Lok Sabha polls: Why did EC Arun Goel resign? The question lingers

There are also other mysteries that cast grave doubt on the mandated non-partisan conduct of the Election Commission

Former election commissioner Arun Goel (right) with chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar (left) (photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Former election commissioner Arun Goel (right) with chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar (left) (photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Uttam Sengupta

A remarkable editorial in the Times of India (11 March) had an unusual headline: ‘EC Exit, No Big Worry’.

It referred to the sudden and unexpected resignation of Election Commissioner Arun Goel on 8 March, less than a week before the expected announcement of the poll schedule.

The resignation, notified late on Saturday evening, had taken even the chief election commissioner (CEC), Rajiv Kumar, and other ECI officials by surprise, held media reports.

The resignation was sent directly to the President of India and not marked to the CEC. No reason was cited by Goel, who would have become CEC himself in due course in 2025. Batchmates of this former bureaucrat took to social media to express their surprise and were unanimous in saying that Goel was in the pink of health.

Indeed, Goel had accompanied Rajiv Kumar to West Bengal in the first week of March to oversee final arrangements for conducting the general election in the state. However, he flew back to New Delhi on 5 March without attending the usual end-of-the-visit media briefing. It was claimed that he had flown back due to ‘health reasons’.

Media reports on Sunday, 10 March, suggested that Goel had attended office on 6–7 March before sending in his resignation to the President on Friday morning. It was accepted in less than 24 hours and the vacancy in the EC caused by his resignation was notified the next evening.

The TOI editorial was remarkable because all the facts around the resignation were yet to surface and Goel himself had not broken his silence. Nor was there a clarification from the ECI or the union government. The hurriedly written editorial sought to underline that there was no reason for the elections to be affected by the resignation.

Former CEC S.Y. Quraishi appeared to hold similar views and said the resignation was of only academic interest. Indian general elections are on auto-pilot, he said, and are conducted by over a million government employees. Election Commissioners supervise policies and perform quasi-judicial duties like adjudicating complaints.

Not everyone is convinced.

Till the 1980s, the Election Commission was a one-man institution before Rajiv Gandhi made it a three-member body. The Election Commission had worked just as well with only the CEC, the editorial stressed, and even now the CEC is supreme. There was, therefore, no reason why elections should not proceed on schedule, just as there was no need to rush to fill the two vacancies — the other EC, Anoop Chandra Pandey, having ended his term on 15 February.

The editorial made a passing reference to the ‘less than ideal’ law passed in November 2023 related to the appointment of Election Commissioners with an ‘in-built 2-1 skew’ in favour of the government, but the main burden of its argument was that the election should proceed on schedule.

The attempt to downplay this inexplicable resignation before a crucial election in the history of our nation is disconcerting.

Equally unsettling are media reports which began circulating on 10 March, suggesting that Arun Goel was an ‘average’ officer, that he had a record of not lasting in any post for very long, with 40 postings in 35 years of service in the IAS.

The suspicions around the resignation were strengthened by the fact that this sly vilification campaign was launched by Times Now, the TV channel in the TOI stable.

The unusual hurry in accepting the resignation—practically within 24 hours—and the government’s plan to fill up the two vacancies on 15 March, ahead of the announcement of the poll schedule also raised eyebrows.

In a letter to President Droupadi Murmu on 10 March (a Sunday), E.A.S. Sarma, a highly regarded former civil servant, urged an inquiry into the circumstances of Arun Goel’s resignation. The election should not proceed before the inquiry is completed and the State Bank of India has shared details of the electoral bonds with the Election Commission and the people, he urged.

Significantly, the letter urged the President to get the inquiry done by sitting judges of the Supreme Court and to find out answers to the following questions:

  • Did Arun Goel express his dissent on the way the political executive has been trying to interfere with the electoral process in several ways, vitiating its sanctity?

  • Did Goel express doubts about the efficacy of the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs)?

  • Did he express his concern at the way the political executive has pressured SBI not to disclose the details of the EBS?

  • Was there any proposal from Goel to freeze the residual amounts received by the political parties under the EBS to prevent their use in the ensuing elections?

  • Did he propose the BJP’s nominees from the boards of BEL, ECIL and SBI be withdrawn to maintain the sanctity of the electoral process?

  • Did Goel express his dissent on any other matter that would have displeased the political executive?

  • Did the highest within the political executive force Goel to tender his resignation to clear the way for the ruling party’s machinations?

Is there something that the former secretary to the government of India knows that we don’t? It is entirely possible that the EC was forced to resign.

The letter also pointed out that the term of the present Lok Sabha ends on 16 June this year. The Election Commission could therefore delay the announcement of the poll schedule till 27 March or beyond.

Hinting that the inquiries by Supreme Court judges would not take long, Sarma’s letter suggested that the President could invoke her powers in the Constitution and direct the Election Commission not to go ahead with the announcement of the election.

If necessary, he suggested, the present government could be asked to function as a ‘caretaker government’, with restrictions on its power to spend.

