When will the election for the fourteenth Lok Sabha be held? That is the question uppermost in the minds of every politician in India today.
The Election Commission of India has the constitutional mandate to decide the dates for the election and to conduct the exercise. But the EC will only declare a date once the Lok Sabha has been officially dissolved.
But before the thirteenth Lok Sabha can be dissolved, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh will have to present a vote-on-account that will authorise government spending as listed in the previous budget to continue beyond March 31, 2004.
Without a vote-on-account, all government spending will come to a standstill after March 31 in the absence of a new budget for the next financial year. And if the government does indeed want to dissolve the Lok Sabha soon, it cannot wait for the budget for 2003-04 to be presented, debated and passed.
Parliament is in recess at the moment. It will first have to be reconvened to pass the vote-on-account. Only thereafter can it be dissolved.
This may happen by the end of January or in early February. Favouring the early February timeline, if the gossip mills are to be believed, is the fact that Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh, perceived to be a thorn in the Bharatiya Janata Party's side, retires. Lyngdoh retires on February 7, and his successor will take office on February 8.
Another reason proffered is that the prime minister is scheduled to visit Thailand on February 7. Sources close to the prime minister indicated that he would be loath to go abroad as caretaker prime minister, especially if it is only a matter of waiting for a few days.
Constitutionally, there cannot be a gap of more than six months between two sessions of Parliament. This means elections can be held anytime within six months of dissolution of the House. Thus, if Parliament reconvenes in January, it must meet again latest in July. The elections, therefore, can be safely held in June end. But this is not
After the Lok Sabha is dissolved, the Election Commission needs a minimum of six weeks to set the poll process in motion. The model code of conduct goes into effect, which bars governments from offering sops to the people. An official notification is issued about the election process and nominations are invited. A final date for filing nominations is issued, as also a date for withdrawal of candidature. Then, some days are provided for campaigning. This entire process takes at least 45 days, which means the earliest period possible will be late March.
A Lok Sabha election is arguably the greatest logistical exercise in the world. The number of voters exceeds 550 million. Tens of thousands of polling stations are set up across the country and police and paramilitary forces are deployed at full strength. Given India's size, the elections are usually spread over three days, primarily to ensure that enough security forces are available to oversee polling in any region.
Selecting the time for the election is thus a strategist's nightmare with numerous considerations, not the least of which is the astrological consideration of good dates. A primary consideration is avoiding elections in the monsoons when travel is difficult and farmers are busy tending to their fields.
Summers are also avoidable, given India's cruel heat and the fact that the sowing season starts towards the end of summer.
If these periods are removed from the six-month window, the only possibilities that remain are late March and the month of April. March, though pleasant, is the month of school and college examinations in most parts of India, for which arrangements are made well in advance. Given India's growing focus on education, governments may not be willing to mess with that.
Given this, it seems likely that the elections may be held in early April, though by then summer sets in and it can get quite hot, especially in the South.
The final word will, however, only come from the new CEC.