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October 5, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

The EC's hidden agenda

As the latest Lok Sabha poll entered the 'slog overs', the Election Commission hit what it thought would be a last-ball sixer for the Congress party's innings. There is no other explanation for the apparently innocent but ingenious decision announced by the EC just a week before the counting of votes was to begin.

That announcement said that, for the first time, the EC's notification to the President constituting the 13th Lok Sabha would, unlike in the past, also mention the party affiliation against the name of the elected candidate. This new procedure, the EC told us, will satisfy the requirements of the Tenth Schedule of the Indian Constitution with particular reference to the anti-defection law.

This deviation from the practice followed for scores of previous elections conducted in the country for well-nigh half-a-century is not so straightforward as the EC wants the native millions to believe. Nor does it have anything to do with the requirements of the Constitution's Tenth Schedule.

In fact, there is nothing in law that requires the EC to put the name of the party against the winning candidate in its notification to the President. Rather, what the EC set out to do was a cunning measure to try and get a Congress government installed in the face of its combat with a massive coalition called the National Democratic Alliance.

It expected that its intended notification would at once make conspicuous to the President and the public about which was the single largest party in the new Parliament.

It was a desperate grasp at a straw in the circumstance of the verdict emanating from a series of exit polls. These polls confirmed earlier opinion poll findings that the NDA, comprising the BJP and its allies, was heading for a clear majority. But it also showed that the BJP, on its own, was losing seats in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The Congress is definitely gaining seats in the first two of those three states which send 179 representatives in all to the Lok Sabha.

With separate figures for the BJP alone not being forecast publicly, the Congress had seen a devious, devilish prospect for itself -- it could be the political party with the largest number of MPs. By virtue of the view often expressed by constitutional experts, it could thus become the first claimant to the President's invitation for forming the new government in Delhi.

An ex-Congressman as President could surely be expected to make this happen, leaving the entity known as the NDA shell-shocked and ready to collapse. With the Congress being offered the first choice to set up house in Delhi, it would not be impossible to split the NDA constituents thereafter to cobble a majority of 272 MPs in the Lok Sabha. That could be done with offers of filled suitcases, gubernatorial positions, diplomatic postings, plum posts in the various government organizations etc. After all, the Congress is a pastmaster at such games.

That such a dark conspiracy was indeed being hatched became clear just a day after the EC's novel announcement. Twenty-four hours after the EC's sudden 'concern' to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution's Tenth Schedule, Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal held court on the issue. At his daily press conference, this devil's advocate indulged in his usual dramatics.

'There has never been an occasion in the last 50 years when the single largest party was not invited first to form the government,' he said. The NDA, he contended, cannot be treated as a single entity.

'These are separate political parties contesting on separate symbols and there is no law under which they can be treated as one,' he thundered. It was another of those performances of the last eight weeks or so that compelled Arun Shourie to award Sibal the sobriquet of a 'lie-making machine.'

Be that as it may be, the EC's reference to the long-forgotten Tenth Schedule was hogwash, an expedient and a ruse to try and aid the Congress. That schedule came in 1985 as a result of the 52nd Constitutional amendment. Now the underlying idea of that schedule was that if a member of Parliament or a state legislature seeks to quit the political party on whose ticket s/he was elected, then s/he will have to resign his/her seat and re-contest.

This disqualification on the ground of defection does not apply when a political party splits in such a way that the faction to which that member belongs consists of no less than one-third strength of that party. This disqualification is to be decided by the chairman or the Speaker of the House. The EC's claim that notification will help the chairman/Speaker identify the candidate's party is farcical. It is based on the naive assumption that the chairman/Speaker is not aware of, or unable to otherwise identify, the member's party affiliation and that, therefore, he needs the EC's notification to help him out.

M S Gill, the Chief Election Commissioner, is cunning, no doubt, but he is not clever enough to fool those who look deep into issues.

This cunning of the EC in the present election has bee plainly visible to those with the ability to detect skulduggery for what it is. The EC's primary motive has been to try and prevent the BJP-led government from regaining power. This was evident right from the time Vajpayee lost the confidence vote on April 17. Take a look at the EC's actions from the time the 12th Lok Sabha was dissolved on April 22. Below are highlights of the EC's strategic planning towards its evil hidden agenda from thence onwards:

  • Realising that Vajpayee had gained considerable sympathy for having lost his office by just one single vote -- that too of a counterfeit contour -- the EC ensured elections for the 13th Lok Sabha were delayed long enough for the sympathy factor to wither away.

    Accordingly, the EC first came out with the specious excuse that the list of new voters for the cut-off date of January 1, 1999 would not be ready for elections to be held in June. Nobody, including the otherwise aggressive media, had the wit to ask whether the EC was sleeping till April to enrol new voters.

  • Then the EC argued that the beginning of the monsoon was not suitable for the farmers because of their preoccupation with sowing operations -- as though the polling day entailed the loss of several man days for every farming family. The opposition parties naturally connived to aid this delay.

  • The EC then hit upon the idea of fixing dates of election for a later, indeterminate date, probably September; that was late enough for Vajpayee to have lost the nation's sympathy, wasn't it? The BJP reiterated its preference for June, pointing out that September was invariably the month of floods in the country. The EC stuck to its game plan: delay, delay the exercise.

  • However, with the BJP-led coalition's astounding success in the Kargil crisis, the EC suddenly issued the poll notification on July 11 and immediately imposed the Model Electoral Code of Conduct, although the first polling day was seven weeks away. The objective was so clearly to further stifle the caretaker government. Since the entire electoral process from issuance of notification to actual polling usually took 31 days, elections for September ought to have been announced only in the first week of August.

  • The electioneering period itself was extended to an unbelievable 90 days, with actual polling spread over five phases, excluding the re-polling components. To compound this mischief of letting the Vajpayee government's performance come under greater critical scrutiny, and perhaps to afford Sonia Gandhi's Congress time to recover from its Pawar-generated split, the polling in eastern India was left for September-end. That is when, as many Indians know, the hasta nakshatra rain leads to waterlogging, floods and... more delayed polling.

    One extremely undesirable outcome of the EC's indifference was that the feared floods actually occurred in Bihar. That gave the EC a reason to postpone voting in four of that state's constituencies to October 28, six full days later than when, according to the Constitution, the new government should have been in place six months after the fall of the previous one.

    All those four constituencies voted for the BJP and its ally, the Samata Party, to victory in the 1998 polls. So the present postponement could very well harm the NDA's attempt to regain power if, on October 6, the final counting (excluding the postponed four) showed a dead heat between the two major contenders.

    Indeed, a horrific constitutional crisis could arise if the Congress, leading by one seat, forms the government and proceeds to quickly enforce the government's right to appoint two nominees but the NDA later wins all the four postponed seats. That would give it an over-all concluding lead of one MP on November 1. What, in god's name, will this blundering and blinded EC do then?

  • The EC's argument for the polling phases being staggered is that the central paramilitary forces need a week for moving from one area to another. This is eyewash. Does it take seven days to move security forces from one part of Uttar Pradesh to another, from one part of Madhya Pradesh to another, from one part of Maharashtra to another?

    Further, if the EC's argument is accepted, how is it that polling for the third and last phase of Uttar Pradesh, for the other half of Bihar and for the concluding part of Orissa was scheduled to finish with that of all of West Bengal on a single day?

Unless it is already clear by the time this piece is published, a week more at the most will reveal whether the EC has succeeded in its sinister motive of ousting Vajpayee's government. In either case, it has now become imperative for Parliament to clearly lay down the powers of the EC and the procedures it must follow at all times, come rain or sunshine, flood or drought.

Arvind Lavakare

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