The Centre on Thursday tabled Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment Conditions of Service and Term of Office Bill, 2023 in the Rajya Sabha which seeks to replace Chief Justice of India (CJI) with a Union Minister in a panel that selects CEC and two ECs.

If the Bill is passed by Parliament, the government will have control over appointments to the CEC, a move that Opposition dubbed as a “Black Day for Indian democracy”.

Future CECs and ECs will be selected by a three-member panel headed by the Prime Minister and include the leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Cabinet Minister. Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey, a former UP cadres IAS officer, will demit office on February 14, creating a vacancy in the Election Commission of India (EC) a couple of months before the general elections next year.

The Bill, introduced in Rajya Sabha by Union Minister of Law and Justice Arjun Ram Meghwal amidst ruckus by opposition over Manipur issue, comes about four months after the Supreme Court stamped that a three-member panel, headed by the Prime Minister and comprising the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India, will select the CEC and ECs till parliament frames a law on the composition and functioning of the apex poll body. The apex court’s March verdict, legal experts had then stated, was aimed at insulating the appointment of the CEC and EC from the executive’s interference.

‘Sinister ploy’

Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala charged the Bill is a “sinister ploy to hijack democracy by constituting a puppet Modi Election Commission” and comes ahead of BJP facing imminent defeat in the five election going States as also 2024 Lok Sabha polls. “ECI will now be among the last Constitutional institutions to fall at the altar of usurpation of power by any or all means by an autocrat Prime Minister,” Surjewala alleged.

The Bill states that the appointments in Election Commission would be from among people who hold or have held posts equivalent to secretary of the government of India. They will also be “persons of integrity, who have knowledge of and experience in management and conduct of elections”. The first round of screening of probables would be done by a search panel headed by Union Cabinet Secretary and comprising two members not below the rank of secretary “having knowledge and experience in matters relating to elections, shall prepare a panel of five persons”. The shortlised candidates’ names would then be forwarded to the committee headed by PM to finally pick names of CEC and ECs as and when there is vacancy, as per the Bill.

“The appointment of Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners shall not be invalid merely by reason of any vacancy in or any defect in the constitution of the selection committee,” the Bill insists. The Selection Committee which as per the bill would regulate its procedure in a “transparent manner” has been empowered to consider any other person for appointment to ECI apart from those whose names were included in the short-lised list of panel.