Why simultaneous elections is a great idea

Why simultaneous elections is a great idea

Whatever may be their overall views, the critics of the Modi government grudgingly do accept that it is a government which loves taking “hard decisions” that turn off even the hardcore supporters of the ruling BJP. Potentially these decisions could mar the prospects of the party at various levels, be it local, provincial or national. Demonitisation and the implementation of the GST that enables one nation- one tax regime are the burning examples in this regard. The point is that here is a government that is not afraid of mooting ideas and measures that are not exactly popular, ideas and measures that no other party in the country will be bold and brace enough to be associated with.

The idea of conducting simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State-Assemblies  that has been proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to be seen in the above context. Of course, the idea predates the Modi regime. It had been discussed by leaders at individual levels. In 1999, the Law Commission of India headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy in its170th Report on Reform of Electoral Laws had also recommended simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies in order to improve the electoral system in the country.

It may be clarified that the term “Simultaneous Elections” implies that a voter would cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice of phase-wise elections in the country.

It is also worth noting that till 1967, the country was holding elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies simultaneously. However, due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, the cycle got disrupted for the first time. Similarly, in1970, Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections held in 1971.Subsequently, many state Assemblies were dissolved by the central government of the day by exercising Article 356 of the Constitution. Fresh elections were elected accordingly, but in the process the “simultaneous link” between the state and national elections or their synchronised cycle got broken.

The consequences of not holding simultaneous elections (or holding Lok Sabha and Assembly polls separately) have been beautifully summarised by a paper prepared by the Niti Ayog. It is authored by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. This essay borrows extensively from this report. The key adverse impacts that the existing electoral cycle leads to could be broadly categorized into the following.

First, there is an impact on development programmes and governance due to imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by the Election Commission. The MCC, as is well known, is a set of norms that lays down several do’s and do not’s that political parties, contesting candidates, party (ies) in power have to strictly abide by during the process of elections. It is enforced from the date of announcement of election schedule by the Election Commission and is operational till the process of elections is completed. During general elections to Lok Sabha, the code is applicable throughout the country. During elections to the Legislative Assembly, the code is applicable in the entire State. Effectively, except the routine administrative activities, other development programmes, welfare schemes, capital projects etc. remain largely suspended till the time the model code is applicable and in the area it is in operation.

So much so that the problems were noted by the Parliamentary Standing committee in its 79th report. The Committee states “The imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and State Governments in the poll bound State. It even affects the normal governance. Frequent elections lead to imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time. This often leads to policy paralysis and governance deficit”.

Debroy and Desai have analysed how in the year 2014, governance and developmental activities due to imposition of Model Code remained largely suspended for about 7 months: 3 months across the country and about 2 months in Jharkhand & J&K and another 2 months in Maharashtra and Haryana.  Similarly, in the year 2015, model code was imposed for about 3 months – 2 months when the elections to the State Assembly of Bihar were being conducted and another month and slightly more during elections to the Assembly of NCT Delhi.

Assuming the average period of operation of Model Code of Conduct as 2 months during election to a State Assembly and the forthcoming elections in the country, Debroy and Desai expect applicability of Model Code of Conduct for about 4 months or more every year (except possibly year 2020 ) till 2021. This means that development projects and programmes (that of State Governments going to polls and of Union Government in those states) may potentially get hit every year and that too for about one-third of the entire time available for implementing such projects and programmes.

Secondly, frequent elections lead to massive expenditures by Government and other stakeholders. Every year, the Government of India and/or respective State Governments bear expenditures on account of conduct, control and supervision of elections. Besides the Government, candidates contesting elections and political parties also incur huge expenditures. The candidates normally incur expenditures on account of various necessary aspects such as travel to constituencies, general publicity, organizing outreach events for electorates etc. while the political parties incur expenditures to run the party’s electoral machinery during elections, campaigning by star leaders and so on.

