The EC said the schedule was withheld to prevent the state from enduring a long period under the model code of conduct.
There are few takers for the Election Commission’s feeble explanation for not announcing the dates for the Assembly elections in Gujarat despite declaring that polling will be over before December 18, when counting is to be taken up in Himachal Pradesh. The EC said the schedule was withheld to prevent the state from enduring a long period under the model code of conduct. The code, as per EC regulations, “remains in force from the date of announcement of elections till the completion of elections”. Chief election commissioner A.K. Joti pointed out that if the dates for Gujarat were announced alongside Himachal schedule, it would have remained under the model code for 70 days, from October 12 to December 20, the “date before which the election shall be completed” in Himachal. Clearly, the EC is more worried about Gujarat remaining under the model code for a long period and not so much about Himachal being under the same restrictions for a similar duration. Why such stepmotherly treatment for Himachal? Is it because the EC has already decided that Virbhadra Singh’s government is on its way out while the BJP government in Gujarat must be given more time for its unfinished agenda?
Before 2007, elections in Gujarat and Himachal were not simultaneous. In Himachal, the polls were held along with Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. This was problematic for Himachal as three Assembly segments are in the state’s higher reaches and roads to these close by November 15 and reopen only in May-June after the snow had melted. People in these seats argued their choice was influenced with a new government already in place and this gave unfair advantage to ruling parties. Consequently, the EC consulted political parties and collectively an agreement was reached to advance polls in Himachal and hold them with Gujarat. Subsequently, polling in three seats in Himachal were held in November but in the remaining 65 seats in December after the Gujarat polls. Significantly, before 2002, Gujarat was in the same cluster and the Gujarat Assembly’s term was to expire in March 2003. However, Narendra Modi, then chief minister, prematurely dissolved the House and called for elections. After a long tussle with the EC, which felt that the situation in the state was not conducive to fair polls, elections were held in December.
These facts were cited to highlight that state governments, political parties and the EC can advance the schedule either suo moto or by a consultative process. Nothing stopped the EC this time from holding discussions with the BJP, Congress and other parties in Gujarat and propose advancing the polls to synchronise them with Himachal. Despite that option being available, the EC's decision not to go in for this suggests that the BJP did not consider it prudent to advance the polls by a month. The question is why is the party shying away from a contest, and that too in the Prime Minister’s home state?
Two weeks ago, this writer argued that the BJP’s fortunes looked “uncertain if not exactly vulnerable” and that Narendra Modi was not exhibiting the “confidence of past elections”. It was also argued out that Gujarat was the “Opposition’s best chance to politically embarrass Mr Modi because (even) an unconvincing victory will just be a consolation win”. The EC’s decision to hyphenate the poll process is the best indication that this impression was not wrong. Since then, Mr Modi's woes have increased and creases on his forehead have deepened. What exactly is going wrong with the Modi juggernaut and is there a realistic chance of an upset?
There are six issues troubling Mr Modi and his party. First, there is a problem with the state leadership because it has failed -- the blame for this lies entirely at Mr Modi’s doorstep -- to come out of the strongman’s shadow and develop individuality of their own. Consequently, instead of a chief minister making a national bid as in 2014, this time it is the Prime Minister reaching out to the people for another mandate for his proxy in the state in order to remain unchallenged nationally. Second, the Patels are angry due to the refusal by the state government and the BJP central’s leadership to address their demand for reservations in educational seats and jobs. The Patidars, traditional loyalists, may eventually go along with the BJP for being the original converts to the Hindutva idea, but not before giving sleepless nights to its leaders. Third, alongside the reservation stir, the state government abjectly failed to control the situation arising out of the incident in Una last year when dalit youth were publicly flogged. Dalits never backed the BJP in substantial numbers but when the electorate is unsettled because small social groups are exploring other options, the dalit alienation makes the BJP’s task tougher. Fourth, farmers in the state are restive over numerous issues and this is most evident in the zero interest loans announced by the chief minister last Monday, October 16, when Mr Modi addressed the final rally of the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra. Fifth, as in other parts of the country, traders and small and medium businesses are angry with the government over the negative impact of GST. Sops announced for this section indicate that despite the enthusiastic rollout of GST, the BJP realises that grievances have to be addressed. The question is if this would appease this section sufficiently or not. Finally, since early September, starting with his address at the University of California at Berkeley, Rahul Gandhi suddenly appears to be making the right moves and using the politically correct vocabulary. This has set up an engrossing contest. From the time barely six months ago when 2019 was being called a “settled matter”, this has been surprising development.
Mr Modi still has two main weapons, time, courtesy the EC, and his own innate talent to sway people in his favour. A lot is at stake and by the end of the year we will know which way the wind is blowing.