Retired IAS officer Nilam Sawhney began her new innings on Thursday (April 1) as the first woman State Election Commissioner (SEC) of Andhra Pradesh amid a hostile reception from most opposition parties.
The Telugu Desam Party, the BJP, Jana Sena and the CPI boycotted the first meeting called by her on Friday. The ruling YSR Congress, Congress and the CPI-M attended the meeting called to seek parties’ cooperation in conducting of zilla parishad elections.
The SEC had sent out the invite to all political parties on Thursday evening. However, within a couple of hours, she announced that the elections would be held as per schedule announced by her predecessor, Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar on March last year. The process had been put on hold on grounds of Covid-19 pandemic.
What upset the opposition parties is the announcement of the decision to hold the polls before listening to them. “The meeting had no meaning since the SEC decided on the dates before consulting the parties,” said state BJP state chief Somu Veerraju. His views were shared by Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan and state TDP president K Atchen Naidu. Pawan said the SEC’s decision would favour the ruling party.
The TDP, which charged the SEC with bias towards the YSR Congress, has decided to boycott the ZP elections. The TDP was routed in the elections held for municipal corporations and municipalities in February. The party also faced defeat in panchayat polls the same month.
The BJP has moved the high court seeking a direction to the SEC to cancel the notification and issue a fresh one. The Jana Sena Party’s petition is already pending with the court.
Nilam Sawhney is the second to head the State Election Commission in the bifurcated Andhra Pradesh. Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar is her predecessor. They both come from bureaucratic backgrounds. While Ramesh had retired as special chief secretary, Nilam was the chief secretary.
The two have faced allegations of having soft corner for different parties. Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy openly spoke about Nimmagadda’s caste and political inclination towards the TDP. He spent his energies to oust Ramesh as the SEC. He brought retired Tamil Nadu judge Kanagaraj as the SEC, after removing Ramesh through an ordinance, reducing the tenure of commissioner to three years from the original five years.
However, Ramesh took the battle to the Supreme Court and had the last laugh. The apex court declared the ordinance invalid. During the episode, the Jagan government supported the argument that retired judges would best suit the post.
Strangely, when Nimmagadda retired, Jagan chose Nilam Sawhney, another retired IAS officer, as the commissioner. Till being appointed as the SEC, she was advisor to the government, holding the cabinet minister rank.
Jagan brought her from Central service to make her the chief secretary in November 2019. She retired on January, 2021 and was made the principal advisor.
What’s interesting is that when Ramesh Kumar, who retired on March 31 this year, was the SEC, the ruling YSRCP had boycotted all the meetings convened by him. The government had even directed officials to stay away from the SEC meetings. Now, it’s the other way round: After Nilam took over, the YSRCP is quick to attend her meetings, and the opposition has preferred to stay away.
“The SEC is a constitutional authority like the Election Commission of India. It should be independent,” says retired bureaucrat EAS Sarma. “The SEC selection is left to the state government, subject to the governor’s approval. This calls for a change. The administrative reforms committees have suggested the selection by a committee comprising CM, leader of Opposition and the Speaker. I would suggest inclusion of chief justice of the state High Court also to decide on the commissioner. The tenure must be fixed and his removal should be referred to the same committee,” says Sarma.
He said the selection should be transparent, and retired judges could also be considered for the post.