Election Commission’s powers to delay elections

Political parties are increasingly voicing their concerns over holding elections in Bihar amid a pandemic. 

Recently, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal demanded to postpone state polls till the COVID19 outbreak is contained.

Election Commission’s power

Regarding Election Commission’s powers to delay elections:

  1. Legal obligation: The Election Commission (EC) is mandated under law to hold elections at any time within six months before the five-year term of the Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly expires. The polls are timed in a way that the new Assembly or Lok Sabha is in place on the day of the dissolution of the outgoing House. 
  2. Extending the time for completing an election: Under Section 153 of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) the poll panel can extend the time for completing an election, but such extension should not go beyond the date of the normal dissolution of the Lok Sabha or the Assembly. In 1991, the Commission, under this provision read with Article 324 of the Constitution, postponed the ongoing parliamentary elections for three weeks after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination during his campaign in Tamil Nadu. As recently as March this year, elections to 18 Rajya Sabha seats were postponed by the Commission due to the COVID19 pandemic.
  3. In the case of early dissolution: EC has to ensure (as far as possible) that a new Lok Sabha or Assembly is in place within six months of the dissolution.
  4. An election once called usually proceeds as per schedule. However, in some exceptional cases, the process can be postponed or even scrapped after its announcement under extraordinary circumstances.

Possibility of postponing the election in Bihar:

  • If the EC wants to postpone Bihar elections, it will have to be done through its extraordinary powers under Article 324.
  • The Commission will have to inform the government of its inability to hold polls on time. 
  • The government and the President will then decide the future course to impose President’s Rule or allow the incumbent Chief Minister to continue for six months.

Circumstances under which EC decides to postpone an election:

  • It specifies the circumstances under which elections can be deferred. 
  • Circumstances beyond Electronic commission control: Law and order, natural calamities like earthquakes and floods, or any other compelling circumstances would be guiding factors for the Commission to take a decision in the matter. 

Inputs from different stakeholders: The decision on postponement is usually made after taking inputs from the ground and the central and state governments.