ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Designing to Distort

Simultaneous Elections

.

In these times of hyper-nationalism, everything gets tied to the nation. So, a matter such as synchronising the timing of parliamentary and assembly elections, too, gets packaged as “one nation, one election.” Such emotive slogans make it tough to consider the proposed changes in a dispassionate manner. When such far-reaching policies are considered, it should be commonplace to ask four questions: Why is this needed? Does this justify an urgent priority? Is the proposal feasible? And, above all, does the policy proposal fit the avowed principles on which the political system is based?

The proposal for introducing mechanisms for artificially ensuring simultaneous elections falls flat on all these four criteria. The idea was mooted by the then chief election commissioner (CEC) in 1982 and reiterated in the Election Commission of India (ECI) report of 1983, though the Government of India advised it to drop the idea (ECI 1984: 81–82). It surfaced again in the report of the Law Commission headed by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy in 1999 (LCI 1999: para 7.2.2).

Since then, various arguments have been proffered in support of the proposal. These arguments have become more vociferous since the present government began systematically pursuing the idea of simultaneous elections. Administrative convenience and official expenditure were the two reasons emphasised by the ECI in its initial proposal of 1982. These have never been systematically examined. For instance, if elections are taking place in Gujarat, the ECI would need to mobilise electoral machinery only in that state and it would not disturb the administration in other states. It would also normally not require deployment of police force from other states. On the contrary, the movement of paramilitary forces can only become easier if elections are staggered. For instance, in the latest round, we have had elections only in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, and the ECI, by keeping a gap between the voting dates of Tripura and the other two states, ensured swift movement of forces in the sensitive region.

So, the only issue that may still have some justification could be that of the expenses. Preparation of fresh electoral rolls and making of arrangements for polling booths would surely be duplicated. But, we need to ponder over two questions here. The Constitution did not mention “simultaneous elections.” Were the makers of the Constitution unaware of the possibility of duplicating expenditure? Or, did they hold the mature view that once you adopt a democratic system, there would indeed be some costs of electoral governance, but these are essential costs of running a democratic system? In any case, the expenditure argument is specious: it implies that because elections are an expensive business, minimisation should be followed not just as far as the costs are concerned, but in the enterprise of elections themselves. If one calculates the cost of an election per registered voter, for a five-year cycle, it would be evident how throwing around massive figures is misleading (Hindu 2014). In a huge country like India, elections are bound to be expensive, particularly as they become more competitive. The effort to make elections more and more flawless and efficient would always add to the expenses (for instance, the insistence on the voter verifiable paper audit trail [VVPAT] mechanism) and anyone grudging the expenditure can only be doing so with reservations about the idea of elections in the first place.

Besides those about administrative convenience and financial burden, two other key arguments have emerged in favour of simultaneous elections. One, that staggered elections mean that the country is constantly in an election mode and leaders of parties are busy in campaigns. On the surface, this appears quite a convincing argument. But, it applies only to the so-called national parties who contest elections in most states. It does not apply to the majority of parties, which are limited to a state or two. After the state elections in 2016, parties from Tamil Nadu had no pressure of contesting elections in the states that went to polls in 2017. Or, similarly, though the Shiv Sena nominally contested Gujarat polls, has anyone heard of its top leaders sweating it out in the Gujarat campaign? So, this is a problem typical of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And, in their case too, the problem owes more to the way the parties run themselves than to the fact of non-simultaneity of elections. Both the BJP and Congress being highly centralised and unable to leave the state elections to state leaders, the national leadership remains busy in election campaigns. If both parties had robust federalised structures, they would leave the routine campaigning to their state leaders and the national leadership would confine itself to policymaking, outlining norms for candidate selection and oversight in general. So, staggered elections are blamed for the non-federal structure of the so-called national parties.

Two, it is argued that routine administration is disrupted due to the code of conduct. Again, this too is an instance of barking up the wrong tree. In the first place, during the implementation of the code of conduct in Tripura, routine administration in Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka need not get derailed. But, more seriously, why do parties need to make announcements that may come under the purview of the code of conduct only when elections are around the corner? Any good party, seriously into the business of governance, would anyway know when elections are coming and accordingly calibrate its policies to ensure maximum electoral benefit. The idea that certain announcements need to be made only at election time smacks of ad hoc-ism and cynicism about the entire relationship between the party and the electorate. But, besides that, the code of conduct and electoral malpractices are issues that are badly regulated because of the intransigence of political parties and not because of the electoral system. Thus, the proposal falls flat on the question of necessity.

What about prioritisation? Our election system is not without problems, which stem mainly from the unwillingness of parties to be under effective regulation. The vulgar use of money through an avalanche of media advertisements is only one example. The question of having a ceiling on a candidate’s election expenses is a joke because parties are unregulated. In such circumstances, running after the idea of simultaneous elections is missing the woods for the trees. Any good policymaker always has to decide priorities depending upon the urgency of a given policy goal. It is not as if most other problems about elections are fixed and now we can turn to less pressing issues. Therefore, the urgency with which this “reform” is being pursued makes it a case of misplaced priority.

