The Election Commission was supposed to announce poll dates for both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh on Thursday. Most of the media reported that dates of elections for both state assemblies would be declared at a press conference by the Election Commission at 4 pm. As it tweeted out a live stream to this press conference, the Press Information Bureau even said “Presser by the #ElectionCommission to announce schedule for Assembly Elections in Gujarat and Himachal.” Yet in the event, Chief Election Commissioner only gave a date for Himachal Pradesh, saying Gujarat’s elections will be notified soon.
Elections to Himachal Pradesh will take place on November 9, with counting of votes to take place nearly 40 days later on December 18. The Commission did not announce the dates of the Gujarat Assembly polls, saying only that they will take place before December 18, so that results from Himachal do not affect voters in Gujarat.
“Gujarat poll schedules are not announced right now due to the existing rules on time limit [46 days] for holding elections,” said Chief Election Commissioner Achal Kumar Joti. “But it will take place before December 18, to ensure that Himachal Pradesh election results do not impact the Gujarat elections.”
Elections for these two states, and indeed any states that are going to the polls within a few months of each other, are usually announced at the same time as per the Election Commission’s convention. In 2012, for example, the Election Commission announced dates for both the states on October 4.
The Commission’s announcement of poll dates is significant because it means the Model Code of Conduct, a set of rules for how parties and governments can behave in the run-up to an election, comes into effect immediately. The declaration of Himachal’s dates means the model code is now in force in that Congress-ruled state. In Bharatiya Janata Party-run Gujarat, however, parties have the benefit on knowing broadly when elections will happen – before December 18 – without having the restrictions of the model code.
The Congress immediately attacked the decision, saying that the BJP had put pressure on the Commission, so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can make more announcements about government largesse for the people of Gujarat, at his rally on October 16.
Elections are expected to be conducted within 45 days of their announcement – the reason cited by the Commission for its delay – although they haven’t always stuck to this time period. The 2012 Gujarat polls, for example, were announced on Oct 4 but only took place between December 13 and December 17, more than 60 days later.
A former Chief Election Commissioner, who refused to be named, told the Wire that this delay in announcing the Gujarat poll dates gives Modi time to announce sops and packages for the state. “By deferring the announcement of the Gujarat elections, they have killed the prestige of the Election Commission,” this person said.
Concerned about a mood of anti-incumbency as well as anger regarding economic measures in the state, the BJP-run Gujarat government has spent the last few weeks announcing measures that it hopes will improve the BJP’s fortunes.
The Centre announced changes to the Goods and Services Tax earlier this month that many said were directly aimed at businesses in Gujarat, Modi visted on his birthday to inaugurate a slew of projects and Chief Minister Vijay Rupani on Wednesday said the state would set up 16 new industrial estates with the aim of creating one lakh new jobs. As to illustrate how directly this was connected to the elections, the government listed these estates by the name of their respective Assembly constituencies rather than their districts. Rupani said this was saying “because it is otherwise difficult to gauge the location of the proposed GIDC just by their names”.
Despite this, analysts have suggested the BJP might find the going tough for the first time in decades. The party has been in control of the state for 22 years now. “The BJP has a fight on its hands,” wrote Swarajya’s R Jagannathan citing a pro-BJP psephologist who also said the party will face a tough fight. “And if it hopes to keep its winning narrative alive until 2019, it has to win Gujarat with a clear majority. Right now, it can’t be certain of that.”
Modi is now slated to visit the state for yet another rally on October 16, just ahead of Diwali. The Congress has alleged that the EC’s delay in announcing election dates was done so that he can promise even more sops to Gujarat’s voters at this rally. If Modi does indeed make a grand announcement on Monday, it will at the very least keep those tongues wagging.