The income-tax department’s recent notices to and questioning of Novel Singhal Lavasa on her I-T returns for the past five years might be mistaken by some as political vendetta. This is because her husband, Ashok Lavasa, is an election commissioner, who, like Justices Vijaya Tahilramani and Akil Kureshi, took decisions and acted in a way that didn’t gladden the powers that be. During this summer's Lok Sabha election, Mr Lavasa on May 16 wrote to his boss, Sunil Arora, a man who from the government’s point of view is a most cooperative constitutional authority, to say he would stop attending meetings of the three-member commission as his dissenting views weren’t being recorded. Mr Lavasa’s dissent came up on six occasions during the election, in which he felt that grandees of the central government were violating the model code of conduct. The most notable was an April 21 speech that Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave at a rally in Gujarat, where he claimed he kept Pakistan on its toes to ensure the safe return of IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The IAF pilot was shot down trying to intercept Pakistani warplanes intruding into India a day after the IAF raid on terrorist camps in Balakot, Pakistan, undertaken as retaliation for the February 14 Pulwama terrorist attack, that claimed the lives of 40 CRPF jawans. The full commission found no violation, but Mr Lavasa dissented. The ruling party returned to power with an even bigger majority — 303 seats on its own. And now Mr Lavasa is paying the price of dissent.
One could argue that the I-T action against Ms Lavasa is routine. After all, she has been appointed as a director in 10 companies, and some of those appointments were made when her husband was first environment secretary and then in the finance ministry. She has clearly stated, however, that she has regularly paid all income tax. She defended her appointments, saying they came because of her experience as a Class I officer at the State Bank of India for 28 years.
The I-T department’s zeal seems extraordinary, especially since on August 27, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked it not to be intrusive, to be fair, and not to overreach. This followed Café Coffee Day founder V.G. Siddhartha’s suicide; he was driven by I-T harassment to the tragic step of ending his own life. Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar Shaw had a minor Twitter feud with Ms Sitharaman over the alleged tax harassment. If the I-T department has been told to act with restraint, then the notices to Ms Lavasa might be construed as deliberate. If such be the case, it is more than a mere matter of our grandees being sore winners; it is a warning to all present and future persons charged with holding free and fair elections in the planet’s largest democracy: that the electoral exercise is to be as mechanical as possible, and that no questions will be entertained.