In a controversial decision, the Election Commission (EC) broke from convention on Thursday as it did not simultaneously announce polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, even though the terms of the two state Assemblies expire within two weeks of each other.
Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi said that this raised “serious questions,” while the Congress, the leading Opposition party in Gujarat, alleged that the BJP had pushed the EC to delay the announcement.
Himachal Pradesh will vote on November 9 and election results will be declared on December 18. Gujarat polls, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) A K Joti said, will be announced later, but he added voting will wind up before Himachal results are declared. While Gujarat Assembly’s term ends on January 22, 2018, Himachal Pradesh’s finishes on January 7. Himachal Pradesh elections 2017: Voting on November 9, counting on December 18
The EC normally 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, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand went to polls together. Their poll schedule, spread over a month from February 4 to March 8, were all announced on January 4. Joti was a member of EC even then.
With the exception of 2002-03 — soon after the Godhra riots — when the Gujarat Assembly was dissolved prematurely, the Commission has been announcing polls simultaneously in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh since 1998 (see table).
“This raises some serious questions. The terms of the two state Assemblies are almost coinciding. So why should the EC wait to announce dates for Gujarat?” asked former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi, speaking to The Indian Express.
Defending the decision to announce Gujarat elections later, Joti told reporters that this was done to avoid an unreasonably long imposition of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in the state. MCC was in force in Punjab and Goa, incidentally, for as many as 64 days even though they were the first states to wrap up voting on February 4.
The election timetable, Joti said, should ideally not exceed 46 days. However, the MCC during the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls in 2007 and 2012 was in force for 83 days, which, he felt, obstructed governance. Another factor that influenced the decision, according to him, was the Gujarat Chief Secretary’s letter seeking more time before election announcement as the MCC would disrupt flood relief in the state.
“The Chief Election Commisioner has already clarified that voting in Gujarat will wind up before Himachal results are announced. If that’s the case, then Gujarat votes will be counted within a week of Himachal, if not on the same day. So how many days of MCC have you spared Gujarat? A week maybe? What does that really achieve?” Quraishi added.
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. For instance, under these guidelines, the government in power cannot announce any sops or new decisions that could influence voters. MCC comes into force from the date of announcement of poll dates by the ECI and lasts up to the day of voting.
Joti, in defence of the decision, cited the example of 2002-03 when assembly polls in the two states were not only announced separately, but their result, too, were declared on different dates. Assembly elections in Gujarat were announced on October 28, 2002 and in Himachal on January 11, 2003. He, however, did not mention that the difference was on account of the then Gujarat Chief Minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi dissolving the Assembly prematurely.
He said that the feedback from all parties in Himachal was that given the onset of winter, everyone wanted the poll process to be over before November 15.
But Joti dismissed any relation between the Commission’s decision to announce Gujarat polls later and BJP’s Gujarat Gaurav Yatra event scheduled on October 16, which Modi is expected to attend.
The Congress, however, alleged that the BJP had pushed the poll panel to delay the announcement of Gujarat elections to announce some last-minute sops for voters in the state.
“The reason (to delay announcement) is clear. The BJP is scared of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and the party’s campaign highlighting the failures of the BJP government in the last 22 years. It has realised that the people of Gujarat are itching to overthrow the BJP,” Randeep Surjewala, head of the Congress’s communication department, said, adding that his party demands that the MCC be imposed simultaneously in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
He also said that the Prime Minister is visiting Gujarat on October 16 “as a false Santa Claus to announce sops and jumlas that he didn’t implement for 22 years.”
Both Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will witness a direct contest between the BJP and Congress. In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is vying for another term in power amidst an ongoing feud between Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and state Congress president Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.
Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh will be the first where the EC will compulsorily tally VVPAT slips with the EVM votes in one polling station of every seat.