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The Lies Around Simultaneous Elections

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In 2 similar interviews, the Prime Minister has encouraged simultaneous elections to be held in the country. In my view, neither is this a financially responsible solution to our expensive elections, nor is it the right way to conduct elections in a multi-party democracy full of single state and regional parties.

The president of the party that is in majority in the Government has given a speech on simultaneous elections from their new party office. The party has provided a 10 point action plan to its chief ministers (the party is in power in 19 out of 29 states), to ‘popularise’ the idea. It even asks the state governments to nominate a minister who will handle the issue politically. This idea has been mentioned by the current and former president in their addresses as well.

Since this idea is going to generate increased traction as the general election comes closer, I thought it best to examine the issue of changing India’s electoral system.

Constitutional Limit

Under our Constitution, nowhere does it specify that a legislature (state or Centre) enjoys a fixed term. Due to Article 83 (2) for the Centre and Article 172 for the states, the words ‘unless dissolved sooner‘ holds an important meaning. Seats are up for election after 5 years from the start, but, –

  • they can be dissolved earlier on the recommendation of the Prime Minister/Chief Minister,
  • they can be extended during Emergency for up to 6 months
  • they can be ended earlier if the Government of the day does not enjoy the support of the party members/coalition it is a part of, through a no-confidence motion.

This is without mentioning the fact that a state legislature can be dissolved on the report of the Governor under Article 356 which makes a state come under President’s rule. This has been severely abused by many governments. It was abused by Indira Gandhi throughout her tenure and by the present government in Uttrakhand, which was deemed a constitutional crisis.

In various states, coalitions are the order of the day, and with that comes alignment of regional parties from one ideology to the other, in search of a better outcome. When leaders die, such as in Jayalalithaa’s case, there can be factions within the same party which break it.

All of these are unique instances of how India’s legislatures do not reach their full term. When a Government falls, it will have to be under President’s rule. When a Government falls due to a lack of majority, that Government will have to wait and so will the opposition as the elections will only happen at the set date along with all other assemblies in the country. Is breaking the link between the legislature and the executive, hereby, destroying the fabric of the Parliamentary system, a small price to pay?

The other problem is of not fulfilling the Constitutional obligation of having a legislature complete their term or extending the term by more than 5 years. You would have to cut short the recently elected Gujarat assembly and extend the current Karnataka assembly to have simultaneous elections. Basically, you are diminishing/increasing the worth of a specific state’s citizen’s vote. That could even lead to litigation under Article 14. You are forcing the states to comply with the Centre’s schedule. How is this fair in a federal system where states are not subservient to the Centre, but their equal?

Speaking of litigation, the Kesavananda Bharati versus State of Kerala case had ruled that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be altered. A parliament system was deemed to be part of the basic structure. Inherently, the parliamentary system is where the executive derives its power from the legislature. Many believe that simultaneous elections would mean moving towards a presidential system since — due to the many reasons listed a state/Central government is bound to fall, the President would rule with his/her own council of ministers. Would it, then, pass judicial scrutiny? I think not.

If you want simultaneous elections, you need fixed terms, otherwise, it falls. You cannot do this without a constitutional amendment. Suppose all parties come together and decide simultaneous elections are a good idea, then, that state/Central legislature would either stay on, despite losing its majority i.e. the will of the people or fresh elections will be called, in which case, it will stay on for less than 5 years till the fixed date comes up. Is either truly democratic? I am not in favour of a trade-off between stability and democracy. No one should be. What if that Government becomes extremely incompetent? Knowing they cannot be ousted. What if that Government falls for the variety of reasons listed above? President’s rule for years? Our democracy is messy, but that is a fault of the people we elect, not the frequency of our elections.

The Constitution is a clear deterrent against this practice and for right measure.

Model Code of Conduct

But what about the Model Code of Conduct (MCC)? This is the cry of the proponents of the measure. The MCC comes into place 45 days before an election and bars any big-ticket announcements to ensure the Government does not use its office to sway voters. The MCC is a guideline on how to ‘act’ during an election period by a political party. It is enforced when the election is announced till its completion. People argue that the MCC prevents ‘developmental work’ and governance since a Government cannot announce any new schemes.

This is what a Committee said in 2015 –

“The imposition of the MCC [model code of conduct] puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and state governments in the poll-bound states. It even affects normal governance. Frequent elections lead to imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time.”

Some argue that the Centre becomes hesitant to take ‘risky’ decisions that might be good in the long run, but, would affect the ruling party politically. What happened to putting the country first? The Centre is a Government first, and a political party later. Seeing decisions through the prism of politics might be debatable, but, negating the development of the country just so you can win one more state, is ridiculous.

The Government argues that it places a tightrope around their developmental work. They cannot announce new projects. It places their ability to govern.

This would be a valid argument except the MCC is quite liberal in their design.

