EC cited model code and flood relief to delay Gujarat polls — but for J&K, took another line

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TWO floods, two states, two elections — two stories.

In October Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) A K Joti cited “flood relief” while delaying the announcement of Gujarat polls. He said the Gujarat Chief Secretary had written to the Election Commission (EC) seeking more time before the declaration of poll dates as the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) would hamper flood relief work.

“We have received a representation from them (Gujarat government) that there have been unprecedented floods in July and relief work could only start in September….They have suggested that the Model Code of Conduct should be imposed for a reasonable time, so that they do not face problems in carrying out relief and rehabilitation work,” he said at the press conference on October 12 announcing the poll schedule for Himachal Pradesh.

The delayed announcement came in handy to the ruling BJP in the state — a slew of financial sops were announced, big-ticket projects were launched across the state and several Central ministers and BJP Chief Ministers travelled to address election rallies.

While the EC found merit in Gujarat’s request, records accessed by The Indian Express under the Right to Information (RTI) Act show that relief and rehabilitation work in Jammu and Kashmir which was hit by floods barely three months ahead of Assembly elections in November 2014 wasn’t affected by the Model Code.

Over 300 people were killed and thousands affected by the September 2014 floods in J&K, thought to be the worst in decades. But the poll panel, then headed by V S Sampath and including H S Brahma and Nasim Zaidi, decided against delaying elections which were held in five phases from November 25 to December 20. The state recorded 65 per cent voter turnout, the highest in 25 years.

According to the EC’s records:

* Unlike Gujarat, there was no official request from the J&K chief secretary seeking delay in announcement of polls due to flood relief work. The EC, however, did get a petition from the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference seeking deferment of polls in view of the devastation caused by floods. EC files show that the then deputy election commissioner, Vinod Zutshi, recorded the following view against the petition: “Concern expressed has already been taken into account by ECI while announcing election. As such, no action may be taken”.

* On November 5, 2014, the EC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, J&K Chief Secretary and the state’s Chief Electoral Officer, informing them that it had relaxed model code provisions for providing relief and rehabilitation to flood-affected victims.

In this letter, the EC instructed that “all relief and rehabilitation measures declared in the flood-affected areas as per the approved schemes of the central/ state governments may be carried out without prior approval of the Commission.”

It also permitted “all emergent relief works and measures that are aimed to mitigate the hardship, directly and solely, of the persons affected by the floods”.

It allowed the government to give “ex-gratia payments” and “gratuitous relief” directly to victims and families. That apart, payments to hospitals from the CM’s/ PM’s relief funds were permitted without reference to the Commission.

Lastly, all “enabling” administrative and financial work for relief efforts, such as bulk purchase of relief materials, floating of tenders, their finalisation and execution were also allowed without EC’s approval.

The EC’s records show that its permission was sought for implementing four decisions related to the floods:

* Reference from Chief Minister’s Office regarding reimbursement of rent amounting to Rs 27.5 crore in favour of 18,000 shelterless families affected by floods.

* Reference from the Ministry of Home Affairs on holding a meeting of the Committee of Secretaries (CoS), under the chairmanship of cabinet secretary, to review issues relating to rehabilitation and restoration of public assets in J&K.

* Reference from J&K’s finance department to permit tax exemption (under J&K Entry Tax Act and Toll Act) on goods relating to rehabilitation of flood-hit victims.

* Letter from the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar seeking permission to employ four contractual workers to keep the library open 24X7, to make up for study hours lost due to floods.

All the four requests were approved by the EC (see chart).

The Indian Express filed a separate RTI application seeking copies of letters written by the Gujarat Chief Secretary requesting delay in announcement of polls on account of relief work. The EC acknowledged the receipt of two letters, on September 27 and October 2, but did not provide their copies on the ground that the file was “under submission”. The EC also said that it had not issued any reply to the Gujarat Chief Secretary in response to the two letters.

The EC has been criticised for breaking from convention and not simultaneously announcing polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, although the terms of the two state assemblies expire within two weeks of each other. Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi had said that this raised “serious questions”, while the Congress had alleged that the BJP had pushed the EC to delay the announcement.

Defending the decision, Joti had said the two elections were delinked to avoid an unreasonably long imposition of the model code, which, in his opinion, obstructed governance.

The Gujarat election dates were announced two weeks after Himachal Pradesh. The state will vote in two phases — December 9 and December 14.

The model code aims to provide a level-playing field to all candidates during elections by guiding the conduct of the incumbent government, political parties and candidates. For instance, under these guidelines, the government in power cannot announce any sops or new decisions that could influence voters. It comes into force from the date of announcement of poll dates and lasts up to the day of voting.

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