India’s election commissioner quits weeks before nationwide polls

India’s election commissioner quits weeks before nationwide polls

India’s second-highest election commission official abruptly resigned on Saturday just weeks ahead of nationwide polls to elect the next prime minister in a shocking decision that has drawn flak from opposition parties.

Election commissioner Arun Goel’s resignation leaves the three-member constitutional body, which already had a vacant position, with just one active member to oversee elections in the country with over 960 million registered voters.

Mr Goel’s resignation was accepted by Indian president Droupadi Murmu, a Ministry of Law and Justice gazette notification said, without delving into the reason for his departure.

His resignation came within a month of election commissioner Anup Pandey’s retirement, leaving the three-member body with only chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar.

India’s leading opposition party Congress expressed “deep concern” over Mr Goel’s resignation and other opposition members called on the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to come out with a “reasonable explanation”.

The dates for the 2024 parliamentary election were anticipated to be announced next week, but with the election commissioner’s resignation, there’s doubt cast on its timeline.

“India now has only one Election Commissioner, even as Lok Sabha elections are to be announced in few days. Why? As I have said earlier, if we do not stop the systematic decimation of our independent institutions, our democracy shall be usurped by dictatorship!,” Congress Chief Mallikajun Kharge posted on X.

It is not immediately clear when new commissioners could be appointed in time for the election slated for this year.

Appointing election commissioners involves a search committee that is led by the law minister and includes two union secretaries, who shortlist five names.

A committee led by the prime minister, and including a union minister nominated by the PM, the parliament leader of the opposition, or the leader of the single-largest opposition party then selects the final candidate who is then finally appointed by the president.

Mr Kharge alleged that the election commission would be “among the last Constitutional institutions to fall”.

“Since the new process of selecting the Election Commissioners have now effectively given all the power to the ruling party and the PM, why has the new election commissioner not appointed even after 23 days of the completion of latter’s tenure? Modi government must answer these questions and come out with a reasonable explanation,” he said.

In the run-up to the elections, Mr Goel reportedly was part of a recent election commission team to visit the states of Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.

But after his most-recent trip to West Bengal to oversee the eastern state’s poll preparedness, he did not attend the commission’s customary press conference, which officials said was due to Mr Goel’s health concerns.

“Did he actually resign over differences with the Chief Election Commissioner or with the Modi Govt, which does the front-seat driving for all supposedly independent institutions?,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh speculated on X.

“Each passing day in Modi’s India deals an added blow to democracy and democratic institutions,” Mr Ramesh said.

Saket Gokhale, another leader of the prominent opposition party Trinamool Congress echoed Mr Kharge’s concerns.

“In a sudden move, Election Commissioner Arun Goel has abruptly resigned. The post of the other EC is vacant. That leaves the Election Commission now with just one Chief Election Commissioner,” Mr Gokhale said.

“Modi government has introduced a new law where Election Commissioners will now be appointed with a majority vote of PM Modi and one minister chosen by him,” he said.