Himachal Pradesh will go to polls on a single day on November 9 to elect a new assembly, the Election Commission announced on Thursday without finalising a schedule for Gujarat, drawing sharp criticism from the Congress which accused the Centre of putting pressure on the poll panel.
The result from Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh will be known on December 18.
Announcing the schedule, Chief Election Commissioner A.K. Joti said filing of nominations will open on October 16 and end on October 23. Scrutiny will be done the next day and the last day for withdrawal of candidates will be October 26.
The vote count in Himachal Pradesh will be taken up on December 18 after completion of the election process in Gujarat, which the BJP has ruled for almost 20 years.
Joti said the model code of conduct (MCC) in Himachal Pradesh, which has a little over 49 lakh eligible voters and 7,479 polling stations, comes into effect immediately under which the state government can't take policy decisions. Similarly, the central government can't announce policy decisions regarding Himachal Pradesh.
The term of the 68-member Himachal Pradesh Assembly ends on January 7, 2018 and that of the 182-member Gujarat assembly on January 22. Of the Himachal constituencies, 17 are reserved for Scheduled Castes and three for Scheduled Tribes.
Reporters plied the Chief Election Commissioner with questions about why election dates for Gujarat were not announced on Thursday. Was it devised to give some more time to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce or lay foundation for more development projects in his home state before the Model Code of Conduct comes into effect, mediapersons asked.
However, Joti said the Prime Minister's scheduled rallies in Gujarat was not a factor and cited technical and other reasons for conducting the Himachal elections in mid-November and deferring the Gujarat polls for some time.
Joti said that during the EC delegation visit to Himachal Pradesh on September 25-26, the state administration requested the EC to conduct elections by mid-November to avoid hardships to voters in some districts where snowfall could start in December. It is one of the reasons that elections are being held in Himachal before November 15.
On the other hand, he said, the Gujarat administration requested the EC to defer the polls as rehabilitation work was on in the flood affected areas apart from restoration work on the Narmada canal that has breached at 17 places.
Besides, Joti said, the term of Gujarat Assembly would end on January 22 and so the Commission has more time to conclude the election process. The Himachal Assembly's term ends on January 7.
"In 2012, the Model Code of Conduct for Gujarat and Himachal started from October 3. In Himachal the elections were held on December 4. In Gujarat it was done in two phases - on December 13 and 17. The counting was done on December 20. So from October 3 to December 24 when the election process concluded, it is 83 days, which is unreasonable. We have to be reasonable to state governments," Joti said.
Citing an Office Memorandum issued by the Law Ministry in April 2001, Joti said MCC should ideally be in effect for not more than 46 days.
He said the Election Commission should give flexibility to state governments so that the election period should not be unusually long.
He said the election process in Gujarat will be completed before vote count in Himachal on December 18 so that Himachal results do not influence Gujarat voting.
"The basic principle is that the voting pattern in one state should not affect the results of another state that goes to polls in a short period. Prior to Himachal results, the voting process will be over in Gujarat," he said.
The Congress accused the Modi government of exerting pressure on the Election Commission to defer announcement of polls in Gujarat, saying Prime Minister Modi would visit the state early next week to announce "jumlas" -- rhetorical announcements.
Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala demanded that the poll panel should immediately announce the dates of elections in Gujarat to provide a level-playing field and impose Model Code of Conduct there.
"Reason is that PM is visiting Gujarat on Oct 16 as a fake Santa Claus to announce sops and jumlas that he didn't implement for 22 years. Onus lies on ECI to ensure level playing field," he said.
The Chief Election Commissioner said VVPAT machines will be used in all constituencies in Himachal because of which a voter will be able to see to which party, symbol and candidate his vote has gone to.
"The First Level Check of EVMs and VVPATs has been completed in the presence of representatives of political parties. A two-stage randomization of EVMs and VVPATs will also be done."