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O P Rawat had earned a lot of goodwill by his ‘plain-speak’ just before he was elevated to the post of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). Part of it he lost by his flip-flop while announcing (as the CEC) the election schedules for the five State Assemblies. The press conference to make the announcement was scheduled for 12-30 PM on October 6. It was suddenly re-scheduled for 3 PM, giving a cause to the opposition to make the allegation that it had been done to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the rally at Ajmer in the poll-bound Rajasthan which was slated for 1 PM. Announcement of the election schedule meant immediate enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct. The rally was important as it had marked the conclusion of Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s State-wide Gaurav Yatra. Both Modi and Raje not only lashed out at the opposition at the rally but also announced a slew of promises to the electorate.

Reticent by nature and never known to speak publicly about what he was thinking, Rawat (then Election Commissioner) had surprised his friends and foes alike in August last year by his outburst at the blatant use of money and misuse of government machinery in the elections. In his keynote address at the consultation on electoral and political reforms organised by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), he observed that “although money was necessary for political parties and candidates, experience has shown that there is a real and present risk that some parties and candidates, once in office, will be more responsive to the interests of a particular group of donors rather than to wider public interest. Policy capture occurs when the interests of a narrow group dominate those of other stakeholders to the benefit of that narrow group”. He had criticised the introduction of Electoral Bonds by the Modi government and amendments made to the Companies Act and said that these would only pump more black money into electoral politics and lead to money laundering.

Rawat’s bold observations had earned him a respect even when the opposition was losing faith in the neutrality of the Election Commission because of a series of controversial decisions taken by then CEC A K Joti. However, Rawat’s own neutrality was seen with suspicion as he came to announce the election schedules on October 6.Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala insinuated that the CEC had changed the timing of the press conference to allow Narendra Modi to complete his speech at the rally. In a Tweet, Surjewala said: “3 facts draw your conclusions: ECI (Election Commission of India) announces PC (press conference) at 12-30 today to announce election dates to the five states, PM Modi is addressing a rally in Ajmer in Rajasthan at 1 p.m. today, ECI suddenly changes the time of announcement and PC to 3 p.m. Independence of ECI?” The dissident BJP leader Yashwant Sinha tweeted: “Unfortunate that Election Commission postponed announcement of election dates in 5 states only to enable Modi to address his public meeting in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Very sad.”

CEC Rawat’s explanation at the press conference about the Congress allegation was only facetious. He talked about the publication of electoral rolls in Telangana (one of the States going to the polls) and said that “politicians and political parties have to see politics (in everything) due to their inherent nature.” Incidentally, this was not the first time that the opposition had questioned the neutrality of the Election Commission; it was accused of delaying the announcement of the Gujarat Assembly election schedule to facilitate Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the State. A K Joti was then the CEC.

Elections to the State Assemblies are being held in November-December in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana. Inclusion of Telangana was also seen as a favour to the ruling party. Rawat is on record as having stated that the polling for Telangana Assembly would not be possible along with other States. On October 6 itself, NDTV had reported at 14-02 (merely an hour before the poll schedule was announced): “Announcement of election dates for Assembly elections in Telangana is unlikely, sources tell NDTV”.

3 Lok Sabha by-elections

Announcement of by-elections for three Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka has also intrigued the opposition. Along with Assembly election schedules for five States, Rawat had also announced by-elections to Shimoga, Bellary and Mandya Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka. Some Lok Sabha seats are lying vacant in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir also but the Election Commission is not holding by-elections there. Some see the move to announce by-elections for Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka only as aimed at helping the BJP. Shimoga and Bellary seats were vacated by two senior BJP leaders, B S Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu, respectively, to contest the Assembly elections in March this year and these were said to be the sure seats of the BJP. In Mandya also the BJP was confident of improving upon its past performance following alleged tension between Congress and JD(S), the alliance partners in the State government. Strangely, the counting of votes in the three Lok Sabha constituencies was held on November 6, just before the polls in the five States. That the results in the three Lok Sabha by-elections belied the expectations of BJP leaders is a different matter.

Rawat has also been less than candid in the matter of “fake” voters which has for over eight months been agitating the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh. At his press conference he denied existence of “fake” voters. The Congress in the State was first alarmed during the by-elections for two Assembly elections in February when photocopies showing the same voter registered in more than one locality had started appearing in social media. The complaints lodged with the office of Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) were treated with disdain. It was only after a high level party delegation led by Lok Sabha member from Guna Jyotiraditya Scindia approached the EC that a summary re-check of the voters’ lists was ordered. A week before the day of polling, the Ashoknagar District Collector’s office communicated to the CEO’s office in Bhopal the detection of 1800 “fake” voters in Mungaoli Assembly constituency (which falls in Ashoknagar district). Similar was the case for Kolaras Assembly constituency in Shivpuri district.

