A question of timing and more

Print edition : August 03, 2002

RARELY has the timing of Assembly elections in a State taken on a crucial political meaning as in the case of Narendra Modi's Gujarat. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's demand that Assembly elections in the State be held before the end of September has led to intense suspicion about its intention.

The Election Commission's (E.C.) decision on the issue will reflect the level of autonomy it enjoys as an institution, especially after it became a three-member body in the mid-1990s. It will also determine the E.C.'s pre-eminent role in ensuring free and fair elections, and how it balances this requirement with that of holding periodic elections, which form the essence of democracy. It is perfectly legitimate for an incumbent Chief Minister or Prime Minister to recommend early dissolution of the House on the basis of the ruling party's assessment of its election prospects. The recommendation is binding on the Governor or the President as long as the leader enjoys a majority in the House. And the E.C. need not have any serious objection to holding elections in accordance with the leader's recommendation a few months before they are due.

However, what characterised Modi's recommendation is an indecent haste to use the poll option, which the party has not been able to justify. As L.K. Advani revealed in Parliament on July 23, during the debate on the issue of rehabilitation of the riot victims, Modi wanted to dissolve the Assembly soon after the BJP's National Executive meeting in Goa in mid-April. However, the party advised him to complete the task of rehabilitation first.

Advani repeatedly claimed that Modi had restored peace in the State. Praising Modi's leadership, he claimed that no Chief Minister in the past 50 years had controlled riots so swiftly as Modi had done. Advani, however, did not answer the question whether the rehabilitation of riot victims had been completed.

With many victims still in relief camps - they have no confidence to return home -the claims on rehabilitation and restoration of peace are evidently hollow. But the unstated reason for deferring dissolution of the Assembly and snap polls in April was that the party wanted the members of the Assembly to vote in the Presidential election; their vote would have been crucial had the Opposition fielded a common candidate.

Ironically, Advani blamed the Opposition parties for forcing the snap polls. He suggested that the Opposition and the "secular" groups assailed Modi day in and day out for his handling of the riots and their aftermath, and that he had no option but to seek the "certificate of the people" at the earliest. This reasoning seems ingenuous. How often have BJP governments at the Centre and in the States chosen to opt for mid-term elections simply because the Opposition demanded their resignation?

The Opposition parties demanded Modi's resignation and the imposition of President's Rule because of the breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State. BJP leaders, by their admission during the debate that there was no breakdown of law and order in the past two months which necessitated the imposition of President's Rule, actually implied that the grounds for imposing it did exist earlier.

Modi's recommendation to dissolve the State Assembly three months after the last sitting of the previous Assembly on April 10 showed that he and the BJP wanted to exploit a grey area in the Constitution - the interpretation of Article 174. It mandates the Governor to summon the House to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session.

BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley, who pressed for early elections during his meeting with the three Election Commissioners, argued that Article 174 would include in its ambit two successive Assemblies, meaning that the next Assembly must be constituted and its first session begun before the six-month period from April 10 expired. He cited the examples of the 1984 general elections, which were held soon after the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination, and the Assembly elections in Punjab, where militancy was crushed and normalcy restored by an elected government.

The holding of general elections in riot-affected areas in 1984 before the rehabilitation of victims and the restoration of peace was complete might have been a bad decision. The powers of the E.C. to ensure free and fair elections have clearly expanded since then. Therefore, 1984 cannot be seen as a precedent. Again, unlike Punjab, Gujarat witnessed a communal pogrom.

The Opposition parties found the BJP's argument specious. The Congress(I), the Left and other Opposition parties opposed the application of Article 174 in Gujarat, arguing that it was relevant only in the case of "live" Assemblies. A Congress(I) delegation led by the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Manmohan Singh, underlined this view at its meeting with the E.C. on July 22.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and the Janata Dal (Secular) urged the E.C. to make its own independent assessment and decide the timing of the elections. "When voters cannot return to their localities, how can they cast their votes? When the fundamental right to life and liberty cannot be ensured, how can the right of adult franchise be fairly exercised?" they asked in a memorandum submitted to the E.C.

The memorandum brought out starkly the untenability of the BJP's position on Article 174. If a Chief Minister who enjoys a majority in the Assembly recommends its dissolution and holding of fresh elections five months and two weeks after the last day of the sitting of an Assembly, can the E.C. oblige him so as to meet the unrealistic deadline read into this provision by the BJP, it asked.

The BJP answered the Opposition's demand for President's Rule in Gujarat during the run-up to the Assembly elections with an offer to consider bringing under President's Rule all States where Assembly elections are to be held, before the E.C. announces the schedule of elections. The Opposition parties rejected the offer as they thought that the government's motive was to divert attention from the Gujarat issue. In Parliament, except the Samata Party, a BJP ally, others were not enthused by this offer. Indeed, some of the BJP's allies, including the Telugu Desam Party, the Trinamul Congress, and the Janata Dal (United), made it clear that elections were not the overriding priority in Gujarat.

With the E.C. showing no urgency to decide the timing of the elections the Opposition's demand for the imposition of President's Rule made sense. If the E.C. decides not to hold them in September or early October as the BJP has demanded, it would mean that Modi - as caretaker Chief Minister - cannot continue in power taking advantage of the silences in the Constitution on the role and powers of a caretaker Chief Minister. A constitutional crisis would then ensue, necessitating use of Article 356 (President's Rule), which would then give the E.C. to get some time to assess the law and order situation and to update the electoral rolls. Once the State is under President's Rule, Parliament will assume direct responsibility to ensure the Central government's accountability for Gujarat.

The BJP's move on Gujarat is seen as a gamble by most Opposition parties. If the Modi experiment - using the perceived communal polarisation in the aftermath of the riots to electoral advantage - succeeds with the help of early elections, the BJP may try to repeat the same in Himachal Pradesh, where it is in power and where Assembly elections are due early next year. Success of the Modi experiment could also indicate whether the National Democratic Alliance would prefer to hold the next Lok Sabha elections ahead of time.

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