TN Seshan’s video clip and seven phases of polling with no method in the madness

The CEC conceded at the media briefing on Saturday that every political party in J&K wanted assembly elections to be held simultaneously with the LS poll but not the administration

In a video, late Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan recalled receiving a call from the PM to ask for the election dates during his tenure. Seshan asserts EC's independence in scheduling polls. (Photo: National Herald archives)
In a video, late Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan recalled receiving a call from the PM to ask for the election dates during his tenure. Seshan asserts EC's independence in scheduling polls. (Photo: National Herald archives)

A.J. Prabal

In a video clip circulating this week on social media, late Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan is heard recalling that as the Cabinet Secretary he had received a call from the Prime Minister asking him to inform the CEC that the government wanted elections scheduled on such and such dates. Seshan had apparently replied that the government could only communicate that it is ready to hold the elections. The rest was the responsibility of the Election Commission and the government had no business to dictate the dates.

Much water has clearly flown since then and as the country gears up for the longest poll schedule in the last 72 years, barring the first general election, the perception is that the schedule has been tailored to suit the ruling party and the prime minister. Since PM Modi is the first prime minister to invest so much time on election campaigns, an election stretched for a month and a half with strategic gaps helps him cover more ground.

The CEC is also on record to say that the Election Commission is not holding simultaneous assembly polls in the UT of J&K because the administration opposed it. While every political party in the UT wanted the assembly polls, the administration did not. So much for the ‘independence’ of the Election Commission.

The PM enjoys also the unique advantage of being permitted to use Indian Air Force planes on his travels, primarily because his security is the responsibility of the state. However, nobody while framing the rules would have envisaged a PM who would undertake to address hundreds of election rallies, each at enormous public cost.

The PM also enjoys another unfair advantage in so far as his election rallies are covered live by almost all TV channels, even during the silent periods in constituencies where campaigning has come to an end. If the Election Commission is aware of this anomaly that allows the PM uninterrupted, 24x7 campaigning, it has shown no sign till now. The least the Election Commission can do is to ensure that the ‘silent period’ before each phase of polling extends to the entire country, when electronic or audio-visual virtual rallies are muted for everyone.

While the seven phases of polling have been justified on the ground of security, the justification is not without holes. To cite an example, the CEC held that every candidate in J&K, a thousand of them, would have to be given security, which is why it was not possible to hold simultaneous elections in the union territory, which has had no election to the assembly since 2018.

While giving out this information, the CEC also casually commented that the LG’s administration was opposed to holding simultaneous polls on the ground of security. So, in the last 10 years, security has actually worsened in J & K?

The CEC was not asked to clarify why the elections in J&K could not be conducted separately before the seven-phase polling starts on 19 April. Surely elections in J&K could have been conducted in a single phase by 15 April? Mobilising security personnel, numbering five to ten thousand would not have been a problem surely? The Election Commission in its wisdom, however, has decided to hold elections for the five Lok Sabha seats in the UT in five phases but keeping the assembly at bay. No, nothing can explain the logic.

What is more, the Prime Minister and the union home minister are confident that the security situation in the UT is normal. Indeed, they have taken credit for it. How can then the Liutenant Governor (LG) and the local administration raise security concerns? Should the Election Commission have taken such concerns at face value? The irony has not been missed by observers who are amused at those who want to hold ‘one nation, one election’ actually holding the longest election in 72 years, for 44 days.

Citizens must wonder why elections cannot be conducted in all the southern states together on one day; the Hindi heartland states (UP, MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand) could hold elections on another day. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi and Haryana could hold polling in the third phase and the remaining states in the fourth phase? Elections can surely be scheduled in such a way that the entire process is completed within a month?

There are other anomalies that the ECI has not clarified. In 2019, Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan were held in the fourth and the fifth phases. This time the election in the state would be over in the first two phases. Similarly, last time polling in Madhya Pradesh started in the fourth phase and ended in the seventh phase. This time polling in the state will begin in the first phase and end in the fourth. Political circles explain this by saying that the BJP wanted to complete the polling in the two states early so as to reap the residual goodwill from the assembly elections in the two states which it won just a few months ago.

Odisha had Lok Sabha and assembly elections simultaneously in two phases in 2004, 2009 and 2014. In 2019, however, polling in the state was stretched to four phases. Unlike last time, when the election in the state was held in the first four phases, this time the polling in the state would begin in the fourth phase and end with the seventh phase of polling. If observers in the state are to be believed, this has been done to give the BJP and BJD more time to hammer seat adjustments.

There clearly is a method in the ECI’s madness. Or isn’t there any?

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