The Election Commission (EC) doesn't seem to be in a tearing hurry to finalise its response to the Gujarat government's recommendation on state elections by September-end. An EC source told Outlook that the commission will factor in all aspects of the ground situation and readiness of the election machinery before coming to a decision on when to hold elections. Topmost on the agenda is an independent scrutiny by the commission to see if elections can be held in a "free and fair" climate.
The commission plans to send its own team to Gujarat to make an assessment of the ground situation and to carry out a thorough stock-taking of "all relevant parameters". "We are yet to work out the composition of the team but we might send one next week," sources close to the Chief Election Commissioner said.
The meticulousness with which the EC is going about its task is bound to upset the poll calculations of the ruling BJP, banking as it is on the commission readily acquiescing to an early election. A determined band of senior party leaders, led by former law minister and general secretary Arun Jaitley, has over the last week vociferously argued before the EC that holding elections in Gujarat at the earliest had become a "constitutional and democratic compulsion". The BJP leaders repeatedly cited Article 174(1) of the Constitution to justify early elections. The article stipulates that the gap between two legislative sittings of a House should not exceed six months.
However, the BJP strategists realise that the article is open to various interpretations (it does not specify whether the six-month provision applies in the case of a dissolved assembly). "This is a grey area which gives the EC scope to exercise its discretion," says a legal expert.
Ever since the dissolution of the Gujarat assembly on July 19, the EC has had to weather sustained criticism and pressure from the BJP. But the former has decided to carefully weigh all factors, keeping in mind the constitutional powers it enjoys in the conduct of elections. "Free and fair" is its guiding principle.
The pressure has been relentless. First, leaders of the ruling party questioned the EC's "unabridged right" to decide on the timing of polls under Article 324, which vests it with full powers to take any decision on the timing of elections. The commission's job, it maintained, was just to hold elections. Nothing else.
Just as the poll panel went into a huddle to discuss when it should hold elections, a section of the media reported that the "EC appears to be divided over holding early polls in Gujarat". The report mischievously argued that since CEC J.M. Lyngdoh was not inclined to advance the Gujarat polls, "the BJP is now banking on the other two election commissioners to overrule his opposition".
The commission was prompt to rebuff the news report, maintaining all decisions were taken unanimously and that there was no division whatsoever in the three-member panel. The rejoinder by the EC effectively put to rest efforts to create confusion. No sooner had this controversy settled than a "whisper campaign" began that efforts were on to initiate impeachment proceedings against Lyngdoh.
Simultaneously, another story began doing the rounds: the government, the buzz went, was "actively considering" reviving the proposal of setting up a five-member poll panel—a project which was thought up and later put in cold storage during former prime minister Narasimha Rao's regime. Says an EC official: "These are all psychological mind games being played to get the commission to arrive at a quick decision on the Gujarat polls."
In the elections, a high stake one especially for the BJP, the EC is likely to examine every facet of the Gujarat situation with a fine-tooth comb.According to sources, the commission will have to take into account various details and cannot just go by the arguments advanced by the BJP led by president Venkaiah Naidu. In the BJP's reckoning, normalcy has been restored in Gujarat as examinations have been held, panchayat elections conducted and several festivals, including the Jagannath rath yatra, have passed off peacefully.
But according to EC sources, there are various technical hurdles in the way. The biggest problem is the outdated electoral rolls in the state. Officials point out that the recent communal riots resulted in largescale migration. People either moved out from rehabilitation camps to relatives' homes or left the state altogether. It would be difficult for the commission to update voters' lists at such short notice. "It would require an intensive survey to ascertain the exact location of voters," said a poll official. However, he adds that the question of whether a summary revision or an intensive one was required would be decided upon only after the EC team submits its report on the ground situation in Gujarat. Updating and revision of a state's electoral roll before any poll is a statutory requirement as spelt out in section 21(2) of the Representation of People's Act, 1950.
In addition to the major exercise of updating electoral rolls, identifying proper polling stations across the state would also be time-consuming. Other logistical concerns like availability of electronic voting machines and issuing of photo-identity cards also need to be addressed.
Although home secretary Kamal Pande assured the commission last week that the government had sufficient paramilitary forces at its disposal to be stationed in Gujarat, security is only one of the factors important to this electoral exercise. Before the dissolution of the Gujarat assembly, the poll panel's focus was on preparing for assembly elections in J&K. "It may be a herculean task to have a back-to-back election in Gujarat and Kashmir. The sheer logistics would be difficult to handle," says a commission source.
From its own reading of the situation, the commission will also need to assess for itself whether the minorities in the state feel secure enough to participate in the polls. "Just as the commission did a recce of Jammu and Kashmir last month to determine the mood of the people, it should try to see that no section of the people is terrorised into non-participation," says former Delhi High Court chief justice Rajinder Sachar, part of the delegation led by former prime minister I.K. Gujral which met Lyngdoh. Congress MP Kapil Sibal, who also met the CEC, had this to say: "After our meeting with Lyngdoh, I am convinced he will not decide anything in a hurry."
A possible hint that elections may not be held in late September or early October came at a meeting of chief electoral officers (CEOs) of six states on July 24. The meeting chaired by Lyngdoh and the other two election commissioners, B.B. Tandon and T.S. Krishnamurthy, directed the CEOs, including Gujarat CEO Gurcharan Singh, to carry out an intensive revision of electoral rolls. "This exercise itself, especially in a state like Gujarat which has been rocked by violence and where large-scale migration took place, will require a few months," said a poll official.
For now, all eyes are on the commission. Its primary responsibility will be to see whether normalcy has truly been restored in the state. Only then can the poll machinery be put in place. Till then, Gujarat's tryst with the ballot box will have to wait.
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