Three cheers for the Election Commission of India. In a deft pre-emptive move the surprise announcement of a seven-phase schedule of Assembly elections, beginning April 7 and concluding May 8, 2007 (www.eci.gov.in) the constitutional body vested with the responsibility of "the superintendence, direction and control" of higher-level elections has defused a nasty crisis that was brewing over the democratic fate of India's most populous State, Uttar Pradesh. Undercutting any plan for President's Rule and postponement of the election, the ECI's action has simultaneously provided a face-saving way out for the Congress. The crisis, which was triggered by imminent Article 356 fraud, was almost entirely the making of the party leading the United Progressive Alliance government. The excuse was the Supreme Court's disqualification of 13 Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs. Incredibly, as the nation watched, top Congress leaders, including senior constitutional lawyers, advanced an argument so juvenile that no moot court in any self-respecting Indian law school would have countenanced it the argument that the apex court's disqualifying judgment had rendered the U.P. government "illegal and unconstitutional from conception." With the Bharatiya Janata Party and the BSP also demanding President's Rule and several UPA allies aligning opportunistically with the Congress, only the frontal opposition of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its warning of a political "breach" with the UPA minority government saved the situation. The likelihood of the President returning a Cabinet recommendation on the imposition of Article 356 in U.P., seems to have helped. The news media can also take credit for building public opinion against what, post-Bommai, would have been indisputably unconstitutional, with several major newspapers editorialising against such a course.

Now that the crisis has been defused, it is the democratic duty of all the political parties to cooperate with the Election Commission in ensuring free, fair, and peaceful elections. It is heartening that the Commission has obtained from the Union Home Ministry firm assurances that adequate central security forces will be provided for the U.P. election, ensuring 95 per cent coverage of the polling booths and minimising dependence on the State police. With the `Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates' coming into force on February 21, the date of the ECI's announcement of the election schedule (imagine an impossible situation of `match-fixing' President's Rule, designed for promoting the interests of the party ruling at the Centre, co-existing with the Model Code), a good, sporting wicket for the big game of 2007 seems in prospect.