Chidambaram Slams Election Commission Over Gujarat Poll Issue

While the Congress and BJP are in a verbal spat over the election commission's decision to not announce the Gujarat election dates, former chief election commissioners are mostly refusing to get drawn into the debate.

New Delhi: Former union minister P. Chidambaram on Friday reignited the debate over whether the Election Commission (EC) succumbed to pressure from the Narendra Modi government in not announcing the election dates for the Gujarat Assembly while declaring the dates for the Himachal Pradesh election.

Dates for elections to be held within six months of each other are usually announced together, as per long-standing EC practice.

Curiously, most former chief election commissioners, usually willing to comment on EC issues, have decided to stay clear of the issue apart from the stray comment. 

Chidambaram’s tweets mocking the EC for allowing the prime minister to announce some sops for the state ahead of the polls, and for going on an “extended holiday” before announcing the poll dates for Gujara,t drew a response from Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani. The chief minister claimed that both Chidambaram and Congress were afraid of the upcoming polls.

Taking to the social media platform, Chidambaram  mocked the poll panel over its role. His first tweet alluded to the poll panel allegedly surrendering its independence.

He then took another dig at the Election Commission, saying it would only announce the dates for Gujarat on returning from its “extended holiday”.

The senior Congress leader’s comments drew an immediate response from Rupani who told news agency ANI, “I think Chidambaram and the entire Congress are scared of the upcoming Gujarat elections.”

The issue first cropped up soon after the Election Commission convened a meeting to announce the elections for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat assemblies. While doing so, it only announced dates for polls in the hill state while leaving out the announcement for Gujarat. This had drawn immediate flak from some former election commissioners who had questioned the move away from long-standing convention/

One of them had stated that “it has been normal practice for years that state elections falling within six months of each other are clubbed together by the Election Commission for the purposes of drawing up and announcing the election schedule.” He had insisted that “by deferring the announcement of the Gujarat elections, they have killed the prestige of the Election Commission.”

The move was also criticised as Modi was due to visit Gujarat on October 16 and by not announcing the poll dates (and thereby bringing the model code of conduct into force in the state) the Election Commission had allowed him an opportunity to announce new schemes for the state.

Some former CECs had also criticised the move. Former CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy, was then quoted as saying, “all this controversy could have been avoided with better management”,

But when he was approached by the The Wire on Friday  for his views on the latest spat over the issue, he said  that he had nothing more to add on the subject about which he has already expressed his views. Krishnamurthy had earlier stated that “I suppose they could have announced both (Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls) together, either one week before or one week after. I am not looking at whether the decision was influenced or not. I am concerned with whether, administratively, a solution could have been found. I think I would have found a solution.”

As for Chief Election Commissioner A.K. Joti’s insistence that ongoing relief and rehabilitation work in flood-affected in Gujarat was one of the reasons why he delayed the polls in the state, Krishnamurthy had stated that: “The emergency flood relief work is to be done by bureaucrats, not politicians. The Model Code of Conduct does not stand in the way of any emergency relief work. It does not prevent existing projects from continuing. Only new projects should not be announced during the MCC period.”

Another former CEC, S.Y. Quraishi had stated that the decision had created a “ground for suspicion”. “What were the compulsions of the Commission to announce the poll dates for Himachal and not Gujarat? They must have some good reasons to justify this. Mr. Modi’s visit to Gujarat next week creates a ground of suspicion and its unfortunate.”

Expressing surprise with the decision to not hold simultaneous polls, he had wondered aloud: “Why didn’t they club it?” He then demanded that at least their results should be declared together as if announced before they “could influence the results in another”.

With former CECs criticising the move of the Election Commission, Rupani had alleged that the Congress had influenced the 2012 polls, by getting the then panel to announce the polls to the state 83 days before the term of the Assembly was to come to an end.

“In 2012 (Assembly election), the Election Commission ensured at the behest of the Congress that the model code of conduct was in force for a record time to prevent Modiji from working, because of which the state government could not take up development work,” he had stated to news channel India TV.

Denying that the Centre had exerted any pressure this time, he had also declared that “it is the right of the EC to declare model code of conduct…(the opposition) wants government to stop working. This is against democratic values.”

Rupani’s comments had drawn a strong response from the election commissioners who were in office in 2012.

V.S. Sampath, who was CEC then, termed the Gujarat chief minister’s remarks as “unfair” and “uncharitable”. He told a newspaper that “the Election Commission follows the highest traditions of independence and has never compromised in its constitutional duties. It’s very unfair and uncharitable to make such a remark after a lapse of five years from the last election.”

H.S. Brahma, who was election commissioner then, had also denied that the EC acted under any influence then saying: “Yes, the model code of conduct period was long, but it’s wrong to say that we acted under some party’s influence.” Nasim Zaidi, who was the second EC then, and retired earlier this year as the CEC, had refused to comment on the matter.

The former CECs are gradually distancing themselves from the allegations and counter allegations. Asked for his view on the latest issue, former CEC N. Gopalaswami told The Wire that much has already been written and said on the subject and he would not like to comment on it now.

While the former CECs are now reluctant to speak on the issue, the political slug fest is showing no signs of abating.