The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Letter that turned into last straw

New Delhi, Jan. 19: Cabinet secretary Kamal Pande’s note to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appears to be the proverbial last straw that made the government decide on T.S. Krishnamurthy as the next chief election commissioner.

Pande is said to have pointed out that it would not be advisable to “deviate” from the “convention” of elevating the senior-most election commissioner and bring in an outsider to head the panel.

A section of the government was in favour of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s suggestion that Finance Commission member and former cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad, an Andhra cadre officer, should be appointed poll panel chief after J.M. Lyngdoh retires on February 7.

With political and bureaucratic corridors of the capital thick with news of Prasad’s appointment, both Krishnamurthy and his other colleague in the commission, B.B. Tandon, reportedly made it clear they would resign if an “outsider” is appointed chief.

The IAS lobby, too, is said to have approached Brajesh Mishra, one of Vajpayee’s closest aides, to apprise him of the purported “violation of hierarchy” in a bureaucratic set-up, although the chief election commissioner’s post is a constitutional position.

The speculation on who would succeed Lyngdoh reached its peak on January 14. The section favouring Prasad felt it was the Prime Minister’s prerogative to appoint a person of his choice as under Article 324 of the Constitution, the President nods his assent to a person chosen by the Prime Minister.

The names of former CBI director P.C. Sharma and former commerce secretary Deepak Chatterjee were suggested as the other two election commissioners in case Krishnamurthy and Tandon resigned over Prasad’s appointment.

Earlier, on January 12, Vajpayee reportedly told this section not to generate a controversy as, at “this time of the feel-good factor”, the government should not be seen as imposing a chief election commissioner to suit the ruling coalition’s needs.

Sources said Pande “acted swiftly” before matters came to a head. He is understood to have prevailed upon both Krishnamurthy and Tandon “not to precipitate matters” by resigning.

By January 16 and 17, there were enough indications that the “convention” set by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao — of elevating the senior-most election commissioner much before the retirement of the incumbent chief — would be followed.

But by then the media had got to know that Prasad’s name was among those doing the rounds. It triggered a controversy, with the Congress criticising the government’s purported move and attributing motives.

Sources said Vajpayee, after the Opposition’s hue and cry, is believed to have said that when things were working “well” for the BJP-led coalition, a controversy was “unwarranted”. “Thus, the file of Krishnamurthy, the senior-most after Lyngdoh in the Election Commission, was brought back to the law ministry for consideration,” a source said.

Tandon, too, had decided to throw in his lot with Krishnamurthy because Prasad’s appointment would have ended his hopes of becoming the panel’s chief after Krishnamurthy, who retires in May next year. Tandon retires in June 2006. Prasad would have retired after him.

Sources said Vajpayee anticipated considerable embarrassment to the government if both election commissioners resigned, forcing it to appoint three fresh members with one of them as chief.

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