EC announces Himachal election dates, stage set for BJP-Congress face-off
New Delhi: The Election Commission (EC) on Thursday announced elections in Himachal Pradesh, but held off on making an announcement for Gujarat.
Voting for the 68-seat Himachal Pradesh assembly will take place on 9 November and the results will be declared on 18 December.
It will be a big test for the incumbent Congress, just as its principal political rival, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will be looking to wrest power and expand its national electoral footprint in the northern state.
“The model code of conduct comes into force immediately,” chief election commissioner Achal Kumar Joti told reporters while announcing the poll schedule.
Himachal Pradesh would be the second state, after Goa earlier this year, to use a 100% paper audit trail or VVPAT. Also, on a pilot basis, to enhance transparency, one polling station in each assembly constituency will be randomly selected for counting.
The EC’s decision not to announce polling dates for Gujarat may be potentially controversial, especially since Joti implicitly signalled that the announcement was imminent—he told reporters that polling in Gujarat would be completed before 18 December.
While the term of the current assembly in Himachal Pradesh ends on 7 January, that of Gujarat ends on 22 January.
The opposition believes that this gives the incumbent BJP government in Gujarat an unfair advantage—in that now that they know that an announcement is imminent, they could use the intervening period to launch new schemes.
The Congress was quick on the draw. “The Modi government appears to be putting pressure on EC to defer announcement of Gujarat election along with Himachal, to suit its political ends,” the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted, adding that the “onus lies on EC” to ensure a level playing field.
“It is shocking and unfortunate that the Congress party has once again sought to demean a constitutional and independent institution, that is the EC, for its narrow political gains. Sonia Gandhi (Congress president) and Rahul Gandhi (party vice-president) should specifically clarify whether they agree with the allegations made by their spokesperson that the EC is working under the orders of the government and is no longer independent,” countered Nalin Kohli, the BJP’s national spokesperson.
Joti defended the move citing an office memorandum issued by the law ministry which specifies that polling has to be conducted within three weeks of the issue of the notification.
“The basic pattern that the Commission has been complying with is that voting pattern of one state should not affect voters in other states which are going to polls in a short period. The counting period for Himachal Pradesh has been kept for 18 December and it would be planned that polling in Gujarat be over prior to 18 December so that the result of Himachal elections should not affect voting pattern in Gujarat,” he added.
Election experts dismissed the allegations.
“I don’t think the delay in announcement of schedule will have any impact on electoral outcomes. It was known that the elections are due anytime so whatever announcement a ruling party has to make, they would have made. The EC could have clubbed announcements together but there are a number of factors which it would have taken note of,” K.J. Rao, former advisor to the EC, told Mint.
According to Joti, as Gujarat is conducting flood rehabilitation, a request was made to hold the polls later. And, in Himachal Pradesh, political parties had requested that polling take place early owing to adverse climatic conditions and possible snowing in some parts.
The last date for filing nominations in the hill state is 23 October. Scrutiny will take place on 24 October and the last date for withdrawal is 26th.
The upcoming polls in the state are a challenge to the Congress and the BJP, as the leadership of both parties is due for a generational change. While sitting chief minister Virbhadra Singh, who is leading the election campaign, is 82 years old, the senior-most BJP leader and former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal is 73. To be sure, BJP, has not declared him as its chief ministerial candidate.
Campaigning by both political parties has already commenced in the state with both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi visiting the state earlier this month.
In Himachal Pradesh, Congress won 36 of the 68 seats in 2012 with a vote share of 42.81%, while the BJP bagged 26 seats with a 38.47% vote share.