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Centre’s Handmaiden

Centre’s Handmaiden

After courting controversy for two weeks, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the schedule for Gujarat Assembly elections on October 25. While announcing the schedule for Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Achal Kumar Joti had said December 18 would be the date of completion of Gujarat polls too. So why didn’t he announce the Gujarat polling schedule then?

His laughable explanation was that it was to prevent flood relief work from being interrupted by enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). The ECI has very clear rules on what all can be undertaken and continue even when MCC is operational. Routine work and emergency measures of a government can continue. In case a government has doubts on MCC violation, it can obtain ECI permission. So Joti’s explanation was just a fig leaf to cover ECI for showing unabashed servility to BJP and its Government.

In the two weeks respite that Joti provided, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Gujarat thrice and made announcement after announcements on all kinds of projects to be undertaken. The inexcusable delay allowed the BJP Government in Gujarat also to announce sops after sops for two weeks. The Centre also waived GST for certain sections, in its desperate attempt to retain the state that has been under BJP’s belt for more than two decades. Number of announcements and promises in the last 15 years notwithstanding, rural and tribal areas of Gujarat remain in a pathetic state.

Until T N Seshan took over as CEC, shortly after the V P Singh Government enhanced powers of ECI, it was like an adjunct of the Government of India. However, Seshan changed it all. Netas cutting across party lines felt so threatened with his independent functioning and admonishment of politicians and political parties during elections and on matters related to polls that they amended the law to make the ECI a 3-member body. However, Seshan continued to assert the independence of the ECI and set a precedent which was emulated by almost everyone appointed CEC or EC thereafter. Nirvachan Sadan even got the moniker ‘poll watchdog’ because of its fair and unbiased umpiring of the election process ever since.

For those occupying the coveted post, it was almost like sitting on Vikramaditya’s chair in the legendary tale. Irrespective of political leanings, prior or thereafter, ECs and CECs conducted themselves impeccably. It has been customary for the ECI to be attacked by political parties but at the end of the day, there has been none who could be accused of bias towards a particular party.

However, things seem to be changing. The current CEC has besmirched the reputation of Nirvachan Sadan by unabashedly giving a silly excuse for delaying the announcement of Gujarat elections.

When political opponents of the BJP pointed out the obvious advantage that Nirvachan Sadan had provided to the BJP, the CEC said that it was because of climatic reasons that the Himachal schedule was announced ‘early’. Is Joti aware that the tenure of the Tenth Assembly of Himachal was curtailed in 2007 so that elections could be held there along with Gujarat as the ECI found the exercise of conducting another assembly election a few months later would incur extra expenditure and cumbersome?

The HP elections that should have been held before the summer of 2008 was advanced to 2007 end. Now another CEC advances the election process in Himachal further and announces counting date for Gujarat but withholds polling dates so that MCC does not come into effect until Modi wants.

For the record, A K Joti retired as the Chief Secretary of Gujarat in January 2013, after he was promoted to the post by Chief Minister Narendra Modi on December 31, 2009. In May 2015, the Union Government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed Joti an Election Commissioner and this July he took over as the Chief Election Commissioner. Looks like someone removed Vikramaditya’s chair from the CEC’s office.

Kovind Does It Again

It seems like Vikramaditya’s chair has gone to the President’s office, because after being appointed President of India, Ram Nath Kovind seems to have become apolitical beyond expectations if two of his speeches recently are anything to go by.

Shortly after the BJP launched a smear campaign against Kerala and misused the powers of the Central Government to send ministers there on party campaign, the President attended a function in Kerala, where he put the development record of the state straight, literally countering the third-rate BJP campaign, which even had the likes of UP CM Adityanath saying that Kerala could learn lessons on childcare from his state.

The President has ‘struck’ again, this time in Karnataka. Participating in the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Vidhana Soudha, the President said, “Tipu Sultan died a heroic death fighting the British. He was also a pioneer in development and use of Mysuru rockets in warfare. This technology was later adopted by the Europeans.” It came days after the Karnataka BJP had launched a tirade against the Congress-headed Karnataka Government over celebrations of Tipu Sultan Jayanti.

Kovind’s speech was criticised by BJP’s Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Council KS Eshwarappa. He alleged that the state government had “misused” the office of the President by getting Tipu’s name mentioned in the speech. Eshwarappa, who has been in government, cannot be ignorant of the fact that the President’s speech is prepared by the Presidential staff on his express orders, except when he delivers the Presidential address at the beginning of the Parliament session each year.

But to save his party from embarrassment, Eshwarappa had to obfuscate facts. And he is not alone on the matter. Recently, former President Pranab Mukherjee claimed that he had supported demonetisation when he held office because it was “his government.”

No one questions his reading out of the speech prepared by the Modi Government in Parliament. But Mukherjee has gone out of the way to praise demonetisation in other speeches prepared by his team. If he thought that it was unethical to criticise a policy decision of ‘his government’ he could have at least not mentioned the issue in public pronouncements. There is also no denying the fact that Mukherjee raised issues such as need for tolerance when there was no such speech coming from the PM after lynching of individuals over eating habits.

So, what was Mukherjee’s compulsion in going out of the way to support something as idiotic as the demonetisation and Kovind’s reasons for mentioning Tipu Sultan? May be only they would know, but there certainly seems to be reasons though they are not obvious at the moment.

( abey.kay@gmail.com)

(Published on 30th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 44)