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Election commission faces criticism for failure to announce dates for Gujarat poll

(Dhirendra Kumar Joshi)

 

For years, the Election Commission has been winning plaudits for holding free and fair polls. Now the watchdog of elections has itself come under public scrutiny, like never before.

The EC recently announced the dates for Assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh, but failed to announce the election schedule for Gujarat, a practice not seen in the past two decades when the two States have gone to the polls simultaneously, except in 2002 when Gujarat was hit by riots.

The opposition Congress was quick on the uptake and alleged that the EC’s decision to delay the announcement of polls dates for Gujarat– and thus defer the setting in motion of the Model Code of Conduct– has been taken to help the ruling BJP announce a plethora public projects and freebies to influence the voters.

”Within 10 minutes of the Election Commission’s announcement, the Gujarat government (of the BJP) announced sops worth hundreds of crores of rupees,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said. This started a political slugfest, with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani claiming that the EC had helped the Congress in the 2012 Assembly elections by keeping the model code of conduct in force for a record time, thus preventing the then Narendra Modi government in the State to take up development work.

Now the Janata Dal (United), BJP’s ruling alliance partner in Bihar, has also jumped into the battle of words, and is, perhaps, seeing a political benefit in questioning the poll panel’s decision.  ”The EC must not only be impartial but seen to be so. Why have the dates for Gujarat elections not been announced? We need credible answers,” JD (U) national general secretary Pavan Varma tweeted.

Former chief election commissioners have also questioned the EC’s decision, with  S Y Quraishi alleging that the delayed announcement for Gujarat had disturbed the level playing field, allowing the ruling party to offer pre-poll sops. T S Krishnamurty said the controversy could have been avoided with better management.

”I suppose they could have announced both (Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls) together, either one week before or one week after. It could have much of a difference,” the former CEC said. The poll panel defended its decision of not announcing the election schedule for Gujarat simultaneously with Himachal Pradesh. It said the Gujarat government wanted more time to carry out relief and rehabilitation work for flood-affected people, while the Himachal Pradesh administration pressed for completing the polling exercise before mid-November, when snow falls in the higher reaches.

Citing the 2012 elections, Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti said  the model code for both Himachal and Gujarat came into force on October 3 when the schedule was announced. But the election process concluded on December 24, a period of 83 days which was unreasonable. ”We have to be reasonable to state governments,” he added, as a defence for his current decision.

The defence for early Himachal elections is well justified as on November 15 every year, the Rohtang Pass is closed for winter, which cuts off parts of Himachal Pradesh from the rest of the state, and thus makes the  election exercise in three constituencies in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti impossible to conduct. So in order not to jeopardise the polls in the three snowbound constituencies, it is necessary that elections should be held before that date in a single phase.

As for Gujarat and the reason for the delay, former CECs said the model code allowed ongoing projects, including those relating to flood relief, to proceed unhindered. Quraishi said it was ridiculous to suggest that the model code would interfere with disaster relief. It would also not come in the way of rallies and visits by ministers, only that they are restrained from announcing any sops or new schemes.

”I hope the EC had not broken the convention of clubbing polls in States whose Assemblies terms are expiring close to each other,” he rued. Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha said that the announcement of Gujarat schedule was held back because there was no compulsion to hold the elections in that State in November as in the case of Himachal Pradesh. Also it was necessary to keep the gap between the announcement and the notifications to within three weeks.

The political slugfest will, however, continue, with more opposition parties and outfits joining in the coming days. But are voters really swayed by last such bickering or minute sops?

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