Insights into Editorial: Their separate ways

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Insights into Editorial: Their separate ways

12 April 2016

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A Committee of Parliament which recently examined the vexed issue of frequent polls in the country has come up with what could be the most practical way to end the vicious cycle of elections, which not only takes a heavy toll of governance, but also destabilises duly-elected governments and imposes a heavy burden on the exechequer. The parliamentary standing committee on law and personnel strongly has recommended holding of simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections all over the country. While the idea is noble, it’s difficult to implement. Interestingly, even PM has proposed the same.

Background:

After the Constitution came into being in 1950, elections to the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies were held simultaneously in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967 and all the newly elected legislative bodies were constituted between March and April in each of these years.

  • In the first three elections, it was virtually one-party rule with the Congress Party holding sway over the voters almost everywhere. However in 1967, the electorate dislodged the Congress in a few states and voted in unstable coalitions. A couple of these governments collapsed ahead of time in the late 1960s, thus marginally disrupting the arrangement of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all the state assemblies.
  • However, the real damage was done in 1970, when early dissolution of the Fourth Lok Sabha took place. Since then, the arrangement of simultaneous elections has come to an end and over a period of time, the country has got into a vicious cycle of elections which has begun to hurt governance in a big way.

Problems with frequent elections:

Frequent elections bring to a standstill normal functioning of the government and life of the citizens and bring a heavy recurring cost.

  • With frequent elections, normal work comes to a standstill to a considerable extent. Typically, elections to the Lok Sabha are spread over two and a half months. As soon as the Election Commission announces the poll dates, the model code of conduct (MCC) comes into operation. This means that the government cannot announce any new schemes, make any new appointments, transfers or postings without EC approval. Ministers get busy in the election campaign, the district administration machinery gets totally focused on elections.
  • Cost is another major issue. The costs of election have gone up enormously. It has two components — the cost of management to the EC/ government and the cost to candidates and political parties. Though there are no exact estimates, one guesstimate puts it at Rs 4,500 crore. The bigger problem is the havoc played by the money power of political parties and contestants. Though the law prescribes a ceiling on the expenditure of candidates, the fact is that it is violated with impunity.
  • Another consequence of frequent elections is the aggravation of vices like communalism, casteism, corruption (vote-buying and fund-raising) and crony capitalism. If the country is perpetually in election mode, there is no respite from these evils.

Frequent elections have some benefits too:

  • One, politicians, who tend to forget voters after the elections for five years have to return to them. This enhances accountability, keeps them on their toes.
  • Two, elections give a boost to the economy at the grassroots level, creating work opportunities for lakhs of people.
  • Three, there are some environmental benefits also that flow out of the rigorous enforcement of public discipline like non-defacement of private and public property, noise and air pollution, ban on plastics, etc.
  • Four, local and national issues do not get mixed up to distort priorities. In voters’ minds, local issues overtake wider state and national issues.
  • Besides, a staggered electoral cycle also acts as a check against demagoguery, fascism and oligarchy, in that order.
  • It also ensures that the mood of the nation at a particular moment does not hand over political power across a three-tiered democratic structure to one dispensation or individual. It gives people a chance to distinguish between the national, state and local interests, rather than being swept away in a “wave”, often manufactured by corporate media and the economic muscle of commercial carpetbaggers.

Does this plan square with the Indian federal construct?

Federalism is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Article 83(2) of the Constitution requires that the Lok Sabha be in existence for five years from the date of its first meeting, unless dissolved earlier, and, thereafter, a fresh election would have to be conducted. Similarly, Article 172 of the Constitution requires that the state legislatures continue for five years, unless dissolved earlier.

  • However, the design for simultaneous elections seems to be in utter ignorance of the phrase, “unless dissolved earlier”, found in the text of these two articles as they stand today. Moreover, federalism as a concept rests on the principle of uniting separate states into a union without sacrificing the fundamental political integrity of the states.
  • Although our Constitution gives wider power to the Union over the states, the states are supreme within the spheres allotted to them. The federal state is a political compact that weaves different regions, religions, languages and impulses into a nation-state.

Alternative method:

An alternative and practicable method is holding elections in two phases. Elections of some assemblies can be held at mid-term of Lok Sabha and remaining with the end of tenure of Lok Sabha. For this, the terms of some legislative assemblies may need to be extended while some of them may need to be curtailed.

  • In order to achieve this, the tenure of the existing state assemblies will have to be curtailed or extended by some months. In any case, the Election Commission is empowered by the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to call an election six months prior to the end of the normal term of the Lok Sabha or any state assembly.
  • This is the first concrete idea that has emerged to reduce the frequency of elections and save the people and the administration from election fatigue. All political parties need to seriously ponder over this if they wish to ensure that India’s democratic process does not become a hindrance to development and governance.

Conclusion:

Simultaneous polls—Lok Sabha, states and local bodies—could be beneficial for both governance and the business model of politics. It will address the issue of delayed decisions that hurt the economy. Fewer polls will bring down the funding cost of frequent polls for parties. Additionally, simultaneous polls will enable parties to create capacity, vertically integrate interests. However, greater consensus is needed to proceed further on this.