As regards the expenditure incurred by the Government, the entire expenditure on actual conduct of elections to Lok Sabha is borne by the Government of India and such expenditure on conduct of election to State Legislatures by the respective State Governments when such elections are held independently.  If concurrent election to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assembly is held, then the expenditure is shared between Government of India and respective State Governments. The initial expenditure is borne by the respective State Governments and on submission of the audited report; Government of India share is reimbursed. Expenditure incurred on items of common concern to the Union and the State Governments like expenditure on regular election establishment, preparation and revision of electoral roll etc. is shared on 50:50 basis irrespective of whether such expenditure is incurred in connection with the elections to the Lok Sabha or State Legislatures. Expenditure towards law & order maintenance is borne by respective State Governments only.

Election costs are rising phenomenally with each passing year. For instance, compared to the cost incurred for conducting 2009 Lok Sabha elections at about Rs. 1115 crores, the same for the year 2014 more than tripled to about Rs. 3870 crores. The cases of the Assembly elections show the same trend.  Newspaper reports indicate that the Government incurred a cost of about INR 300 crores in conducting elections to the Bihar Assembly alone in 2015. Gujarat Assembly polls later this year are likely to cost another INR 240 crores.

Viewed thus, frequent elections takes away opportunities to optimise such costs and lead to significant yearly outflow of public money every year. It is in this context that Debroy and Desai have calculated that the cost of holding elections for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies can be pegged at Rs. 450024 crore if elections are held simultaneously. Simultaneous elections would help the exchequer curtail election expenditures in a significant manner. Simultaneous elections would clearly help save precious tax payers money. This is critical as efficiency in election expenditures would contribute to enhanced fiscal space – both for State and the Union Government that could be deployed for other national development priorities without comprising the democratic structure of the country.

Thirdly, frequent elections do have also an adverse impact on the law and enforcement agencies.  While conducting elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, the Election Commission took the help of approximately 10 million personnel as polling officials for running and supervising the election process across 9,30,000 Polling Stations of the country.  This translates to an average of about 10.75 personnel per polling station.

For providing the required security arrangements, the Election Commission generally involves Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). As the demand for CAPF is typically higher than the supply, police forces such as State Armed Police, Home Guards, District Police etc. are often deployed as well to complement security arrangements. The role of such security forces starts much before polling and ends only after the counting of votes and declaration of results effectively covering the entire duration of the elections. What all this does is that in the process a portion of such armed police force which could otherwise be better deployed for other internal security purposes – the basic responsibilities for which these forces were developed for – is taken away.

Fourthly, the lack of simultaneous elections or the holding frequent elections have other side effects as well. Frequent elections disrupt normal public life. As the Parliamentary Standing committee on Personnel, Public grievances, Law and justice has noted, “frequent elections lead to disruption of normal public life and impact the functioning of essential services. Holding of political rallies disrupts road traffic and also leads to noise pollution”. Continuing further, the Committee suggested that “If simultaneous elections are held, this period of disruption would be limited to a certain pre-determined period of time”.

Besides, frequent elections perpetuate caste, religion and communal issues across the Country. As has been noted by Dr. S. Y. Quraishi (former Chief Election Commissioner),   “elections are polarising events which have accentuated casteism, communalism, corruption and crony capitalism. If the country is perpetually on election mode, there is no respite from these evils. Holding simultaneous elections would certainly help in this context”.

However, there have been counter-arguments against the idea of simultaneous elections. Almost all the non-BJP parties – the Congress, the Left parties, All India Trinamool Congress, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Nationalist Congress Party – have all expressed their reservations. They have questioned its do-ability given the existing constitutional and statutory provisions with regards to tenure of various Assemblies and Parliament.

First, critics have criticised this idea of holding simultaneous elections as being politically motivated. Their argument is that holding simultaneous elections may influence voter behaviour in a manner that voters would end up voting on national issues even for state elections. Effectively, this would lead to larger national parties winning both State and Lok Sabha elections thereby marginalising regional parties which often represent the interests of local social and economic groups. This may undermine the depth and breadth of Indian democracy, it is feared.

