THE Election Commission of India (ECI) is intended to be an autonomous body. But its independence has been on the wane, especially since the 2019 Lok Sabha election when it appeared to be under the influence of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ashok Lavasa was the sole member of the Commission who refused to give a clean chit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in the matter of electoral process violations. Just a few months after the new government was formed, the Commissioner seemed to be paying the price for his dissent.
Investigations have been initiated against five members of his family. All notices have been responded to and all information and documents sought by the Income Tax (IT) Department have been provided, they said.
On September 9, pursuant to a personal summons, Lavasa’s wife, Novel, was at the IT Department from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. She said she was subjected to multiple rounds of hostile and irrelevant questioning under constant threats of prosecution, even though she repeatedly registered her discomfort and distress. All this was done without the presence of any woman in the room.
Their son Abir Lavasa was subjected to questioning for more than six hours, and he left only after the Deputy Director of IncomeTax (Investigations) said he had nothing more to ask. Another member of their household was subjected to questioning from 5 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. and was queried about personal details of the family.
Novel Lavasa had received notices from the IT Department with regard to her income as an independent director in several companies. It is being alleged that she became an independent director in the companies after her husband became a Secretary in the Ministry of Environment in 2015. A former banker, Novel Lavasa served as a Class I officer with State Bank of India for 28 years before retiring in 2005.
Speaking to Frontline , she said: “Over different periods of time I have held independent directorships in 10 companies [six of them subsidiaries of a large, reputable Indian company]. All payments received were done through bank accounts after deducting tax at source, also shown in Form 26AS, and taxes paid have been duly reflected in my returns on timely basis. The IT Department also expressed doubt on my suitability and capabilities to hold these positions, even though this has no relevance to income tax matters.”
She added that it hurt her pride as a capable, experienced professional to be questioned on her credentials and self-worth, “to cast aspersions on my achievements as if they are due to the position of my husband. It shows a biased mindset, which doubts the merit and achievements of all those who are related to public servants. This mindset also believes in an exaggerated authority and power that public servants wield in all spheres of society and undermines their independence and decision-making abilities.”
Abir Lavasa also received a similar notice from the IT Department in August. The department reportedly surveyed the books of Nourish Organic Foods Pvt. Ltd, of which Abir is the chief executive officer. He holds 10,000 shares of the company, received as part of an employee stock option plan in the last financial year. His shareholding is reportedly worth Rs.1.5 crore.
A graduate of the Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Abir is a marketing and strategy professional with experience in telecom and online retail. He has worked with Reliance Jio and was part of the management of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. He is also a Ranji Trophy player who represented Haryana. Abir joined Nourish Organics in November 2016.
Some of the transactions under investigation reportedly happened before Abir’s association with the company. According to the company website, Nourish Organics operates out of Manesar, connects with farmers’ cooperatives at the grass-roots level, and procures raw materials from several women’s self-help groups.
One of the allegations against Abir involves a suspicious transaction worth Rs.7.25 crore from the investor Saama Capital in March 2019. Saama Capital is an India-focussed venture capital fund based out of Bengaluru.
Ashok Lavasa’s sister, Shakuntala Lavasa, a paediatrician, is also under the tax scanner for a house she purchased from her brother in Gurgaon for Rs.1.86 crore in 2017-18.The builder of the four-storeyed house also reportedly got a visit from the tax department.
Novel Lavasa told Frontline that the manner in which the probe was being conducted and actions such as pressuring her to disclose her email passwords and downloading her personal emails of several years had caused mental trauma.
“This has been going on for more than two months, and the high-handedness of the officers of the department has increased day after day as no senior functionary is willing to check this rampant misuse of authority despite being aware and specifically requested in this regard,” she said.
Ashok Lavasa’s daughter, Avny Lavasa, who was the Deputy Commissioner (D.C.) of Leh from September 2017, was transferred in July and posted as CEO, Jammu & Kashmir Economic Reconstruction Agency (JKERA). As the D.C. of Leh, Avny, a Jammu and Kashmir cadre officer from the 2013 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), had developed a reputation for being efficient.
As Leh district election officer, she was in the limelight for pulling up the BJP for violation of the Model Code of Conduct. She initiated an inquiry into a complaint of the Leh Press Club that the president of the Jammu and Kashmir BJP, Ravinder Raina, and MLC Vikram Randhawa had tried to bribe journalists at a press conference on May 2 in order to get reports favourable to the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
A fact-finding inquiry found prima facie merit in the allegations of bribery, and Avny’s office actively pursued the filing of a first information report (FIR) in the matter.
