In election mode

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The collapse of the coalition government has placed the Election Commission in the unenviable position of having to hold a round of mid-term elections at short notice in the most difficult part of the year.

CHIEF Election Commissioner M.S. Gill was on a lecture tour of the United States and the United Kingdom when the 12th Lok Sabha was dissolved, on April 26. He had spoken at various universities on Indian democracy, expressing optimism about the success of the Indian political system. Naturally, he could not have been amused by the turn of events in New Delhi. Gill rushed back to India and held consultations with President K.R. Narayanan on the issues involved in setting the electoral process in motion, and met leaders of various political parties informally to obtain their views on the time-frame.

The Election Commission was hardly prepared for a round of mid-term elections, and Gill and the two Election Commissioners, G.V.G. Krishnamurthy and J.M. Lyngodh, were caught unawares. Gill maintained after his meeting with the President that the 13th Lok Sabha would be constituted in good time after "intensive examination" of all aspects. The next Lok Sabha has to be constituted on or before October 22: Article 85(1) of the Constitution states that "six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first setting in the next session."

Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill flanked by Election Commissioners G.V.G. Krishnamurthy and J.M. Lyngdoh. The dissolution of the Lok Sabha caught the Election Commission unawares.-

The CEC pointed out that elections to nine State Assemblies (Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Orissa and Bihar) were due between October 1999 and March 2000, and that the possibility of clubbing them with elections to the Lok Sabha would be considered. The Commission, according to sources, would consider the logic of holding simultaneous elections in order to avoid duplication of efforts in matters such as the movement of security forces, the deployment of civil servants, schoolteachers and local functionaries, the opening of polling booths, the transportation of ballot papers and the blocking of schools to serve as polling and counting centres.

The Commission was of the view that the financial crunch faced by some States was also a factor that could delay the conduct of elections. The Centre is yet to reimburse to some States expenditure incurred in conducting the last Lok Sabha elections. Conservative estimates put the expenditure on the next elections at Rs.800 crores, and most State budgets have made no provision for mid-term polls.

Besides, the Commission does not want to call off the ongoing process of summary revision of electoral rolls undertaken with a view to including the names of all those who have attained 18 years of age as on January 1, 1999, as it would enable about 40 lakh voters who could be left out of the voters' lists to challenge in court the E.C's decision. The revision of rolls is expected to be over by mid-July.

Disappointed that the 12th Lok Sabha could not complete its term, Gill had even suggested the introduction of a constitutional amendment to ensure that the Lok Sabha lasted its full term.

EVEN as it was getting down to business, the Election Commission was caught between conflicting demands from national and regional political formations on the timing of the elections. While the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, which hoped to cash in on a supposed "sympathy wave" in thier favour, called for early elections, preferably in the second week of June, parties in the opposite camp, including the Samajwadi Party, the Tamil Maanila Congress, and the Left parties such as the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were in favour of a September-October schedule, after the summer and the monsoon.

In a joint memorandum submitted to the Election Commission on April 29, the CPI and the CPI(M) underlined the need to complete the revision of the electoral rolls so that all citizens who have attained the age of 18 years can vote in the coming elections. "It will be an injustice to deny them, as citizens, the right to vote in such a major election," the letter said. The Left parties also pointed out that by the time the rolls were revised the monsoon would be in full swing, which would hamper both campaigning and voting. Polls were not feasible before July as the entire northern region would be reeling under heat and the monsoon would have set in in the southern and western coastal regions, the memorandum explained.

The Congress(I) declared its intention to abide by the E.C's decision, although it broadly hinted that it would like the elections to be delayed. Party representatives Pranab Mukherjee and Sharad Pawar, who called on the Election Commissioners on April 30, suggested that the process of updating the electoral rolls be completed before the elections. The Congress(I) did not take a stand on the issue of holding simultaneous elections in nine States.

It is difficult to believe that the political parties have stated the actual reasons for their positions on the poll dates. The BJP and its allies have maintained that it is not right to have a caretaker government at the Centre for a period of well over five months. A question asked was whether the 'caretaker' Government would be allowed to take major policy decisions such as a decision on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and meeting India's commitments to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

However, the Government also asserted on April 28 that it did not agree with the concept of 'caretaker government' as the Constitution does not provide for it; as such, it would be well within its right to function as a democratically elected government and take decisions on issues of national importance as and when necessary, it said. Despite this claim, the BJP and its allies are acutely aware of the Government's limitations and so wanted early elections in order to end the political uncertainty. Giving reasons for their objections to delaying the elections until September, the coalition leaders said that the services of schoolteachers could be used in June when the schools remained closed for vacation; between July and September, they said, there was the possibility of floods and rain disrupting transport and communication facilities in several States.

Election Commission sources were quick to point out the apparent contradiction in the Government's position: on the one hand it claimed that it was a full-fledged government and on the other its leaders lamented that if the polls were delayed the people would be deprived of an elected government that could be responsive to the nation's problems.

The BJP and its allies probably fear that a delay in holding the elections held the prospect of alienation of voters from the Government as a result of price rise and food shortages caused by a bad monsoon. Also, it hopes that if the elections are held in June, the failure of the Opposition parties to cobble together an alternative government after pulling down the Vajpayee Government would be fresh in the minds of the voters and generate sympathy for the BJP.

The BJP and its allies, and also the Telugu Desam Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, warned that any delay in the holding of elections would result in an economic slowdown for six months. Venkaiah Naidu said that elections could be held on the basis of last year's electoral rolls. Revision of electoral rolls was being used as an excuse to delay elections, he alleged. No Lok Sabha elections had taken place during the period between July and October, he said.

The Commission was not impressed with the argument that the caretaker government should not continue for long only because it would be handicapped without sufficient powers to take decisions. In its view, meeting the commitments made to the WTO would pose no problem if the Prime Minister sought a consensus on the matter among political parties.

The E.C. asked the Government to exercise restraint and function within the framework of established democratic norms until a model code of conduct was in place. The Congress(I) complained to the Commission about misuse of the government-controlled media by the incumbent caretaker government. In his address to the nation on April 28, Vajpayee had appealed to all political parties to ensure that the "election of the millennium" was conducted in a peaceful and transparent manner.

The debate about the time-frame apart, Gill said that the E.C. would be blamed whichever month it ultimately chose for the polls. Krishnamurthy, who shared this view, warned that any miscalculation would affect the turnout; in areas facing extreme climatic conditions it could also lead to cancellation of elections, he said. Even as Gill admitted that the various aspects of conducting the elections "worried and frightened" him, the "mother of all elections", involving nearly 600 million voters, promises to be as exciting as ever.

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