Election’s moral battles

Parliament elections in J&K would have been a low key affair, but for two decisions by Election Commission of India – one pertaining to violation of moral code of conduct and second about the acceptance of nomination papers of a ruling party candidate. R S Gull reports.

From moderate Hurriyat to the ruling National Conference, everybody expected the Parliament elections – being held in J&K since 1967 – to be a low poll affair because of the lack of immediate local interest. Two seats that went to polls in last two phases explained the low poll trend that is likely to witness a bit of dip in coming phases as the process crosses the Pir Panchal range.

However, it was the Election Commission of India that by taking two decisions created some interest in the exercise. Firstly, they issued a notice to the chairman J&K Bank directing him to roll back an executive order, and asking him why action can’t be taken against him for violating the moral code of conduct. The second was rescinding the election notification for the Hazratbal assembly seat even after state’s election machinery had said everything was all right.

Dr Haseeb Drabu
Dr Haseeb Drabu

J&K Bank chairman Dr Haseeb Drabu on April 1 announced that the bank executives will now be retiring at 60 instead of 58. The decision that Board had approved with government taken into confidence, according to insiders, was done to ensure smooth succession planning. In next few months, two thirds of the leadership band of the bank – the only listed company of the J&K state – were retiring. This would have created a huge vacuum as those supposed to succeed were yet to be confirmed at their junior positions because the promotion process in the bank had remained almost halted for over a decade in the past. The only way out was to retain the elders and give their future successors some more time to acquire the required experience.

Since the decision was taken at a time when moral code of conduct was in place, the case was taken to Election Commission allegedly by some insiders. The Commission issued a terse notice to the Bank chairman on grounds that the bank was government owned entity.

However, pre-emptively the bank went to the High Court on April 7 pleading that it did not violate the MCC and that it was not “a state or its instrumentality”. It also said the Commission lacks jurisdiction over the bank. Finally a notice from ECI arrived and panic bells started ringing from secretariat to the bank’s corporate headquarters in Srinagar.

Most significantly, it was the Chief Minster Omar Abdullah’s conviction that the Bank is an autonomous institution and its autonomy must be retained for the good of the Bank as well as the state, which quelled dissenting voices in the government.

The Bank responded to the Commission, explaining its position. It was conveyed to the Commission that the insistence on its direction could trigger a row and could result not only in contempt of the Court but also go beyond the confines of the Bank.

After much thought and internal debate, aided by legal advice, the Election Commission ruled in favour of the decisions taken by the Bank.

Mustafa-KamalBut at the same time, the state government was waiting a huge embarrassment that came on Thursday evening when the Commission rescinded its notification for holding by-elections for Hazratbal assembly segment, vacant after Dr Farooq Abdullah resigned. The seat was heading for by-polls on May 7. The order while posing a question mark over the neutrality of the bureaucracy in the state, it also helped Dr Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, the younger brother of Dr Abdullah, to ready himself for the election. Kamal would have lost his case had the returning officer gone by the book while scrutinizing his nomination papers.

Certain vital documents in Dr Kamal’s papers were found either missing or incomplete during the scrutiny of papers. This led to a fist fight between Kamal’s activist and those from the opposition in the District Magistrate’s office premises. But finally the RO declared his papers complete.

This forced the Election Commission to intervene. On Thursday, it announced cancellation of the by-poll for “improper acceptance” of nomination form Dr Kamal. ECI’s notification said the RO was not aware of the basic provisions of the J&K Constitution, J&K Representation of People’s Act (J&K RPA) and J&K Conduct of Election Rules and accepted the nomination in total violation of law and Supreme Court’s dictum. The said candidate could not be deemed to have been set up by his party as his nomination was not subscribed by 10 proposers as required under the proviso to Section 44(1) of J&K RPA, the ECI notification stated.

While rescinding the poll notification will restart the entire process, it will help NC to make necessary corrections in the papers of Dr Kamal. But it has already started raising questions. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti addressed a hurriedly arranged news conference saying the order has “punished the contestants and not the culprit”. She said the incident has reconfirmed that the NC government was pressurizing the officialdom to follow the party line which in the long term would damage democracy in which people had started restoring confidence far the first time after 1987 rigged polls. “NC lacks credibility so it has nothing much to lose but by these incidents it is the credibility of Prime Minister that is at stake,” she said.

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