Election Omission

Delay opens govt largesse

By Poonam I Kaushish

Rajnetik virodhi ya jaani dushman? Tragically, the lines between a political opponent and a sworn enemy have got blurred. Nothing epitomizes this better than the ongoing tu-tu-mein-mein slugfest between the BJP and Congress over vikas in the hope this would bring them political tripti!
Inadvertently, the Election Commission (EC) has got sucked in to its vortex complicating matters. In a controversial decision, the Commission broke from convention Thursday last by not simultaneously announcing polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, even though the terms of the two state Assemblies expire within two weeks of each other.
While the Gujarat Assembly’s term ends on 22 January next, Himachal finishes on 7 January and will vote on 9 November and election results declared 40 days later on 18 December, yet for reasons best known to the EC it has differed the announcement of the Gujarat polls, notwithstanding voting will wind up before the Himachal results are declared so that they do not affect voters in Gujarat.
Raising a moot point: Is the Congress justified in surmising that the EC per se was prejudiced against it vis-à-vis Gujarat and favouring the Saffron Sangh? As the terms of the two Assemblies are almost coinciding why should the Commission wait to announce dates for Gujarat?
And if Gujarat votes will be counted within a week of Himachal, why has it been spared the imposition of the moral code of conduct from now? What does that really achieve? Why is there a gap of 39 days between the voting and counting in Himachal? Did the EC compromise its impartiality and independence? Can the Commission be a law unto itself?
Undeniably, this has sent a wrong message and set a bad precedent as normally the Commission holds elections together in States where the incumbent Governments are completing their five-year term within six months. The poll dates for these States are announced simultaneously.
For instance, earlier this year, UP, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand went to polls together. Their poll schedule, spread over a month from4 February to 8 March were all announced on 4 January. Also, with the exception of 2002-03 — soon after the Godhra riots — when the Gujarat Assembly was dissolved prematurely with elections being announced on 28 October 2002 and in Himachal on 11January 2003, the Commission has been announcing polls simultaneously in Gujarat and Himachal since 1998.
Certainly, with the model code now in force in Congress-ruled Himachal and not in BJP run Gujarat the Party has the benefit on not only knowing broadly when elections will happen, before 18 December but can go to town by announcing various populist sops and schemes to woo voters without having the restrictions of the model code. Already, Chief Minister Rupani has announced setting up 16 new industrial estates with the aim of creating one lakh new jobs and inaugurated Rs 780 crores development works in Vadodara.
Predictably, the Congress came down with a ton of bricks accusing the EC of succumbing to Saffron pressure to give Prime Minister Modi a free hand in announcing Government largesse for Gujarat at his many rallies. The CEC Joti’s defence that the decision to defer Gujarat’s announcement was done to avoid an unreasonably long imposition of the Model Code of Conduct which should ideally not exceed 46 days does not cut ice.
Remember, the MCC was in force for 83 days during the Gujarat and Himachal polls in 2007 and 2012. And, in Punjab and Goa for as many as 64 days earlier this year even though they were the first States to wrap up voting on 4 February.
Besides, the Commission’s averment that the delay was due to the Gujarat Chief Secretary’s plea seeking more time before election announcement as the Code would disrupt flood relief in the state does not hold as reprieve and rehabilitation are routine measures undertaken at time of strife.
Paradoxically, the truth is that even as Parties evoke the Code, it is only a voluntary compact arrived between the EC and the Parties and has no statutory binding. With all wantonly violating it, the Commission is powerless.
Asserted a senior official, “the Code lacks legal sanction and is intended to work as a moral policeman to ensure free and fair elections. We can only freeze a Party’s election symbol or derecognize it as a national Party. Nothing more, nothing less.” In other words one can merrily violate the Code wantonly and yet get elected to the Lok Sabha and Assemblies.
There is no gainsaying a long and hard battle lies ahead for bringing a change in the political system and the present political ethos. True, the BJP and NaMo’s prestige is at stake in Gujarat. The issue is not whether the Congress is able to beat the BJP at the numbers game or vice versa.
But as former Chief Election Commissioner Quraishi avers, “The poll deferment raises serious questions. If the Government does announce new popular schemes and freebies, it would cause the Commission huge embarrassment. It would be accused of giving the Gujarat Government the few extra days before invoking the moral code.
“It’s hard earned reputation of ferocious independence could be in tatters which would be disastrous for our democracy. Politicians must remember that their legitimacy comes from free and fair elections conducted by a Constitutional body whose legitimacy is the ultimate guarantor of the credibility of elections.”
In sum, the right to hold free and fair elections is fundamental to democracy with the Constitution empowering the EC with absolute powers under Article 324. Which states: “The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of all elections to Parliament and to the Legislatures of every State …. Shall be vested in the Election Commission”
Undoubtedly, Chief Election Commissioners such as T N Seshan, N Gopalaswamy and James Lyngdoh, MS Gill pushed forward the frontiers of what the Election Commission can do. Rigid enforcement of the model code of conduct by ‘Bulldog’ T N Seshan made Governments and netas afraid of the Commission. This helped in ensuring fair elections. Gopalaswamy streamlined the system and Lyngdoh ensured that even in Jammu & Kashmir elections were honestly held after a long history of rigging.
All have steadily, without fuss taken steps to deepen democracy. But at the same time for future polls, the Election Commission should be more alert, ensure that it doesn’t give any Party or candidate to accuse it of playing favourites given that it has been lauded for the remarkable way it has conducted polls, that too without many complaints of rigging or other poll irregularities barring violations of the moral conduct which are rising election after election. Kudos to it for its catchy advertisements resulting in increased voter turn-out.
Clearly, even as all eyes and action shifts to who wins NaMo’s home State Gujarat, our Parties need to realize that were it not for our Constitutional institutions holding steadfast the country could descent into mayhem and anarchy.
At the end of the day, it matters little who wins the elections as we the people are the ultimate losers. As the system, Government, politicians and politics, everything is gamed to deprive the aam janata of a better life. India’s voters must not allow themselves to be taken for granted any more. Time we made our democracy truly representative. What gives? —— INFA