Secondly, the point of operational feasibility / Do-ability covers larger constitutional challenges – how would terms of Assemblies/Lok Sabha be synchronised for the first time? Would it be feasible to extend or curtail the existing terms of some State Assemblies to facilitate the above? If elections are held simultaneously, what would happen in case the ruling party or coalition loses majority in between term, either in Lok Sabha or in State assemblies? Should the term of Lok Sabha and assemblies be fixed? Operationally speaking, is it practically feasible for the Election Commission to conduct elections at such a massive scale – considering logistics, security and manpower resource requirements?

Thirdly, Dr. S. Y. Quraishi makes two points that “Having to face electorate more than once every 5 year enhances the accountability of politicians and keeps them on their toes and that many jobs are created during elections, boosting the economy at the grass-root levels”.

But then as Debroy and Desai have argued, Dr. Quraishi’s points need to be taken with a pinch of salt.  The inherent democratic nature of the Indian governance framework does not make a politician “permanent member” of a legislature. Every politician needs to go back to the electorate once his/term is over for re-election. This inherent nature strongly ensures his/her accountability to electorate. Independent judicial oversight and accountability of the Council of Ministers to legislatures further make the political arm of the Government accountable in a manner more potent than frequent elections per se. Similarly, Quraishi’s second point that frequent elections may create jobs and may provide economic boost, is questionable on the overall impact to the economy.

Significantly, doubts over the operational imponderables have been answered by the incumbent Elections Commission. The other day, election commissioner O.P. Rawat said, “The Election Commission has always been of the view that simultaneous elections will give enough time for incumbent government to formulate policies and implement programmes continuously for a longer time without interruptions caused by imposition of model code of conduct’.”  Rawat said that Election Commission did have the capacity to conduct simultaneous polls.

Rawat’s other point, which I think is the most challenging hurdle for simultaneous elections, is to arrive at a political consensus in the country. There cannot be any movement for simultaneous elections without an accompanying temporary law or amendment by which tenure of some Assemblies has to be curtailed or advanced (as per the suggestion of Debroy and Desai, the goal of simultaneous polls has to be attained in two phases – first in 2019 by extending the tenures of the Assemblies that go to elections in 2018 – and then in October/November 2021 by advancing some Assembly elections. “Thereafter, it is envisaged to conduct elections every 2.5 years – 30 months- in the country once the entire electoral cycles of Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies are synchronized by December 2021”.

In my considered view, the above may not be sufficient until and unless we bring about a permanent amendment to the constitution that ensures a fixed terms for our legislatures. Under the prevailing laws, the tenures may be shortened if a government loses a vote of confidence or the central government dissolves a state legislature by bringing the state under the central rule. The amended laws should be such that there cannot be a vote of no-confidence against a government unless the motion is accompanied by the guarantee of an alternate government in case the incumbent government fails the legislative test. Similarly, Article 365 has to be given a decent burial.   And all this requires a huge political consensus in the country, which I do not see being a reality in foreseeable future.  I have also a slight problem with the proposed tenure of 30 months for every legislature. This is too short a period for any government to fulfill its electoral promises.

Be that as it may, one is not negating the attractiveness of the idea of simultaneous polls. After all, it is really absurd that the country is always in an election-mood. In the last 30 years, there has not been a single year without an election to either a State Assembly or to Lok Sabha or both. This has undoubtedly adversely affected the governance and developmental activities in the country.  In my considered view, frequent elections are the biggest imperatives for the corruption and the generation of black money in the country. Forget about the governmental expenditure, the fact remains that candidates and political parties in their bid to win elections end up spending significantly more than the prescribed expenditure limits. Dr. S. Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner, is right when he says that “elections have become the root cause of corruption in the country……after winning elections, the politician-bureaucrat nexus indulges in ‘recovering the investment’ and that is where corruption begins”.

No wonder why, electoral reforms are keys to the nation’s sound health. If simultaneous elections appear a distant possibility, let us begin with making our elections cheaper.

By Prakash Nanda

(prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

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