The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The judgment of the Supreme Court on the Gujarat elections and the domain of the Election Commission is important for what it says and for what it implies. New elections in a state can be held, by definition, under two sets of circumstances. One is when the existing assembly has finished its full term (case A) and the other is when it is dissolved before its full term is over (case B). The latter is always at the behest of the incumbent chief minister who tries to play the situation to his partyís advantage. This is what Mr Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, did in his state in April. His strategy was to cash in on Hindu votes after Godhra and the subsequent carnage. Mr Modi, relying on his and his advisorsí reading of Article 174 of the Constitution, expected elections to be held in October. The EC denied Mr Modi this pleasure by maintaining that conditions in Gujarat were not in favour of holding free and fair elections. The Centre and the Gujarat government argued that Article 174 was binding and the timing of the election was not up to the discretion of the EC. The Supreme Court has struck down this argument. In doing so, the apex court has quite rightly made a distinction between case A and case B. It has said that the six month stipulation laid down in Article 174 was valid only for case A; there was no time limit for case B. For the latter, the ECís decision, and evaluation of the situation, would be final. The Supreme Court has thus upheld the autonomy and the authority of the EC.

It is convenient to interpret the judgment as a rap on the knuckles of Mr Modi and the Centre. The judgment is actually more than this. The verdict, by implication, is an adverse comment on the entire political class. The highest court of the land has frowned upon the entire political class, irrespective of party affiliations, for the tendency to dissolve state assemblies prematurely to derive political mileage. The Supreme Court is thus pushing the political class to think about fixed terms for governments. Governments are elected by the people for five years and this should be honoured by those who are in office unless they lose the confidence of the house. The Telegraph has been advocating this position for some time. Such a situation would avoid meaningless controversy about the powers vested in the EC by the Constitution. More importantly, it would force governments to be more accountable and responsible. Given the prevailing level of political morality in India, this is indeed a tall task. But the Supreme Court, as behoves its august position, has pointed the political class in the right direction.

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