The election mode

Print edition : January 10, 1998

The election schedule provides for polling in four phases spread over three weeks. The long-drawn schedule has invited criticism from some political parties.

SETTING the election process in motion on New Year's Day, the Election Commission announced the schedule of elections to the 12th Lok Sabha and five State Assemblies, under which the process will be completed on March 12. A new Lok Sabha will be constituted by March 15, as directed by the President on December 4 while dissolving the 11th Lok Sabha. Byelections to fill 21 vacancies in 11 State Assemblies will also be held simultaneously.

Polling will be held on four days - February 16, 22, 28 and March 7. Of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, 222 will go to the polls on February 16, 186 on February 22, 132 on February 28 and three on March 7. All the Lok Sabha constituencies in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Manipur, Meghalaya, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Lakshadweep and the National Capital Territory of Delhi will go to the polls on February 16. Elections to the Meghalaya and Tripura Assemblies will also be held on the same day. Polling will be held in the Lok Sabha constituencies in Mizoram, Nagaland and Pondicherry on February 22; polling for the Nagaland Assembly elections will be held the same day. Goa, Kerala, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Daman and Diu will go to the polls on February 28. Elections to the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assemblies will be held the same day.

In Andhra Pradesh, 21 Lok Sabha constituencies will go to the polls on February 16, and the 21 others on February 22. In Bihar, 34 constituencies will go the polls on February 16, and the 20 others on February 22. In Karnataka, elections for 18 Lok Sabha seats will be held on February 16, and for the remaining 10 seats on February 22. In Tamil Nadu, 14 constituencies will go to the polls on February 16 and the remaining 25 on February 22. In Uttar Pradesh, voting for 52 constituencies will be held on February 16; the 33 others will go to the polls on February 22. In Madhya Pradesh, elections for 20 seats will be held on February 22 and the 20 other constituencies will go to the polls on February 28. In Maharashtra, 24 constituencies will have elections on February 22 and the 24 others on February 28. In Orissa, elections for 10 seats will be held on February 22 and for the 11 other seats on February 28. In West Bengal, 20 constituencies will go the polls on February 22, and the 22 others on February 28. In Jammu and Kashmir, polling will be held in one constituency on February 16, two constituencies on February 28, and the three others on March 7.

Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill.-AJITKUMAR/ AP

Polling for the 543 seats will be spread over 20 days; of these only three constituencies (in Jammu and Kashmir) will have polling on March 7. In other words, elections for 540 Lok Sabha seats will be over by February 28, that is, in 13 days.

THE Election Commission announced that counting of votes would be taken up only on March 8, after polling ends in Jammu and Kashmir. (The only exception is Meghalaya, where counting in the two parliamentary constituencies and all the Assembly constituencies is scheduled for February 23.) Several parties, among them the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Janata Dal and the Left parties, have expressed their disquiet over the "unusually long schedule".

Elections to the 11th Lok Sabha in 1996 were held over 33 days, with six constituencies (one each in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and four in Jammu and Kashmir) going to the polls separately a week after the Lok Sabha was constituted. However, elections for 537 constituencies were held over 11 days. More important, the counting of votes was taken up in 537 constituencies without waiting for the conclusion of elections in the remaining six seats.

An Election Commission spokesperson claimed that the decision to defer the counting until the conclusion of elections in all the 543 constituencies was intended to ensure fair and free elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Implied in this assessment is an admission that the decision to separate the polling process in Jammu and Kashmir from that in the rest of the country in 1996 was perhaps not wholly proper.

Nevertheless, the fact that this time the process will take at least a week longer more than in 1996 has caused consternation among political parties. The staggering of the schedule for the past few elections in some States was considered inevitable in view of the constraints with regard to the movement of the security forces from one place to another to ensure peaceful polling.

However, it is inexplicable why a State like Orissa, which has a record of peaceful polling and which has only 21 seats, should have two-day polling while Rajasthan, which is a bigger State and has 25 seats, and Gujarat, which has 26 seats, should have one-day polling. Gujarat Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president C.D. Patel, however, welcomed the decision to restrict polling in the State to one day. He said that it would discourage bogus voting. Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat criticised the Commission's decision to hold one-day polling in the State. This, he said, was impractical in view of administrative difficulties.

Political leaders also fear that the staggering of the polling schedule will increase the incidence of booth-capturing and bogus voting. In a letter to Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill, Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav apprehended that the delay in taking up counting would "increase the chances of tinkering with ballot boxes and other types of manipulation and manoeuvring." He also said that storing the sealed ballot boxes for as long as three weeks in many constituencies and providing for their security would increase election-related expenses, thereby nullifying the Commission's efforts in this direction. CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan wanted the Commission to restrict the polling phase as a three-week schedule would strain leaders and activists. Bardhan also warned that it would be difficult to ensure safe custody of the ballot boxes for such a long period.

BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj urged the Commission to advance the polling in the three parliamentary constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir. Party president L.K. Advani also expressed reservations about the lengthy poll schedule and his concern about the safety of the ballot boxes until counting begins.

The Congress(I) was one of the few major parties that did not criticise the schedule; it took the view that it was the Commission's responsibility to ensure the safety of the ballot boxes.

Gill dismissed the criticism of the election schedule as unwarranted. He claimed that the Commission had formulated the schedule after taking into consideration the time required for the movement of troops from one place to another.

On December 31, the Government raised the ceiling on election expenditure by candidates for Lok Sabha constituencies from Rs.4.5 lakhs to Rs.15 lakhs and for Assembly constituencies from Rs.1.5.lakhs to Rs.6 lakhs. Rule 90 of the Conduct of Elections Rules was amended to facilitate this on the Commission's recommendation.

The Government also issued an ordinance amending Section 159 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to enable deployment of employees of local authorities, universities and government-funded institutions and undertakings for election duty. The Commission also said that with the announcement of the election schedule, the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates came into operation with immediate effect. However, it conceded that routine development work by State governments and the Centre could not be stalled in the name of the model code. The Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court had clarified this point recently.

The Trinamul Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, and the Biju Janata Dal, led by Naveen Patnaik, were registered as new parties before the election dates were announced. The Commission decided not to register any new political parties after the announcement of elections.

Some progress was made in respect of the Commission's directive to the Shiv Sena to hold organisational elections, if necessary by amending its constitution, and to provide for a fixed term for its president. The Sena initially contended that its constitution did not provide for organisational elections; it later unanimously 'elected' Bal Thackeray as president for life. The Sena claimed that Election Commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, who had joined issue with Gill in the matter and had accused him of favouring the Sena, did not have the right to lay down terms for inner-party elections. Thackeray said that the Sena would not present its case before the Commission if it had to appear before Krishnamurthy; when the Sena's representatives appeared before the Commission on December 24 and 30, Krishnamurthy was not present. At the meeting, the Sena agreed to amend its constitution by April 30 to allow for organisational elections. It also agreed, under protest, to limit the term of the party president and secretary to five years. The Commission said it was satisfied with the Sena's stand.

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