The NITI Aayog proposal that forms the basis of the current discussions regarding the alternative is full of a maze of constitutional hurdles (Debroy and Desai 2016). It is proposed that motions of no confidence can come only with the proposal for forming a new government; legislatures would otherwise have fixed five-year terms; if that becomes impossible, President’s Rule would be imposed in the state; alternatively, if elections become absolutely unavoidable in a state, the assembly would have a limited life, terminating at the time of the next scheduled cycle of five years. For each of these—“con­structive” vote of confidence, fixed term of the legislature, aligning the election of state assemblies with the Lok Sabha—it would be necessary to make a series of amendments (Ananth and Reddy 2018). Those would have to be endorsed by half the states. But, above all, given the nature of these amendments, they will certainly be examined by the court for compliance with the basic structure theory that the Supreme Court has been following since the Kesavananda Bharati case. In other words, the proposed alternatives are almost impossible to bring about and can be implemented only after a considerable reframing of the Constitution. If the need for the proposal is weak in the first place, why should we be taking all this trouble of rewriting parts of the Constitution?

But, policies should not hang on the peg of “feasibility” alone. Even if something is doable, the measure of a policy has to be the core principles that are adhered to. Even a cursory glance at the proposals of the NITI Aayog should alert us to the possible clash of the proposal with many foundational principles of our constitutional edifice. As I have argued earlier too, the attractive looking measure of “constructive” vote of confidence violates the legislator’s right to move a no confidence motion (Palshikar 2018); if that power is curtailed, what would remain of that accountable and answerable government that the parliamentary system seeks to ensure? On the other hand, the parliamentary system offers the prerogative of dissolution of legislature to the executive, which will be taken away if a fixed term is designed into the system in the name of simultaneous elections. Together, these features seek to undermine the parliamentary system itself. Besides, by artificially enforcing simultaneity of elections on the states, the measure violates the principle of federalism. In fact, the NITI Aayog report brings in the controversial “President’s Rule” in the name of stability. Also, the system would obviously favour the so-called national parties and hence may have the effect of easing out smaller and state-level players. This endangers the level playing field.

It has been shown that simultaneous elections may tend to benefit the national players. There is a possibility that electorates may tend to choose the same party for both Lok Sabha and the state assembly in terms of seats (Chakravarty 2016). Jagdeep Chhokar and Sanjay Kumar (2016) too arrive at a similar conclusion, pointing out that most parties tend to poll a similar vote share if elections happen simultaneously for the state assembly and the Lok Sabha. The message of this finding is clear: simultaneous elections are likely to artificially impose a closure on voter choice by clubbing both state-level and national-level choices into one. While in all likelihood this would mean the state-level choices would get sidestepped, even if it happens the other way round, it would still mean a distortion of the menu and hence the mutation of the popular choice.

Simultaneous elections would also mean the flattening of the debate over specific issues at state level. This can mute the voices of the marginalised sections and obstruct the rise of newer elites.1 These effects practically tend to rig the outcome. When this happens as a coincidence, we can find ways to overcome the imponderables of the system. But, when we specifically design it, we are designing a system that would limit and distort voter choices.

[This is an expanded version of the author’s presentation at the TISS, Mumbai at the LitFest panel on simultaneous elections held on 18 February 2018. He has benefited from queries and comments of the perceptive audience.]

Note

1 This point was brought to my notice by Digambar Surlata, a PhD scholar at TISS. I am indeb­ted to him for thinking of this aspect.

References

Ananth, V Krishna and C Rammanohar Reddy (2018): “’Simultaneous Elections’ or Centralisation of Power?” Wire, 23 February, viewed on 26 February 2018, https://thewire.in/226955/simultaneous-elections-centralisation-power/.

Chakravarty, Praveen (2016): “Nudging the Voter in One Direction?” Hindu, 8 September, viewed on 16 February 2018, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/state-assembly-elections-nudging-t....

Chhokar, Jagdeep and Sanjay Kumar (2016): “The Case against Simultaneous Polls,” Hindu,
1 November, viewed on 16 February 2018, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-case-against-simultaneous-polls....

Debroy, Bibek and Kishore Desai (2016): “Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The ‘What,’ ‘Why’ and ‘How,’” discussion paper, NITI Aayog, New Delhi, viewed on 9 October 2017, http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/Note%20on%20....

ECI (1984): “First Annual Report, 1083,” Election Commission of India, New Delhi, viewed on 26 February 2018, http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/eci_publications/books/genr/First%20Annual% 20Report-83.pdf.

Hindu (2014): “Govt Spent`3,426 Crore on Lok Sabha Polls,” 23 May, viewed on 10 February 2018, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/govt-spent-rs-3426-cr-on-lok-sabha....

LCI (1999): “One Hundred Seventieth Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws,” Law Commission of India, New Delhi, http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/lc170.htm.

Palshikar, Suhas (2018): “Polls Apart,” Indian Express, 24 November, viewed on 26 February 2018, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/election-commission-sim....

Updated On : 16th Mar, 2018

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top