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EC rules out early polls in Gujarat

NEW DELHI Aug.16. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today suffered a major setback with the Election Commission rejecting its demand for holding the Gujarat Assembly elections in October, saying that the law-and-order situation in the State ``is still far from normal'' and that the ``wounds of communal divide following the riots have not yet healed''.

The Commission meeting, presided over by the Chief Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, and the two Election Commissioners, T.S. Krishnamurthy and B.B. Tandon, unanimously decided that it was not mandatory to hold the Assembly polls before October 6 as the ``six months'' outer limit (between two Assembly sessions) envisaged in Article 174 (1) of the Constitution would not apply to a dissolved Assembly.

The Commission, which released a 40-page press note at the end of the meeting, however, said that it would consider framing a suitable schedule for the Assembly polls in November-December after the situation improved and the electoral rolls were updated.

The Commission did not agree with the BJP's claim that the situation in Gujarat ``is quite normal and conducive to the holding of free and fair elections''. It asserted that the Commission alone was empowered to decide when an election could be held.

In its perception, the slow progress in relief and rehabilitation work, on the one hand, and the non-arrest and non-punishment of the guilty and the fear of a communal backlash, on the other hampered the process of restoration of normality.

It said that ``similar feelings are shared by persons from the majority community living in minority-dominated areas. The people have lost confidence in the local police, civil administration and political executive.''

``In this environment, election campaigns evoking passions will only shatter the fragile peace unless adequate confidence-building measures are taken up in earnestness and with urgency. Foremost among these would be to arrest and punish the guilty, irrespective of their status and rank for their crimes,'' it said

Justifying its decision not to hold the elections soon, the Commission said its nine-member team which visited Gujarat early this month found that there was still a sense of insecurity pervading the minds of the displaced persons and in such a fear psychosis they could not be expected to go to the polling stations.

Thereafter, when the full Commission visited the State it could gather first-hand information on the extent of the affected areas. Out of 25 districts, 20 ``are affected areas'' in which about 27 lakhs and 12,000 below-poverty-line families were in receipt of free rations.

The Commission referred to the statement of the Additional Director-General of Police, R.B. Sreekumar, that 151 towns and 993 villages, covering 154 out of 182 Assembly constituencies in the State and 284 police stations out of 464 were affected by the riots. ``This evidently falsifies the claims of the other authorities that the riots were localised only in certain pockets of the State,'' the Commission observed.

Regarding the electoral rolls, the Commission said that on-the-spot inspections had showed that a substantial majority of electors who had perforce to leave their houses and, in many cases, flee from their villages to save themselves from the arson and carnage in the wake of the Godhra massacre of February 27 had not yet returned to their houses or villages and hence the rolls were not up-to-date.

On the issue of photo identity cards, the Commission said that before the revision of the electoral rolls, it was 71.37 per cent and after the revision, it was about 61 per cent. Therefore, a special drive had to be made to issue these cards.

Also, when the drought situation was widespread and serious, ``it is difficult to understand which would be a greater priority for the State Government — holding Assembly elections in the midst of drought and thereby disrupting relief work or relief work,'' the Commission added.

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