Setting the stage for a two-month-long political battle, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora announced Sunday that the 17th Lok Sabha elections will be held in seven phases, between April 11 and May 19, involving close to 90 crore voters.
The results will be declared on May 23, ten days before the term of the current House expires.
The Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which bars the government in power from announcing any new decisions, came into effect immediately after the announcement.
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Assembly elections for Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim will also be held simultaneously. However, the Election Commission (EC) decided against holding the J&K state polls at the same time for security reasons.
Political parties, including BJP and PDP, had earlier this month urged the poll watchdog to hold central and state elections simultaneously in J&K. A decision on the timing of the J&K Assembly polls will be taken soon, and a team of three former civil servants is being dispatched to help EC monitor the situation in the state, Arora said.
Retired IAS officers Noor Mohammad and Vinod Zutshi, and former IPS officer A S Gill have been tasked with “taking inputs from all necessary quarters” before submitting a report to the EC.
“We need a sizeable number of security personnel for the protection of every candidate contesting Assembly elections in the state (J&K). This was also a demand put forth by representatives of political parties we met during our visit there. Availability of security forces is a constraint,” Arora said.
For the Lok Sabha polls, Bihar, UP and West Bengal will have the longest voting schedule across seven phases. This is followed by J&K in five phases; Jharkhand, MP, Maharashtra and Odisha in four; Assam and Chhattisgarh in three; and, Karnataka, Manipur, Rajasthan and Tripura in two. The remaining states will go to poll on a single day.
The first phase of elections on April 11 covers the maximum number of states — 91 constituencies across 20 states. The second phase on April 18 will cover 97 constituencies across 13 states. The third phase is scheduled for April 23, covering 115 constituencies in 14 states, followed by 71 seats in nine states on April 29. In the fifth phase, 51 seats in seven states will vote on May 6. The sixth phase will take place in 59 seats in seven states on May 12 and the seventh in 59 seats across eight states on May 19.
This is the first general election where there will be 100 per deployment of voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) units. A VVPAT produces a printout of the vote cast using an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), which can be shown to the voter to dispel doubts.
Although political parties had sought an increase in the number of polling stations — currently one per seat — where VVPAT slips are compulsorily tallied with the EVM count, the EC will only reconsider once the Indian Statistical Institute submits its report, Arora said.
The CEC also informed that the Commission will be working closely with social media companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to uphold the integrity of the elections. The social media giants have committed to only carry political advertisement pre-certified by the EC. “They have also promised to act against any content violative of MCC flagged by the EC,” he said.
On the political front, the announcement of the poll dates flags Narendra Modi’s first re-election bid as prime minister, and Rahul Gandhi’s first national challenge as Congress president.
Modi posted on Twitter: “Wishing all political parties and candidates the very best for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. We may belong to different parties but our aim must be the same — the development of India and empowerment of every Indian!”
The Congress, meanwhile, went on the offensive. “The bugle has sounded, it’s the turn of the people. We are preparing to fight the lies with full force. We will fight this regime of lies. We are prepared, victory is ours,” the party posted in Hindi on its Twitter handle.
In 2014, BJP was elected to the Lok Sabha with a majority of 282 seats — ten more than the majority mark of 272 — and Congress was reduced to 44. However, the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh provided momentum to the Opposition while infusing a sense of uncertainty in the ruling BJP.
In a bid to take control of the narrative, the BJP-led government introduced 10 per cent quota for the general category poor and also brought a populist Budget to appease the lower middle class and farming community. The Opposition, meanwhile, continued to target the government over farm sector distress, joblessness and the Rafale jet deal.
However, in the final run-up, the BJP appears to have the early mover’s advantage, having already stitched seat-sharing arrangements in key states, including with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the JD(U) in Bihar and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. The party’s thrust, this time, is on national security after the Pulwama terror attacks and the Balakot airstrike.
The Congress-led Opposition, meanwhile, is yet to solve the alliance puzzle or finalise a common minimum programme. Its momentum and narrative also appear to have been disrupted by Pulwama and Balakot. The Congress, moreover, has no role to play in the most formidable alliance that has taken shape against the BJP, so far — the SP-BSP tie-up in UP.