While the party has been relentlessly campaigning for simultaneous elections to parliament and state assemblies, it has not expressed unhappiness with the decision not to align Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections.
For the past year and a half, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself have unceasingly campaigned for One Nation, One Poll, making India’s regular polls appear as the biggest stumbling block in development. In the backdrop of the Elections Commission’s (EC’s) explanation, lacking in conviction, that elections to the Gujarat assembly have not been called to shorten the period of the model code of conduct being in force, it is worthwhile to examine the BJP’s seriousness to its ’cause’.
The baton was picked up from the former party president and deputy prime minister, now rendered inconsequential in the BJP, L.K. Advani, who set the idea in motion more than a decade ago. Subsequently, Atal Bihari Vajpayee too in 2003 argued in favour of a fixed tenure for the Lok Sabha, without explaining if in April 1999 he should have been allowed to continue in office despite losing a vote of confidence by a solitary vote.
In the intervening years, several BJP leaders repeated the call and eventually the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice also took up the matter and submitted a report. Its proposals and the response from political parties is, however, a matter for another day.
What is crucial now is that despite the high-octane campaign and existence of opportunity, BJP and Modi consciously let go of an opportunity of holding elections to state assemblies simultaneously. Refusal to make a small beginning demonstrates that the actual intent is not to usher simultaneity in the electoral calendar but to raise another smokescreen for rallying support by blaming opposition parties for ‘making a mess of democracy.’
To understand this, one has to go back to 2002, when Gujarat had erupted in a frenzy of riots after the Godhra massacre. It is wise to also recall that Modi was deputed to the state as chief minister in October 2001 to set the house in order and ensure that the party renewed its mandate in the next state polls that were due in March 2003. As was demonstrated in by-polls held in February 2002 days before the Godhra carnage, the party was a long distance from staging a political recovery. Within weeks the narrative altered and in July 2002, Modi controversially dissolved the state assembly when it was not in session.
Also read: Please Remember Whose Idea Simultaneous Polls to Parliament and State Assemblies Really Is
His decision triggered a constitutional crisis because the state assembly was prorogued on April 6, 2002, and this made, according to his interpretation of the statues, mandatory for the EC to complete the poll process before October 6, 2002, that is within six months of the last sitting of the assembly. Details about the legal imbroglio is another matter for recounting on another day and it suffices to state that polls were held in December 2002, three months before the term of the assembly was to expire.
Undeniably, the schedule of elections was altered by Modi to enable him and the BJP to harness the gains of communal polarisation on account of the riots.
Failing to lead by example
Fifteen years later, there was a case for the party to propose another advancement of polls if it was necessary to set an example. Instead of holding the polls in the two states together, the BJP has effectively de-hyphenated the poll process in Gujarat and Himachal. This has been done for reasons that are not difficult to deduce.
It is not only the state government or the ruling party that can advance polls, but even the EC is well within its right to make such a suggestion. It must be kept in mind that before Modi asked for snap polls in 2002, the state went into the hustings along with Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. In 1998, these four states and Gujarat voted for the state assembly along simultaneous polls for the 12th Lok Sabha.
But when polls were held in March 2003 in Himachal and the three northeastern states, Gujarat had moved out of this cluster when Modi exercised his chief ministerial right to advance polls. Modi is aiming to curtail this right by calling for fixed tenure of legislatures.
But in 2007, when the EC began deliberating dates for polls in Gujarat, it decided to advance the election in Himachal and hold it alongside Gujarat. This was done after consultation with all political parties and to accommodate sentiments of people in three assembly constituencies – Kinnaur, Bharmour and Lahaul and Spiti (in the districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti) – that became out of bounds from mid-November due to snowfall. People contended that by the time they exercised their franchise in June-July, a new government was already in place thereby leaving them with no voice in government formation. That the three seats were reserved for the Scheduled Tribes – the only ones in the state – made the issue politically sensitive.
In 2012 too, polls in both states were called together and counting was also held on the same day. This time in 2017 the EC has decided to hold polling on all Himachal seats on the same day – November 11– as against in 2012 and 2007 – when it held polling in the three tribal seats before snowfall and in other 65 seats later closer to polling in Gujarat. This suggests that while an alteration has been made in the case for Himachal, it has not been made for Gujarat.
There was no effort – at least this has not been declared by the EC – to discuss with political parties, especially the BJP, if elections in Gujarat could be advanced by a few weeks and instead of holding it in the first fortnight of December, the polls could be held in the middle of November. Obviously, this has not been done because the BJP needs more time in Gujarat.
Also read: Past Continuous: History Shows Simultaneous Polls for Parliament and States Is a Bad Idea
Former chief election commissioner S.Y. Qureshi, in an article in the Indian Express, has contended that by not announcing the polls in Gujarat and stating that it would be conducted before December 18 when counting in Himachal has been announced, the EC has severely undermined its credibility.
By not indicating to the EC that it was open to the idea of advancing polls by a couple of weeks – if only to begin a process of holding state polls simultaneously – the BJP has underlined that #OneNationOnePolls is just another hashtag, or jumla.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.