Polling will be held in four phases in this round of general elections, which will for the first time see electronic voting machines being used throughout the country.in New Delhi
FORMER Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill described the Lok Sabha elections as the "kumbh mela" of Indian democracy in terms of scale and logistics. The conduct of periodical elections is arguably the most important sign of a mature polity. The Election Commission (E.C.), which has the responsibility to hold them, contributes significantly to the legitimacy of this exercise.
The dissolution of the 13th Lok Sabha on February 6, eight months ahead of the expiry of its term, had created misgivings that the intention was to limit the power of the E.C. to schedule appropriately the elections any time during the last six months of the Lok Sabha's term. The dissolution, it was argued, would force the E.C. to hold the 14th Lok Sabha elections earlier than it would have had to if the 13th Lok Sabha was allowed to complete its term. Yet, the E.C., as its press note on February 29 reveals, had sufficient time to complete the exercise by August 6, when the 14th Lok Sabha would have to be constituted to meet the constitutional requirement.
However, the need to hold Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and the desirability to conduct them simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections, in order to minimise costs and the inconvenience to the public, appear to have tied the E.C.'s hands. When the Centre wanted to know whether the E.C. could delay the holding of elections in the interest of free and fair polls, the E.C. pointed to the Supreme Court's interpretation in the presidential reference case in 2002 and said that the new Assembly would have to be constituted within six months of the dissolution of the previous Assembly, which period ended on May 13 in the case of Andhra Pradesh.
The elections will now be held in four phases - on April 20 and 26 and May 5 and 10 - in the entire country. Elections to the two seats in Tripura will be held on April 22 instead of April 20. The E.C. revised the date as a tribal festival is to take place in the State on April 20. All major political parties have welcomed the E.C.'s decision to hold the elections early, thus suggesting that whatever be the motives of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in opting for early polls, they did not influence the E.C.'s decision. As per the schedule, Jammu and Kashmir will have polling on all the four days. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will have it on three days - April 20 and 26 and May 5. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur and Orissa will go to polls on April 20 and 26, while Madhya Pradesh will vote on May 5 and 10. The remaining States and Union Territories will have a one-day poll. Counting of votes will be on May 13, and it is expected to be completed the same day. The E.C. will advance the counting in Andhra Pradesh by a day or so in order to constitute the State Assembly by May 13.
Apart from Andhra Pradesh, Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Karnataka, Orissa and Sikkim, whose State Assemblies have also been prematurely dissolved. A few vacant seats in eight State Assemblies will be filled through byelections along with the general elections.
Electronic voting machines (EVMs) will be used in the entire country for the first time in these elections. Under the E.C.'s estimates, 10,75,000 EVMs will be deployed for the use of 675 million voters. The E.C. will also put into effect for the first time the Supreme Court's directions on affidavits to be submitted by candidates along with their nomination papers. The affidavits, which will be made public by the E.C. on demand, will carry information on a candidate's criminal antecedents if any, property, liabilities and educational qualifications. The E.C., as per the directive of the Delhi High Court on March 1, will also seek affidavits from candidates regarding their dues to the government in respect of water and electricity consumption, telephone calls and hotel bills, and give them due publicity.
With the amendment to the Explanation to Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, only the expenses incurred in the travel of `leaders' of a political party will be exempt from inclusion in a candidate's expense account, which has a legally stipulated ceiling. The E.C. has asked each political party to forward to it the names of 40 such leaders whose travel expenses would be eligible for exemption. All other expenses - incurred/authorised by the political parties, other associations, body of persons, individuals - will have to be included in the account of the candidates, the E.C. has clarified. However, few believe that this amendment will make the election campaign any less expensive.
Both the government and the E.C. appear to agree on the ethics and legality of banning advertisements of a political nature on television, in accordance with the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act and the rules framed under it in 1994. The E.C., which erroneously permitted such advertisements in November last year on the flawed reading of an Andhra Pradesh High Court judgment in 1999, has now corrected its decision and asked the government to enforce the rule.
Chief Election Commissioner T.S. Krishna Murthy revealed that the E.C. had proposed to the government that the voter could be given the option to register his or her rejection of all the candidates. The proposal, pending with the Law Ministry, would require considerable public debate on its merits, as it seems unlikely to achieve its purpose of minimising widespread voter apathy to the electoral process.