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How a spate of spoilers may ruin BJP's election strategy for 2019

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hopes for pulling off elections in nearly a dozen states along with the general election have been dashed. The expectations of obtaining favourable judgements on crucial poll issues from the Courts also seem increasingly futile. And the key investigative agencies of the state seem reluctant or unable to do the government’s bidding.

The pieces that the party wanted on the electoral chess-board before the election campaign are simply not falling into place.

The party’s attempt to club an early general election with a dozen state elections in February 2019 has been effectively stalled by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) O P Rawat. A day after BJP president Amit Shah made a submission to the Law Commission arguing for “one nation one election”, the CEC clarified that neither the legal framework nor the logistics were in place for holding simultaneous elections any time soon. The life of state assemblies could neither be extended nor curtailed without a constitutional amendment, he pointed out.

At best, it might be possible to hold elections to four states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, and Mizoram) along with the general election in December this year, according to the CEC. Even then there would be logistic problems he said if faulty Electronic Voting Machines and Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines had to be replaced during the poll process. The reserves available would be inadequate. 

The government might try to overcome the constitutional hurdles for simultaneous polls through Presidential Ordinances. However, early dissolution of legislatures could lead to political unrest in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh where elections are due only in May-June 2019.

The next CEC, who will be appointed in December after the present incumbent retires, might hold a different view on simultaneous elections. Nevertheless, a definite brake has resulted in loss of momentum for now, and most importantly, the BJP has been denied the element of surprise.

The BJP had also counted on being able to begin construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya by the year-end. This would have required a favourable judgment from the Supreme Court on the land title suit of the disputed site. However, this move will be difficult to play as the Supreme Court is currently examining Islamic tenets on whether a mosque is necessary for offering prayers or namaz. Further, the three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra has referred the matter to a larger bench. 

It seems that the current Chief Justice of India will demit office at the end of September without reaching any conclusion about the Ayodhya dispute. On the principle of seniority, the next Chief Justice is likely to be Justice Ranjan Gogoi. One does not know how he might shape the apex court.

Another case before the Supreme Court, which could have served the BJP well to mobilise voters, concerns the constitutional validity of Article 35A. The Article empowers the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to define “permanent residents” or “state subjects” who alone can own and inherit property in the state, access government employment and state-sponsored schemes. The petition before Supreme Court seeks to scrap Article 35A as being both discriminatory to citizens from the rest of the country and unconstitutional because it was inserted into the Constitution through a Presidential Order rather than a constitutional amendment. 

An adverse judgment on Article 35A would help the BJP to mobilise votes outside Jammu and Kashmir. In the state itself, all sections of the population want 35A to continue, to protect their special rights as “state subjects” both in the Kashmir Valley as well as in the Hindu majority Jammu. The hearings on Article 35A in the Supreme Court, however, might not be completed in time to allow it to become a poll issue. At the moment the Court is examining whether the case should be moved to a larger five-judge constitutional bench, for which the hearings will begin on August 27. That absence of a representative government in J&K to argue the point of view of the state might also lead to legal delays.

The BJP government has also not been able to effectively deploy its investigating agencies against political rivals. Despite the best efforts of the Enforcement Directorate, former finance minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram has not been arrested because of the intervention of the apex court. Attempts to draw Congress leader, Ahmad Patel, into the Stirling Biotech money-laundering case have also not succeeded. Nor have the attempts to implicate Congress leaders in the so-called Augusta Westland ‘scam’ borne fruit.

Sensing that the BJP government is on a slippery slope, the bureaucracy seems to have started exerting itself. An open spat has broken out between the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Alok Verma and his controversial deputy, Rakesh Asthana, who is under investigation for graft.  After opposing Asthana’s appointment to the CBI, more recently Verma questioned whether Asthana could officiate for him in his absence. 

Much as it would like, the government might not be able to replace Verma before he retires on January 31, 2019. With a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in place by then, the complexion of the selection committee for the job would also have changed.

Investigations in the graft case against Asthana have also pitched the Enforcement Directorate (ED) against the government. The officer investigating Asthana’s case was accused by the powers that be for talking to an ‘ISI agent’ from Dubai in another investigation he was conducting. Although he was defended by the Director of ED, the officer stands in danger of being dismissed from service and his director has apparently been served a show-cause notice himself.

In all these cases, due process has come in the way of quick resolution of critical matters before the Election Commission and the Supreme Court and of replacements in the top bureaucracy. The net result is that in the run-up to the elections, the BJP will not be able to deploy the chess moves that it was perhaps counting on.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi. He tweets @bharatitis

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