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The Election Commission’s announcement of poll dates for Himachal Pradesh, and its decision not to simultaneously announce the dates for Gujarat, even though the terms of both assemblies expire within two weeks of each other, breaks established convention. But it does more than just that. In inviting questions about its motives, in making a routine decision appear controversial, the EC does itself injustice. Over the years, it has emerged as one of India’s finest and most trusted institutions, successfully holding its head above the political thrust and parry.
Even as other institutions have seemed to wilt and fray under the pressure of a spreading polarisation, or merely because of the passage of time, the EC has stood tall and taller as the arbiter, impartial and fair, of a complex and multi-tiered election process. For the EC now to lay itself open to questions about the Gujarat poll delay — is the commission doing the BJP a favour, allowing its government more time to dole out sops and projects before the Model Code of Conduct kicks in ahead of a crucial election? — is enormously troubling for its several admirers.
There is also a specific context to the controversy over the EC’s withholding in Gujarat. The NDA government’s formidable majority has, over the last three years or so, triggered anxieties about the political executive’s dominance and the subduing of other institutions. Such apprehensions would seem to be underlined by the bruising friction, for instance, between the executive and the judiciary on higher judicial appointments. While the Constitution envisages a careful balance of powers between crucial institutions, and even as it offers an intricate system of checks and balances, the first single party majority government at the Centre after a period of three decades has had a flattening effect on the political landscape. In this backdrop, it is even more crucial for institutions like the EC which have established a reputation of impartiality and independence, to uphold it, and to be seen to do so too.
In fact, in recent days, the EC has served up reminders of its upstandingness. In the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat, for instance, in which the BJP vs Congress drama played out as a series of backroom manouevres, floor-crossing MLAs and suspiciously timed income tax raids, it was the EC which spoke the language of the Constitution and the law, and so what if it did not suit the ruling party.
A few days after that election, Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat sounded a wise and cautionary note when he spoke of a “creeping new normal of political morality” which places “maximum premium on winning at all costs — to the exclusion of ethical considerations” in which “poaching of legislators is extolled as smart political management”. The EC must answer the questions raised by its decision not to announce the Gujarat polls alongwith Himachal’s more convincingly than it has done so far — because it has a very fine reputation to protect.