  1. It places no restrictions on normal day-to-day administration.
  2. It is applicable throughout the country ONLY during the Lok Sabha elections. In state elections, the MCC is applicable only in that state.
  3. Ministers cannot use Government transport or official visits for electioneering work.
  4. No advertisements at the expense of the taxpayer.
  5. In case of emergencies like floods, droughts welfare measures may be announced after obtaining prior approval of the Commission
  6. No financial institution funded by the Government may write off any loans.
  7. No Ministers and other authorities shall not announce any financial grants in any form or promise thereof; or (except civil servants) lay foundation stones etc. of projects or schemes of any kind; or make any promise of construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc.

Point number 2 is indicative that for continuous state elections, developmental work is not impacted. You can carry on introducing projects for other states and extend the same to that particular state after the MCC is lifted. In the rarest of rare cases, where the Central Government HAS to introduce some new scheme in a state during the imposition of MCC, it can do so after consulting the Election Commission (Point 5). For the Lok Sabha MCC, 3 months, of incapability as voters make their uninfluenced decision to vote seems to be fair enough considering the Central Government gets 57 months to work uninterrupted for the country.

If parties still think the MCC is disruptive, it might work better to change the code itself to be more accommodating rather than clubbing all elections together. However, the MCC is a check on the Government, rather than a limitation of development.

Public funding of elections

The main argument of the Prime Minister is that a lot of money will be saved by having elections all at once, rather than, having it every 6 months. His solution – of clubbing all elections at once to save that money.

First off, the cost estimated for the 2014 Lok Sabha and all states and UT elections was Rs. 4,500 crores by a Parliamentary committee. Divide this by the number of people who voted in just the Lok Sabha elections i.e. 55 crores – for each voter, your cost was Rs. 88 for 5 years. Lower if you take all those who voted in the state and UT elections. A state Government has spent Rs. 3,600 on a statue. Fiscal conservatism when it is convenient? Can you say money needs to be saved for the highest democratic duty of the country?

Secondly, the cost to the EC is a procedural one. The negative cost to democracy is the destructive influence of money in politics. There is a difference between party election expenses and what the Election Commission has to spend. The disproportionate spending by parties in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was estimated to be around Rs. 30,000 crores. The limit for a candidate in the Lok Sabha is Rs. 70 lakhs. Money in politics ensures a quid-pro-quo between big business/donors and our representatives.

Saving for the EC is the Prime Minister’s argument rather than curbing expenditures by parties? That says it all. I have a better idea Mr Prime Minister. Public funding of elections.

Removing money out of politics is a must and the Representation of People’s Act (1951) has not done enough. Germany is an excellent model to follow. The funds given to parties are in proportion to their votes and it stops corporations from buying elections. There have been various high-level reports that have recommended some level of public funding but nothing has been done yet.

Public funding of elections also ends the disgrace of electoral bonds. I call this, although probably not the first one to term it, the ‘Citizens United’ of India. Citizens United was a judgement in the United States of America which allowed corporations to disproportionately affect elections. Similarly, electoral bonds allow anonymous unlimited donations to a political party. This purely unregulated anti-democratic practice can be stopped by public funding.

You kill two birds with one stone by removing money out of politics and reducing party election expenses.

Political Accountability

A personal opinion of mine, based on observing international politics, is that politics is better when it is a constant audition rather than an uninterrupted tenure. Whether you take the mid-term elections of the United States Congress or the local elections in the UK for councils, people in power are forced to perform so that a wave of anti-incumbency does not emerge. In India, that performance evaluation serves to keep a check on the Government. Have they performed after coming into office? If the answer is no, then vote them out in a particular state or local election. Give them fewer seats in the Upper House. Elections are not a routine but a duty. For both the politician and the voter. It should serve as a ground to keep the party in check. I do not think that the voter should just be heard every 5 years.

Centralisation?

Voters do not know the difference between state and central issues. That there is a bifurcation of issues that only the state can handle and ones that the Centre can handle, subject to exceptions. A study by the IDFC Institute had data from four Lok Sabha elections which found that “on average, there is a 77% chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the state and Centre when elections are held simultaneously”. This trend is worrying for regional parties who risk being phased out. Only national parties with more outreach, muscle and money will have a chance to prevail.

President style campaign

We had simultaneous elections during our first ever elections in 1952. An accident of history. Due to the nature of the beast, that got disbanded in the 60s and since then elections are scattered. Since India is a federal republic, there is no need to have state and Central elections simultaneously, which was recognised by the Constitution too. With simultaneous elections, it becomes more like the American process of having personality-based politics, which becomes even less accountable with a parliamentary structure. Would people who voted for the party based on the Prime Ministerial candidate realise that it is their MP and MLA who need to be held to ransom and not the Prime Minister?

Even the issue of security forces is not clear as many state elections such as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal require massive CAPF (Central Armed Police Forces) from neighbouring states to conduct fair polling. It is also one of the reasons elections are done in phases. Do we have the capability to do that for 545 Central constituencies and over 4,000 state ones?

There have been many undemocratic events put forward in the name of electoral reforms and simultaneous elections are one of them. The proper solution is simple – the system is fine, it is the people who need to be better. Many Parliamentary countries do just fine with regularly occurring elections. The proponents of this practice see elections as a hindrance; as a nuisance to be reduced. I could not disagree more.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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