On May 10, she wrote a letter to the General Officer Commanding, 14 Corps, that a complaint had been received from a candidate for the Ladakh parliamentary constituency alleging malpractice by various commanding officers of the Army in the electronic postal ballot system. The complaint alleged that the commanding officers were telephonically asking jawans for their voting preference rather than supplying them with ballot papers for casting votes.
“This is in gross violation of secrecy of voting and a malpractice that has the potential to invite strict legal action. In this context, it is requested that all the concerned officers may be sensitised about the issue and the sanctity of election process maintained,” said the letter, which was also addressed to the Chief Electoral Officer of Jammu and Kashmir, Senior Superintendent of Police, Leh, and all candidates.
A 1980 batch Haryana cadre IAS officer, Ashok Lavasa had multiple stints with the government of Haryana before moving to the Union government where he served as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs and as Additional Secretary and Special Secretary in the Ministry of Power, followed by a posting as Secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and then as Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.
In May 2016, he was designated Finance Secretary, being the senior-most secretary in the Finance Ministry.
Post-retirement, Lavasa was appointed Election Commissioner (E.C.) in January 2018 alongside Sushil Chandra and Chief Election Commisioner (CEC) Sunil Arora. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, several complaints came before the ECI where Lavasa differed from the others.
In the case of BJP leader Gulab Chand Kataria in Udaipur, who was accused of making provocative and communal speeches, Lavasa was of the view that he should be barred from campaigning and an FIR lodged against him. Eventually, the ECI just handed him a censure.
In the case of Member of Parliament Pragya Singh Thakur and her problematic statements, Lavasa’s opinion of giving her a 72-hour ban prevailed. But his suggestion for setting up a mechanism to deal with complaints on a daily basis did not cut much ice with the other E.Cs.
The Supreme Court pulled up the ECI for delays in responding to complaints. It was only after this that people began filing complaints to the ECI about Prime Minister Modi. The ECI cleared four speeches of Modi and one of Amit Shah, with Lavasa dissenting against the majority decision. Modi was cleared for his speech in Latur where he appealed to first-time voters to dedicate their first vote to the martyrs of Pulwama. This was in violation of the ECI advisory against politicising defence issues.
In his speech in Patan, Gujarat, Modi said that India had kept Pakistan on its toes until that country safely released Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, for which he was given a clean chit.
His speech in Wardha, where his insinuation that Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala had communal overtones, was similarly cleared.
In these cases, district electoral officers had recorded that the content was either inconsistent or violative of the advisory. Lavasa was of the view that it went against the spirit of the Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of the People Act which disallows candidates to invoke religion while seeking votes.
Ultimately, Lavasa opted out of attending meetings relating to the Model Code as the ECI rejected his demand that dissent notes be recorded. The CEC even issued a statement referring to the whole episode as “unsavoury and avoidable controversy”, and took a strong view of making public “the internal functioning of the ECI”. When Sunil Arora retires in April 2021, Lavasa is set to be the next CEC following the convention that the senior-most E.C. is appointed as CEC. The cases against him and his family might have been initiated to prevent that outcome, observers say. Given his conduct during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the ruling party views him as a “dissenter” and would not like him to become CEC, according to them.
The CEC cannot be easily removed from his post and would have to be impeached by Parliament, with a two-thirds majority in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The E.C.s, however, can be removed by the President of India on the recommendation of the CEC.
While no CEC has ever been impeached in India, in 2009, ahead of the Lok Sabha election, CEC N. Gopalaswami had recommended the removal of E.C. Navin Chawla citing his “partisan behaviour” in favour of a political party. The then President, Pratibha Patil, rejected the recommendation stating that it was not binding on the President. Subsequently, after Gopalaswami retired, Chawla became the CEC.
The persecution of Lavasa is not an exception. Any bureaucrat who does not toe the line is summarily pulled up by politicians. Owing to the fear of repercussions that can come in the form of a job loss, transfer or, worse, of being hounded by false cases, many bureaucrats have become rubber stamps of the new political masters.
Speaking to Frontline , Dr E.A.S. Sarma, a 1965 batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer, who was transferred 26 times in his 35-year tenure for standing his ground against various governments, said that it was of paramount importance that senior civil servants were not transferred subject to the whims and the fancies of the political executive.
“Senior members of the civil services, such as Secretaries, are required to advise the political executive on formulation of long-term policies in different sectors and ensure that the decisions taken conform with the law of the land and are consistent with the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. It is therefore of paramount importance that senior civil servants are permitted to have a reasonable tenure in office.... Transfers of such civil servants should preferably be in accordance with a well-thought-out transfer policy and the decisions on transfers made on the advice of professionals of good credentials,” he said.