The Election Commission’s powers have expanded exponentially over the years, going beyond the mere conduct of elections to allocating party symbols, de-recognising parties, enforcing the Model Code of Conduct, penalising parties for non-compliance and, as seen recently, fundamentally altering the fortunes of political parties by adjudicating on ‘splits’ within their ranks.

The ECI, pointed out the Supreme Court in March 2023, was conceived by the framers of the Indian Constitution as an independent body free from interference by the political executive.

The Constituent Assembly, however, could not decide how to ensure its independence and insulation from the party in power. It left the issue open to the Parliament to enact an appropriate law to guarantee its independence.

Successive parliaments, however, failed to enact such a law and the President of India continued to appoint the chief election commissioner and thereafter election commissioners on the advice of the union cabinet.

The intention of the framers of the Constitution was that the President’s power would be transitional, until Parliament made a law. In its 2023 judgement, the Supreme Court noticed this breach and held that this presidential power could not continue indefinitely, as it was meant to be transitional. Parliament had an "obligation" to make a law on the appointment of election commissioners, it pointed out.

Until Parliament did so, the Supreme Court set out an ‘interim’ arrangement with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India as the appointing body.

However, the Supreme Court also held in that same judgement that the role performed by the Election Commission in a democracy required it to be independent of the political executive, and that any law made by Parliament would have to conform to this principle.

The union government, however, vigorously argued in court that appointing election commissioners was the sole prerogative of the government.

When Parliament did finally pass a law in November 2023, it unsurprisingly allowed the government to call the shots. Not only was a committee of serving bureaucrats headed by the union law minister asked to shortlist potential appointees, their eligibility was also restricted to the bureaucracy working under the government. The law also replaced the interim committee by dropping the Chief Justice of India and including a cabinet minister chosen by the Prime Minister in the three-member committee, allowing the government to have its way.

The Supreme Court’s judgement had clearly specified that the law enacted by Parliament would have to guarantee the independence of the Election Commission. While earlier appointments were indeed under the control of the executive (via the President), bad past practice is no justification for letting it continue, the court had reasoned.

In democracies across the world, appointment processes are either non-partisan or multi-partisan, with stakeholders from both the government and the opposition. A body chosen by the executive cannot be independent of the executive. It is contrary to the Constitution because it allows one team (the government) to choose the referee.

A Supreme Court bench comprising justices Sanjeev Khanna and Dipankar Dutta in January this year admitted a petition challenging the new recruitment law but refused to urgently hear the constitutional challenge to the law enacted on the eve of the general election.

It also refused to fix a hearing on the question of staying it.

In view of the resignation of Arun Goel, the haste with which his resignation was accepted and the government’s sudden and suspicious hurry to fill up the two vacancies in the Election Commission, it could well be another missed opportunity to make the Commission independent of the executive.


The Election Commission’s credibility in recent years has moved in inverse proportion to its rising authority and power in recent years.

Widespread complaints of missing voter names from electoral rolls, its reluctance to even discuss vulnerabilities in the EVM ‘system’ and its seemingly irrational decisions have strengthened the impression that it increasingly favours the government.

The Commission’s U-turn on the electoral bond issue, supporting it after initially opposing the scheme, is also a case in point. It must shoulder an equal share of the blame for allowing this unconstitutional and opaque system to continue for the past six years.

Arun Goel, alleged the Trinamool Congress, had disagreed with the number of phases of polling in West Bengal that the union government apparently wanted in 2024.

In 2019, polling in West Bengal had stretched for 39 days, beginning on 11 April and ending on 19 May, in seven phases. It apparently helped the BJP move its workers from one constituency to another.

The ‘conspiracy theory’ gained strength because Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, with 40 Lok Sabha seats, had single-phase polling while Madhya Pradesh, a larger state with fewer seats (29), had polling in four phases.

The long polling schedule also made a mockery of the ‘silent period’ when campaigning, barring door-to-door visits, ceases roughly 48 hours before the start of polling. With campaigning ongoing in those constituencies where polling was scheduled later, the BJP’s star campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was allowed to hog television time even as polling began in others.

In enforcing the model code of conduct too, the ECI has been partisan in allowing Prime Minister Modi to seek votes in the name of the armed forces, martyrs and religion.

In 2019, the Prime Minister asked for votes by invoking the memory of martyrs in Pulwama; in the Karnataka assembly election, he invoked the name of Bajrangbali — both violations of the code.

But the Election Commission ignored these violations while pulling up Rahul Gandhi for using the word panauti (a bad omen) while referring to the Prime Minister.

The Commission has refused to give an appointment to a delegation of Opposition party leaders for the past eight months. Neither has it bothered to respond to the I.N.D.I.A. bloc's formal request to count all the VVPAT slips and match them with the count on the EVM.

Not all is well in the Election Commission, which is increasingly behaving like an arm of the government.

A partisan ECI can scarcely be expected to conduct a free and fair election — which is why the sudden resignation of Arun Goel and rapid addition of two replacements to fill the gaps just before the polls has reinforced the sense of unease in sceptical citizens.

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