THE Election Commission has never done it before and had developed an independent status since TN Seshan.
He had given it a stature, which was admired by the electorate. But the way in which the EC is dilly-dallying with the poll dates in Gujarat gives room to several conjectures. Some even see the hand of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who hails from Gujarat. What it means is that the people have come to doubt the independence of the Commission. The Gujarat Assembly’s term ends on January 22, 2018 while that of the Himachal Pradesh on January 7. Last week, Chief Election Commissioner AK Joti announced the election date only for Himachal Pradesh and one doesn’t know when the dates for Gujarat polls would be notified.
Understandably, this has created a controversy, which could have been avoided with better management. Former CEC S.Y. Qureshi has rightly commented that the move to break from the EC’s convention of announcing elections together in states where incumbent governments are completing their terms within six months had raised “serious questions.” CEC Joti has cited relief and rehabilitation of the flood-affected in Gujarat as one of the reasons for the delay in poll announcement in the state. But nobody is buying this argument because, as former CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy said, “the emergency flood relief work is to be done by bureaucrats, not politicians. The Model Code of Conduct does not stand in the way of any emergency relief work. It does not prevent existing projects from continuing. Only new projects should not be announced during the MCC period.”
The MCC is a common code that aims to provide a level-playing field to all contesting candidates during election season by guiding the conduct of the incumbent government, political parties and candidates. “All this controversy could have been avoided with better management,” Krishnamurthy said to a newspaper. “I suppose they (EC) could have announced both (Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls) together, either one week before or one week after. I am not looking at whether the decision was influenced or not. I am concerned with whether, administratively, a solution could have been found. I think I would have found a solution.”
This observation by the former CEC has put a question mark against the EC. Once again, the doubts that have come to the fore are that the Election Commission is run by the bureaucrats under the guidance of the central government. The image and reputation of the Commission has been severely damaged. Take for instance what the Gujarat government did anticipating the announcement of poll dates in the state. The officials of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation’s Standing Committee went into a huddle for one and a half hour to push ahead with a string of announcements. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani inaugurated several projects of development work worth Rs 780 crore besides extending free logistical services to Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Diwali event in the city.
Not only that the Ahmedabad Municipal Council which conducted the Shahri Garib Kalyan Mela, distributed 3,262 kits including cheques, funds and bonds under the Manav Garima Yojana with 4,103 getting the government largesse. The kits distributed included sewing machines, utensils, tri-cycles, dairy products, street-vending carts and other household items. The total sum of the kits and cheques distributed came to Rs. 165 crore. The cheques included a minimum of Rs 2,000 given to school girls as Vidyalakshmi bonds, Rs 5,000 to parents with two girls and who have undergone sterilization, Rs 10,000 as a revolving fund by the AMC’s Urban Community Development Department and the highest Rs 50,000 for inter-caste marriage.
The big-ticket schemes include Rs 165.75-crore project for providing drinking water to the city from Mahi River at a capacity of 150 million litres per day and beautification of the Sursagar Lake at a cost of Rs 38 crore. Incidentally, beautification of the iconic lake was also undertaken before the 2012 Assembly polls. Union Ministers and Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled states made a beeline to Gujarat to extol the government schemes.
The Prime Minister, too, visited the state soon after and kick-started the poll campaign with his usual scathing attacks on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He went on to say that the “family will destroy Gujarat because it dislikes Gujarat and Gujaratis” and called the coming assembly election in the state a fight between “development and dynasty.” The old question comes to be raised yet again is whether the bureaucrats should at all be made members of the Commission? They are under the discipline of the Central Government and can be influenced. Although Seshan, a bureaucrat, disproved this thesis every bureaucrat cannot be a Sehsan. The government’s influence is inevitable. We all remember the political storm created by former CEC N Gopalaswami when he suo motu sent a recommendation to the President that Election Commissioner Navin Chawla should be removed from office on the alleged ground of ‘partisanship.’ Gopalaswami’s action did raise several eyebrows within the government on account of its timing as well as its departure from well-settled readings of the relevant constitutional provisions. Subsequently, Chawla was elevated to CEC’s post on the advice of the government which had rejected Gopalaswami’s plea for his removal, saying there was no merit in the allegations against the Election Commissioner.
The noise raised over the appointment of an Election Commissioner makes little sense because it is a constitutional position. The government should itself be careful and not do anything which would cast a shadow on the independence or integrity of the Commission. The Commission itself should act in such a manner that there is no room for any controversy. There is still time to retrieve the situation. The Election Commission should straightaway announce the dates of Gujarat poll to avoid any further challenge to its non-partisanship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi can save the situation and see to it that the Commission announces the date immediately. He is unnecessarily getting mixed up with the dates of Gujarat pool.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.