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UPA and Election Commission on collision course
March 04, 2008
There may be three acts to this particular drama. First, there is a question on the timing of the assembly elections in Karnataka. The second is a difference of opinion about Sonia Gandhi accepting a Belgian honour, the Leopoldsorde (Order of Leopold). The third concerns the eligibility of a particular member of the Election Commission to continue in that post.
The one looming largest is Karnataka. The President gave her assent to the dissolution of the assembly on November 28 last year. The law says the House must meet in six months, meaning the assembly polls must be held before May 28.
This does not suit the Congress one bit. It lost a string of elections in 2007, beginning the year with the loss of Punjab and ending with defeat in Gujarat. It fears that there is a good deal of sympathy for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka, thanks to the way that B S Yeddyurappa, the first BJP chief minister in southern India, was swindled out of power.
The face-saver dug up by the Congress is the Delimitation Commission's findings. Delimitation is an unfamiliar term in the political lexicon for the simple reason that it hasn't been carried out since 1976. Briefly, it redraws constituencies to reflect changes in the population.
There has been a notable influx from the countryside into urban areas since the last delimitation exercise. Bangalore offers a fine example; the number of assembly seats in the city shall go up from 15 to 28 after delimitation. Since the total number of seats in the Karnataka assembly remains frozen at 224, this obviously increases Bangalore's relative importance.
The UPA insists that fresh polls can be held in Karnataka only after the process of delimitation is completed. Effectively, this means postponing the assembly elections by anything up to six months -- by which time, Congress strategists hope, sympathy for Yeddyurappa would have cooled off.
The Congress does not explain why the same rules should not apply to Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland. Tripura voted as per the old pattern on February 23; Meghalaya and Nagaland do so in March.
The truth is that the UPA -- the Congress at any rate -- is preparing for a general election in the last quarter of 2008. The more foresighted in the regime are aware that they simply can't hold the line on prices, particularly food prices, beyond September or October. That is partly due to a global shortfall in food grains and partly due to mismanagement. (Whatever the reasons, the UPA will be blamed.)
Thus the grand plan is to postpone polling in Karnataka, simultaneously advance elections to the Andhra Pradesh assembly (due by May 2009), and hold the general election alongside with voting for the assemblies of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan (all elected in December 2003).
The Election Commission may not have any problem with the Congress plans for the other states, but will it play along in Karnataka? Even if the principle of delimitation is accepted, must the Election Commission postpone polls beyond the six-month period?
The answer lies in the 'Registration Of Electors Rules' 1960. Specifically, Section 24 reads:
Special provision for preparation of rolls on re-delimitation of constituencies:
(1) If any constituency is delimited anew in accordance with law and it is necessary urgently to prepare the roll for such constituency, the Election Commission may direct that it shall be prepared
(a) by putting together the rolls of such of the existing constituencies or parts thereof as are comprised within the new constituency; and
(b) by making appropriate alterations in the arrangement, serial numbering and headings of the rolls so compiled.
The gist of it is that the Election Commission can go ahead with elections in Karnataka, delimitation and all, completing the process in 45 days flat.
I am surprised the Congress's strategists did not take this provision into account when drawing up plans. After all, Lok Sabha elections couldn't be postponed on the plea of delimitation, so there is no good reason, natural disasters and the like apart, why assembly elections should be postponed either.
Granted, the fact that the Election Commission can order elections before May 28 doesn't mean it shall do so. But it certainly opens up the potential for conflict between the UPA regime and the Election Commission.
Not that this would be something new! The Election Commission's Valentine Day gift to the Congress president was a notification asking her to respond to the allegation that she should be disqualified from Parliament under Article 102 (1) (d) of the Constitution. (This forbids 'any acknowledgment of allegiance or adherence to a foreign State'.)
Apparently, accepting the Order of Leopold automatically indicates swearing allegiance to the King of Belgium. It seems a trivial issue but the law is the law. Former recipients of the Order of Leopold include then US president Dwight Eisenhower and Yugoslav leader Joseph Tito; of course, American and Yugoslav laws may differ from Indian ones. Whatever the case, the very act of serving a notification is seen in the Congress as an affront to Sonia Gandhi.
Incidentally, the Congress president got only the second-highest rank in the Order, that of 'Grootofficier' rather than the highest rank, 'Grootlint'. The latter it turns out is reserved for members of royal families. Apparently the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty doesn't qualify! (Or perhaps the Belgians think Sonia Gandhi isn't a genuine Nehru-Gandhi?)
The third potential clash between the UPA and the Election Commission could be over Election Commissioner Navin B Chawla. Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami is about to respond to the Supreme Court on whether he possesses the authority to decide whether an Election Commissioner may be disciplined. The Congress has hinted that it may even amend the Constitution to protect Chawla.
I spoke of three potential flare-points, but they are all linked. The Congress wants a general election before the end of 2008 but it doesn't want to go to the polls with a defeat in Karnataka hanging around its neck. The party thinks it needs a 'friendly' Election Commission but fears that the notification to Sonia Gandhi indicates an 'unfriendly' attitude. So, to cut the disturbingly independent chief election commissioner to size, the Congress shall consider a Constitutional Amendment to boost Chawla.
Elections in September or October indicate a dissolution in May or June -- just as the American deadline for ratifying the nuclear deal ends. Could that be another coincidence?
T V R Shenoy