The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is currently investigating Abir Lavasa, son of former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, and he company in which he holds a directorial position under Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA).
Abir is the fifth member of the family to be investigated by the agencies.
Lavasa’s Rift With EC
The series of investigation began after Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa disagreed with Chief Election Commissioner that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah violated the Model Code of Conduct during the Lok Sabha elections this year.
The rift within the three-member Election Commission headed by CEC Sunil Arora came into the open after Lavasa wrote a letter in which he said he was avoiding meetings since his decisions were not being recorded.
Lavasa: Next CEC?
Lavasa is set to be the next CEC following the convention that the senior-most Election Commissioner is appointed as CEC, after Sunil Arora retires in April 2021.
The series of allegations and cases against him and his family might have been initiated to prevent that appointment. The central agencies seem to be laying grounds to replace Lavasa if not oust him from the post and harass officials who perform their duties with due diligence and transparency.
While the EC can be dismissed by Presidential order, the CEC can only be impeached after the approval of the two-thirds majority of the Parliament.
Family Comes Under Scanner
After the dissent note, Ashok Lavasa’s wife, an independent director on the boards of some companies, was served a notice from the Income Tax department in September. She had resigned from the State Bank of India after 28 years of service in 2005 and joined the boards of some companies as an independent director.
On 9 September, Novel claimed she was put through several rounds of interrogation and threats of prosecution without the presence of any other woman in the room. She alleged that she was put under immense pressure to disclose her email passwords and download personal emails.
Later, Lavasa’s daughter Avny Lavasa came under the scanner as she was the Leh district election officer, a post she held since September 2017, after she accused the BJP of violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
She had initiated an inquiry into a complaint filed by the Leh Press Club into charges that Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief Ravinder Raina had tried to bribe journalists to publish reports favouring BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
On May 10, she wrote a letter to the General Officer Commanding, 14 Corps, regarding a complaint in which a Ladakh candidate alleged that commanding officers were asking army jawans to disclose their voting preferences instead of giving them ballot papers. She was later transferred to Jammu and Kashmir Economic Reconstruction Agency (JKERA) in July as CEO.
The government has written, confidentially, to at least 11 Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) asking them whether Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa used “undue influence” during his tenure in the power ministry (2009-2013). The letter was sent a list of 14 companies and 135 projects related to power and renewable energy involving Lavasa’s wife Novel Lavasa as well.
The ED is now currently investigating Ashok’s son Abir and the accounts of Nourish Organic Foods Limited, a company in which he is a director. One of the allegations against Abir involved a suspicious transaction worth Rs 7.25 crore from the investor Saama Capital in March 2019. He was also subjected to interrogation for over six hours.
Meanwhile, Ashok’s sister Shakuntala, a paediatrician, was also sent a notice from the Income Tax department for a house in Gurgaon that she had purchased from her brother in 2017-18 worth Rs 1.86 crore.
In addition, the tax department has reportedly questioned Rupali Buildwell Private Limited, a building firm that constructed the four-storeyed building in Gurgaon.
EC’s Autonomy On Wane?
The action against members of the Lavasa family following Ashok Lavasa’s dissent questions the Election Commission’s purpose of being an autonomous body.
Even before the Lok Sabha elections, 66 top bureaucrats in a letter to the President had expressed concern that the poll body was “suffering from a crisis of credibility and endangering the integrity of the electoral process”, the Deccan Herald reported. The letter criticised the Election Commission’s weak response to the “misuse, abuse and blatant disregard” of the poll code by the BJP.
The main objective of the Model Code of Conduct is to reduce poll-related violence, incendiary speeches, misuse of money and power and other electoral malpractices. It is expected to ensure a sound and democratic electoral system.
The refusal to disclose the dissent note by Ashok Lavasa under the RTI Act raises questions at the transparency of the election body’s functioning. The Election Commission said it was exempted information which may “endanger the life or physical safety” of an individual.