By delinking the announcement of the Gujarat Assembly elections from those to the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, on Thursday, the Election Commission has acted in an arbitrary manner that is bound to raise questions regarding its neutrality and impartiality. The Election Commission of India is one of the few institutions whose credibility has never been in doubt and successive governments of whichever hue and political parties of varied ideologies have always held it in the highest esteem. The Commission was bestowed with lavish praise from international agencies as well, when it conducted a free and fair poll in the strife-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Therefore, for the Commission to needlessly separate the notification of Gujarat from that of Himachal came as an enormous surprise. The controversy was definitely avoidable, since according to the CEC, A.K. Joti, Gujarat would go to polls before 18 December, the date designated for the declaration of the Himachal results. When the elections have to be scheduled prior to that, what was the reasoning for not making a simultaneous statement for the two states, where the tenure of Assemblies ends within two weeks of each other? The normal practice has been to club elections in states where the polling is due within six months of each other and as a consequence the Election Commission has become a laughing stock since one of its honourable members, O.P. Rawat had barely ten days ago claimed that the Commission would be ready by next year’s end to hold concurrent polls for Parliament as well as states to meet the objective of One Nation, One Poll.
It is evident that Rawat was ill-informed and did not take into account the capacity of the vendors and manufacturers to supply the number of EVM machines and VVPATs that would be required to accomplish the mammoth task of having a One Nation, One Poll. There is an ongoing debate on the issue, and if Rawat in his belief, was of the view that the exercise could be accomplished, he should have first discussed the matter with his fellow Election Commissioners and then informed the government before rushing to the press to seek negative publicity for himself and the Commission.
In the latest instance, the Election Commission’s order is being interpreted by the government’s adversaries as an attempt not to enforce the model of conduct in Gujarat, while doing so in Himachal purely because the BJP wants to utilise this time to make a handful of announcements and pledges for the saffron-ruled state. Since 1995, Gujarat has been under the sway of the saffron influence and is regarded as the laboratory for the Hindutva brand of politics. Most of the people there expect the BJP to regain power, given that it is also a state which was administered and governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its Chief Minister from October 2001 till May 2014.
In this context, the Election Commission’s notification provides credence to the insinuations concerning the BJP’s state of unpreparedness in its bastion and has created a storm for no valid reason. Joti’s argument explaining the reasons for the Commission’s decision are open to criticism and have smeared the pristine image of the institution he heads. When in December 2002 after the dissolution of the Assembly, the Gujarat polls were held, the BJP had made a futile attempt to attack the Commission, which at that time was headed by James Michael Lyngdoh, a bureaucrat of unimpeachable integrity. However, in the end, the objectivity and fairness of the Commission dispelled all misgivings and the outcome was universally accepted.
Every election is a challenge for the contestants, as well as political parties. The duty of the Commission is to ensure a level playing field where no one doubts its unaligned approach. As a matter of fact, the ground reality would have remained the same had the Gujarat polls been announced alongside with those of Himachal. People have already made up their minds and eleventh hour political acrobatics and promises do not hold any water. The performance of the incumbent government is on trial and the electorate would pronounce its verdict on polling day. In Gujarat, for instance, its citizens have repeatedly been favouring the BJP over other parties, while in Himachal, the pattern has so far been to give both the Congress and the BJP a chance to govern one following the other.
The debate over One Nation One Poll has also not reached a conclusive stage since several tricky issues in the event of a hung Parliament or a hung Assembly, amongst others, remain unanswered. In the past there have been precedents, where after coming to power at the Centre, the ruling dispensation has dismissed the governments of states where its rivals were in saddle, so as to hold elections again. The Janata Party did so in 1977 and after dismissing Congress state governments assumed power there as well. The Congress retaliated, and in the post-Indira Gandhi victory of 1980, ousted the Janata Party from the states administered by it.
These issues have to be seen maturely, through the prism of an evolving democracy, where it is as essential to uphold the prestige and dignity of institutions like the Election Commission, as it is to elect governments through free and fair voting. Thus there are many lessons for the EC to learn. Between us.