government after elections were announced.

It stalled some controversial proposals that sought to award contracts to some companies. At the same time, it allowed the proposal to mortgage gold to foreign banks so that the Indian government did not default on its international payments obligations.

It may be a good idea for the Election Commission to devise a similar mechanism that can be made operational once the general elections are notified. The government will then be more circumspect as all its decisions will be subjected to a review by a new body.

Those that are controversial and can be deferred can also be stalled till a new government is formed after the elections.

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A K Bhattacharya
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