Much Too Much of a Stretch

Don’t phase elections over weeks. Hold simultaneous polls on one day
The Election Commission (EC) is one of the most respected institutions in India. Its impartiality is essential to ensure that democra cy is free and fair, and this has rarely been in doubt.So, it is unfortunate that the timing of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections has raised suspicions over the EC’s impartiality . Like Caesar’s wife, the commission should not just be impartial but above suspicion.

The simplest way out is to have simultaneous elections on a single day , whether in a general election or in states going to polls at roughly the same time. It is utterly farcical to spread elections over weeks or even months, as has become common practice. Many large countries hold elections on a single day . India itself used to do so till the 1980s.

Vote for Safety

Unfortunately , a spate of booth-capturing then led the EC of the time, T N Seshan, to decree that henceforth he would manage police deployment and election dates, not chief ministers (who were often in league with boothcapturers). Seshan succeeded in stopping booth-capturing, and for that, he will always be remembered.

But with the coming of electronic voting machines (EVMs), closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras and smartphones to capture unruly behaviour, booth-capturing can quickly be detected and foiled. Thugs have no incentive to capture booths if the capture goes viral on the internet and repolling is ordered. In these circumstances, it seems ridiculous that Indian elections are not held safely on a single day .

If that happens, we will see the end of waiting and policy paralysis for weeks from the first day of electioneering to the day of the result. We will also see the end of accusations that the EC has phased poll dates to favour this or that party .

Back in 2012, the results of state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat were announced on the same day , December 20. The elections themselves were strung out over weeks, with polling dates in Himachal preceding those in Gujarat.

This time, the Himachal Pradesh election has been notified by the EC, an act that brings into force a code of conduct forbidding any new concessions or project announcements by the state government to try and influence the election results.

However, the Gujarat election has not yet been notified, and the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders have been inaugurating new projects and promising new ones.

The Congress has lashed out at the EC. Former home minister P Chidambaram has tweeted, “EC has authorised PM to announce date of Gujarat elections at his last rally (and kindly keep EC informed).“ He also predicted, “EC will be recalled from its extended holiday after Gujarat Government has announced all concessions and freebies.“ Chief Election Commissioner Ach alKumar Joti denies any bias. He says that in Himachal Pradesh, the state EC and all political parties pointed out that snow was expected in early Nov ember in three districts -Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba -and, hence, suggested early poll dates to prevent snow from making it diffi cult for voters to get to polling booths.

Ain’t Laying No Foundation

The last Gujarat election was held in mid-December in 2012, and it seems Joti has similar dates in mind for 2017 too. He says although the Hima chal poll will be held in November, its result will be declared only on Dec ember 20, by which time the Gujarat poll will also have taken place, and so the Himachal result will not affect voting behaviour in Gujarat. He adds that Gujarat suffered extensive flood damage in September, and officials need to be given more time for flood relief activities before switching to election duties.

This logic is not unreasonable, yet is not entirely convincing either. The fact remains that while no more free bies or projects can be announced in Himachal, they can in Gujarat, and this will continue to happen till the state’s polling dates are notified. Ido not believe -and I do not think Chidambaram believes either -that new projects and foundation stones being inaugurated by the Prime Minister will alter the election result in Gujarat. History suggests that lastminute promises and the laying of foundation stones yield very meagre electoral returns. At most, they may have a marginal impact in one or two constituencies. In Gujarat, they may not change a single result.

Even so, given the highly polarised nature of Indian politics, accusations will fly, and that is unfortunate. Hopefully, the current EC will not, after retirement, be made a Cabinet minister (or get some other politically mandated office). That happened once before in the case of M S Gill, and should not be repeated. We need a complete separation of Election Commissioners from politics.

But the bigger issue is the farce of stringing out polls over weeks and months. The EC may have a decent reputation for impartiality the world over. But it is also laughed at for its insistence on a lengthy poll schedule that defies logic and paralyses decision-making. Whatever the historical reasons for this, they are no longer valid. India needs to hold simultaneous elections on a single day .

What do you think?