The Election Commission (EC) recently announced the date for the Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls and deferred it for Gujarat. Under allegation for not discharging its duties in a free and fair manner -- holding back the dates, it is being criticised, will allow Gujarat and the Central government to make last-minute populist announcements -- the ECI, in its defence, cited the 2017 Assembly elections when the poll announcement for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat were staggered. Poll schedule for both states was announced on the same day in 2012 though.
If the counting for both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections is held on the same day -- December 8 -- it certainly raises questions about the ECI. It's worth noticing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a two-day visit to Gujarat soon after the Himachal polls were announced; he inaugurated the Deesa airfield, announced projects in Junagarh worth Rs 3,580 crore, in Rajkot worth Rs 7,710 crore, and 1,100 housing schemes for the poor.
Five years ago, on October 12, while the EC announced November 9 as election day for Himachal Pradesh (owing to winter setting in early in the state), with counting on December 18, the only announcement made for Gujarat was that the elections would be held before December 18, thus suggesting that the counting day would remain the same for both the states. Eventually, the EC declared that Gujarat would vote in two phases on December 9 and 14, thus allowing the BJP government, in the state and at the Centre, two weeks to announce a slew of schemes and development projects.
The deferred declaration led the Opposition parties to allege that the EC was pressured by the ruling party to grant it extra time to announce sops for Gujarat. Some of the announcements made in this period by the state and Central governments were: interest-free agriculture loans of up to Rs 3 lakh to farmers; a minimum support price of Rs 900 for groundnut; Rs 100 bonus on 20 kg of cotton; the formation of 16 new Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation units; the inauguration of a passenger service from Ghogha to Dahej by Modi himself; a pay revision for fixed salaried workers; GST waiver on micro-irrigation equipment; a 50 per cent hike in incentives given to Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers; appointments to vacant posts of various boards and corporations in a bid to woo communities; and a `4,337-crore barrage project to solve the issue of drinking water for Bharuch.
While one can’t say the BJP won the 2017 Gujarat elections because of the possible time advantage, there are allegations that it did get some leverage because of populist announcements. Elections, like any other political event, are supposed to follow the rules and regulations laid down by the Constitution and EC. Like in other games, it is the duty of umpire to ensure that the teams and players are participating without using unfair means. Players raising questions about the umpire has implications on the legitimacy of the game.
Sanjay Kumar is Professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. He can be reached at email@example.com.