In June, the Congress claimed that it had conducted a survey and detected around 60 lakh fake voter ID cards in the State. A high profile party delegation comprising PCC chief Kamal Nath, Campaign Committee chairman Jyotiraditya Scindia (both Lok Sabha members) and former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh (Rajya Sabha member) approached the Election Commission and submitted what they described as the evidence of existence of fake voters. On the insistence of the Congress, the Election Commission agreed to look into their complaint and constituted two teams to investigate the matter. In early August, the Election Commission announced that it had deleted over 24 lakh fake names from the voters’ lists in the 230 Assembly constituencies in the State, though the Commission called it as part of  “the continued process of voter list revisions”.

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The people’s disenchantment with the BJP government of 15 years in Madhya Pradesh is much too obvious. The party MLAs and ministers face people’s anger whenever they go to their constituencies. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan abruptly abandoned his Jan Ashirvad Yatra much before the scheduled day of conclusion because the people had lost interest and stopped joining it. A change appears to be on the cards. But, will it take place? Polling in the State takes place on November 28.

Madhya Pradesh has essentially been a two-party State. It has been either the Congress or the BJP, a few regional parties like BSP or SP or GGP (Gondwana Ganatantra Party), occasionally playing a peripheral role. This time, though, the poll scene has been blurred by a plethora of local parties or outfits displaying interest in the elections. BSP and SP, too, have announced their decision to put forward their candidates in almost all the constituencies instead of confining themselves to the areas where they have strong presence. The two parties are in a positon to upset the outcome in several constituencies unless there is a wave-like condition in favour of one party or the other.

A major issue worrying both the main parties, BJP in particular as it is the ruling party in the State and at the Centre, is the anger of the Sapaks against the amendment in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to nullify the Supreme Court judgement which had disallowed arrest of the accused under the provisions of the Act without investigation. Sapaks is an organisation of State government employees belonging to the general, OBC and minority categories. It had come into existence to protest against the State government’s decision to allow reservation in promotion for SCs and STs and restoration of the stringent provisions of the Act. Sapaks activists have for some time been holding black flag demonstrations against Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his ministers as well as other BJP leaders. Even Congress leaders, PCC chief Kamal Nath and Campaign Committee chairman Jyotiraditya Scindia, had to face their ire for supporting the amendment in Parliament.

GGP is confined to the tribal regions of Mahakoshal. Another tribal outfit, jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti or JAYS has sprung up in the tribal-dominated Malwa-Nimar region. Though recently formed, JAYS has already alarmed both the BJP and the Congress. There are 47 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes in the 230-seat Madhya Pradesh Assembly and the two tribal parties expect to make a good show on these seats. To everyone’s surprise, Bihar-based Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) has announced its intention to contest on 66 seats in Madhya Pradesh where it was never known to have had any interest. Away from the media attention, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has for several months been campaigning in the rural areas, particularly among the farmers and tribals. Its State unit is headed by Alok Agrawal, who has for decades been fighting for the rights of the tribals affected by Sardar Sarovar Dam and other Narmada projects in the Malwa-Nimar region. Party president Arvind Kejriwal has announced him as the Chief Minister if AAP comes to power.

The real contest, at least on the ground, appears to be between the two traditional rivals, the Congress and the BJP. Congress has almost taken it for granted that the people have this time made up their mind to oust the BJP and give their mandate to the Congress to form the government. For the present, it is engaged in its favourite game of infighting, with at least four aspirants for the post of Chief Minister. They are PCC chief Kamal Nath, Campaign Committee chairman Jyotiraditya Scindia (both MPs), Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Ajay Singh and former PCC chief Suresh Pachouri.

What former Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh is up to is anybody’s guess. He undertook a six-month Narmada parikrama and was expecting to impress the party high command which did not happen. He had announced towards the close of his parikrama that he had collected a lot of material (photos and videos) about the Chouhan government’s corruption but he has not made any use of that material, though it is more than six months that his parikrama had concluded. He had tried to project his wife Amrita Rai as a party candidate either for Assembly or Lok Sabha next year but his plan is reported to have been vetoed by the high command. He recently told his supporters that he would not campaign for the party nor would address any rallies because his speeches damaged the Congress prospects. Then there are reports that he clashed with Jyotiraditya Scindia on the selection of candidates at a Central Election Committee meeting presided over by party president Rahul Gandhi.

BJP is the only party which has been systematically going through poll preparations for several months. Party president Amit Shah is constantly moving around the poll-bound States including Madhya Pradesh, addressing rallies and interacting with party leaders and workers to get the feedback and give them directions. It has rented an entire hotel on Hoshangabad Road and set up its high-tech war room there to monitor and organise poll campaign.


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Only one side of picture!

“It cannot be doubted that each of us can only see part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” —- PAUL KALANITHI

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