In a season of public and repeated conflict with the Election Commission, the government is reportedly toying with a move that could leave the commission virtually powerless. The Group of Ministers assigned to combat corruption is said to be considering whether to end one of the commission's key areas of responsibility: the code of conduct that applies during elections. The ministers, headed by Pranab Mukherjee, allegedly want to give the code statutory weight - this means that a court would handle any violations, rather than the Election Commission.
The Centre has, however, denied reports that it is planning to undermine the Election Commission's authority by making the model code of conduct statutory. But notes circulated among the Group of Ministers, now accessed by NDTV, describe the code of conduct as "one of the biggest excuses to stall development projects." There's also a reference to the fact that Law Minister Salman Khurshid wanted this aspect flagged. A meeting of the GoM is scheduled for today.
Yesterday, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal said concerns over the Government planning to curb the poll panel's powers were baseless. "It has come up for the first time and there is nothing on the GoM agenda," Mr Mukherjee said.
"I am on the GoM and have not dealt with the issue and that meeting has not taken place and there is no such proposal," Mr Sibal said.
Salman Khurshid has also rubbished the reports. "To my knowledge, there is no such thing on the agenda. As far as I understand, it was agreed that once the elections are over, there will be an all-party consultation on the issue about electoral reforms which are being pushed by the EC," Mr Khurshid told reporters.
In a statement released on the eve of the GoM meeting, the Department of Personnel and Training also denied it saying, "There is no such move under contemplation of the government or the Group of Ministers. The GoM has not made any recommendation to make the model code of conduct statutory or to take it outside the purview of the commission."
The opposition is however not ready to buy the denials. Reacting to the reports, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley slammed the government. "It is incorrect to say that the model code of conduct is not binding. It is non-statutory but making it is within the constitutional power of the Election Commission," he said.
Mr Khurshid has in the past few months hurtled down a collision course with the Election Commission. Most recently, he was served notice for ignoring the code of conduct while campaigning in his wife's constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Mr Khurshid announced at a rally his party's plans to create a sub-quota for Muslims within the existing reservation model. The Commission served him notice, and he said he had simply shared what was listed in his party's manifesto. Later, he said he regretted the incident.
This week, another union minister, Beni Prasad Verma, made the same reference to the Muslim quota and said the commission was free to serve him a notice if it wanted. That happened, and Mr Verma is scheduled to defend himself on Friday, before the poll panel officials.