PUCL Bulletin, September 2002

Elections in Gujarat:
The people can provide the answers

-- By Surendra Mohan

The Election Commission has seen for itself the prevailing abnormalities of the situation in Gujarat. Earlier, the observers' team posted by it to study the conditions at the ground level had submitted its observations which reportedly do not favour early elections. The President of the Union, APJ Abdul Kalam, has also listened to the tales of woe of the affected people. He might tender appropriate advice as to the priorities and the responsibilities of the authorities concerned.

The Election Commission has to decide whether the general elections to the Gujarat Assembly can be held as per the wishes of the State Government. Unfortunately, however, the Union Home Minister, LK Advani, has asserted, quite unnecessarily his Ministry's prerogative to testify whether the conditions in the State were normal or not. Now, the BIP General Secretary, Arun Jaitley, has admonished the Election Commission that it need not go into questions relating to rehabilitation.

These statements are clear transgressions of the right of the Election Commission to ensure that conditions are conducive for holding free and fair elections. This eagerness of the BJP in Gujarat and in New Delhi to see that elections are held at the earliest can be easily understood. One has only to recall that in April itself, the national executive of the party had "permitted" the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to seek a fresh mandate of the people. This permission was given at a time when violence and intimidation had not ceased, and which, in fact, continued for at least three more weeks. Mr. Modi had then assured the people that the elections would be held as per schedule. Yet, after a couple of months, he got the Governor to dissolve the Assembly.

The shrewd calculation was that since the new Assembly shall have to meet before October 5, that is, with in the expiry of six months after the last sitting of the dissolved Assembly, therefore the election to it will have to be completed by the third week of September. The Opposition would thus have little time to prepare for the big event. The ruling BJP, on the other hand, will be able to fully exploit the hatred it had caused between the two communities, consolidate the Hindu vote behind it and inhibit the Muslims from voting for fear of reprisals.

The argument trailed out by the BJP is that the 1984 parliamentary elections were held within seven weeks of the anti-Sikh atrocities, and, therefore, there need be no problem in holding the elections in Gujarat in September. However, it forgets that the situation had then been controlled within eight days, while in Gujarat, violent disturbances went on for more than eight weeks. Moreover, none of the Opposition parties, including the BJP, had demanded postponement of the election at that time. While the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi's unpardonable reference to the shaking of the earth when a banyan tree fell down was a grotesque attempt to justify the anti-Sikh riots, the ruling party's election campaign stressed more upon the dangers to the integrity of the nation, rather than on the Sikhs as such.

Whenever the election to the State Assembly is held, there must be an assurance that all eligible voters shall be able to vole in a free and fearless manner. Political parties op- posed to the BJP should be willing to forego partisan interests and avoid division of the anti-BJP votes by ensuring direct contests. The emergence of the Nationalist Congress Party under the leadership of the former Finance Minister, Sanat Mehta, and the former Chief Minister, Chhabildas Mehta, is a new factor in the politics of the State. This new force could act as the fulcrum to unite all non-BJP and non-Congress parties on a single platform.

While the influence of the NCP has not been tested as yet, others that might join it do not have a significant presence in the State. However, a united third front could gather steam so that the whole could prove bigger than all the parts put together.

Press reports suggest that some Opposition parties are holding joint rallies in order to campaign against the BJP. At present, the Congress is not included in this exercise. The objective of these rallies appears to be limited to testing the ground and demonstrating the parties' combined strength for purposes of striking an electoral bargain with the Congress. A realistic assessment of who can defeat the BJP in a particular constituency can lead to a healthy bargain, provided it is brought about without much haggling in public. However, unrealistic demands from any non-BJP party could cause irreparable wounds to the nation's psyche and its body politic. Whether the high commands of the Congress and the NCP and its possible allies would achieve conditions of one-against-one candidate is to be seen.

Another new element is the Lok Janashakti Party led by Ram Vilas Paswan, which has now been joined by Arif Mohammed Khan. Its effort is to create a united Dalit-Muslim social-electoral base. Paswan has pleaded for a total unity of the Opposition in the election. Nevertheless, a bigwig of the Samajwadi Party has said his party shall strive to collect four percent of the total votes polled for purposes of its recognition as a national party. Were the party to offer a large number of candidates, it would appear to be helping the BJP, and would thereby lose its credibility in its social base among the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.

Hence, this statement could also have been issued only to join in the bargain in the allotment of scats in an overall adjustment among the Opposition parties, or it might be a case of misreporting.

The drought in Gujarat has rendered the plight of the people in general, not just the Muslims, pitiable. This drought is affecting very large areas of the country. However, in Saurashtra and Kutch, this is the third year of the failure of the monsoon. Kutch has not fully recovered from the destruction caused by last year's earthquake. The people are, therefore, demanding expeditious relief. This is in addition to the relief for the riot victims. Hence, several persons from among the majority community are keen that priority must be given to these problems, while elections can wait. The BJP turns that argument on its head and demands that this very plight of the people requires an elected Government. However, it is now plagued with internal dissension as the resignation of Haren Pandya shows.

Obviously, Pandya is not, alone. The question being asked by many in the BJP is why did the Chief Minister hurriedly dissolve the State Assembly. Some attribute to him the motive that he was keen on retaining the party's leadership. However, there is every possibility that the people in the State will vote like anywhere else in India. In most parts of the country, bouts of madness have occurred, but the people recovered from them early enough and acted sensibly. Otherwise, how does one explain the end of militancy in Punjab, or the return of Mizoram to peaceful, democratic conditions? Even in Ayodhya, the VHP's "strong-hold", the people are rejecting its trickery.

The reaction to the prolonged, provocation by the VHP in Gujarat and Ayodhya has been negative. Nowhere else in India did the communal madness occur, Gujarat cannot but see through Modi's manufactured mischief, tragic as it was

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