Every morning when officials of the Election Commission (EC) check into their Ashoka Road office in the heart of national capital, they are greeted by piles of proposals waiting for clearance.
During the course of the day, 60-70 new proposals pour in from various ministries and departments. Some projects do get cleared, but many, such as the issuance of new bank licences, continue to shuttle between the first-floor office of Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath and the section office on the sixth floor. The Reserve Bank of India's proposal to allot bank licences has been pending for the past three weeks.
According to the model code of conduct that kicks in once the general elections are announced, the Centre cannot take any major policy decision unless cleared by EC. The Lok Sabha elections were announced on March 5 and the commission will continue to dictate terms till polling is over on May 16.
Ministry officials sometimes queue outside the offices of the commission's concerned functionaries pleading for speedy clearance of their respective projects - the first explicit sign of a change of government. Their requests to security staff for access accentuate the fact the power corridors of North Block and South Block have shifted to the nearby Nirvachan Sadan.
Decisions by Sampath and his two colleagues, H S Brahma and Nasim Zaidi, are final and cannot be challenged in a court. Such untrammelled power has irked Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.
"It (EC) cannot be a parallel government… This is the problem with our constitutional bodies. Whether it is the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) or the EC, they are perfectly normal when they are working in the government. The moment they become members of the body, they suddenly think their service as God's gift to humanity," Ramesh was quoted by a section of the media on Friday.
The minister's comment followed EC's decision to put on hold a proposed hike in gas prices from Tuesday. "I am sure the government will appeal EC cannot sit in judgment on executive decisions. Otherwise, the government will come to a halt," he said.
But the commission is clear about its role. "We don't look at the financial side of the project about who is gaining or losing. What we are bothered about is it should not give any undue benefit to the ruling or opposition party. Elections should be held in a free and fair manner," said a senior EC official, on condition of anonymity. The commission has also deferred privatisation of six airports in the country.
The EC has a separate wing that handles all the issues pertaining to the model code of conduct and is headed by a deputy election commissioner. The other staff include a director-general, principal secretary and a handful of junior officers. Most of the issues are sorted by these officials but sensitive matters are put up to three-member commission on Tuesdays and Fridays.
"If the government does its job honestly, half of the things would not land at our door. They just want to pass the buck to EC," said another official, who too refused to be identified.