The moment the Election Commission of India (EC) announced the dates of the Himachal Pradesh election at a press conference on Thursday, my phone started ringing. I did not pick up as I am away in London, and call roaming charges have often in the past taken away half of my monthly pension! Social media went abuzz as well, where I am fairly active.
There are two sets of questions: Why have the Gujarat dates not been announced? And, why a gap of 39 days between the voting and counting in HP? Actually, both these questions are interlinked. The EC itself made it clear that the Gujarat poll would be held before the counting in HP on December 19, so that the result in the hill state does not influence the voting in Gujarat, a routine reason for clubbing all polls falling within a period of six months. As the Gujarat poll has to be announced within a few days, as the CEC mentioned, there seems no apparent justification to partially delink the two. This curious gap of a “few days” has justifiably raised the hackles of the people.
What is absolutely clear is that the HP election announcement could not have waited even for a single more day. In fact, the announcement was overdue. 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, making elections there impossible. This particularly affects three constituencies in the districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti. In 2007, the HP High Court had ordered that polls in the entire state must be held simultaneously instead of in two instalments, February and June, as had become the norm because elections in three constituencies were invariably deferred till June on account of the snow. By then the government was formed, denying the three constituencies their share in power, making the elections there inconsequential, if not redundant.
If the EC had not scheduled the HP poll on November 9, it would have jeopardised the poll in the three snowbound constituencies and violated the high court order for simultaneous polls, attracting contempt of court. The polling parties that would go to the snowy region have to complete the process and return to the lower heights before the closure of Rohtang Pass. The Himachal date was, therefore, a foregone conclusion and any intelligent person could have guessed it.
Why, then, was the Gujarat election not announced? Both mainstream and social media are abuzz with speculation and snide comments, casting aspersions on the EC. Is it to accommodate some VVIP visit to the state?
Well, the model code does not come in the way of a political rally, even if it is to be attended by the PM. Are some populist announcements of new schemes and freebies in the offing? If the answer is yes, as we would all soon know, this should have been done already. If the government does indeed announce freebies now, it will subject itself to huge criticism and ridicule. The last-minute freebies no longer seduce the voters. I have often wondered why all the bright ideas for populist schemes come to politicians’ mind only on the eve of the elections.
It would be pertinent to recall that in 2007, the EC had advanced the HP election by as many as four months to club it with Gujarat, stunning the Virbhadra Singh government which was getting ready to declare the usual sops. When he came to the EC with half his cabinet to protest against the early imposition of the model code, not only was his request rejected, he was made to pay Rs 16 lakh for using the state plane for a political, non-official visit.
If the government does announce new populist schemes and freebies, it would cause the EC a huge embarrassment. It would be accused of giving the government of Gujarat the few extra days before invoking the model code of conduct. The hard-earned reputation of the Commission’s ferocious independence could be in tatters, which would be disastrous for our democracy. Politicians must remember that their legitimacy comes from free and fair elections conducted by a constitutional body whose own legitimacy is the ultimate guarantor of the credibility of elections. The EC has been fortunate to have established such a reputation not just in India but globally. Hillary Clinton described it as the gold standard. Reputations take years to build but minutes to crash.
Coming back to the announcement, there are two new features — the use of social media and the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail). As regards the former, it’s a good idea “to enhance the interaction and involvement of all the stakeholders” by inducting the use of social media platforms at the district, state and EC levels. The EC has been sorely missed on social media all these years. It should, however, be prepared to face public criticism — even abuse. Being on social media requires the skin of a pachyderm. It has already provided the people with good ammunition!
The other new feature is the first ever use of the VVPAT in a full state election. Vote slips of one booth per constituency will be counted randomly. Questions are being asked, such as why only one booth, but the EC has clarified that it is on a pilot basis. I think it could also consider accepting a couple of “appeals” for counting the vote slips, like appeals in cricket against the umpire’s doubtful decisions.
It’s painful to see aspersions being cast on the Commission, especially the CEC, just because he was a Gujarat cadre officer. How can we forget that the same Commission had covered itself with glory just a month ago in the high stakes Gujarat Rajya Sabha election by asserting its well established independence and neutrality? The ruling party and the government would do themselves, the EC and the nation a great favour if no new schemes are now announced, belying the people’s apprehensions. This would shut up the critics who say the delinking of 4-5 days is to enable the government to announce poll sops, beating the model code of conduct.