Simultaneous elections-I

  • Amal Mandal

    May 24, 2016 | 01:15 AM
Simultaneous elections-I

Recurrent elections can be avoided if state assembly and Lok Sabha elections are clubbed together. This will above all require political consensus, even a constitutional amendment. There is no guarantee, however, that the tenure of the political executive will always remain coterminous, especially in this era of coalition politics. While election to panchayats and municipalities cannot be synchronised, the presidential type of chief executive can be one viable alternative. Moreover, improvement in procedures is both imperative and affordable.

Prime Minister Modi&’s recent pitch for combined elections to the Lok Sabha, state Assemblies and local bodies has revived the sporadic debate. Narendra Modi is basically concerned with administrative inertia, indeed the fallout of frequent elections. Another factor is to ‘save time for party workers’. He has stopped short of specifying a framework to make the proposal effective. 

Any reflection on simultaneous elections must be contextualised with the constitutional and political realities and subjective reflections are best avoided. Lok Sabha and assembly elections can be conducted simultaneously provided there is political consensus and the constitutional provisions are amended. But tagging ‘local body’ elections to any other stratum is not feasible at this juncture.

While elections are supposed to be the bedrock of democracy, elections at different points of time have become counterproductive, to say the least. India is witnessing frequent elections instead of ‘democracy of elections’. For the past 30 years, there has been not a single year when there was no election either to the Lok Sabha or state assembly. Since 1967, a total of 292 elections have been held; this works out to six elections per year on an average. During the past nine months, a total of 135 days have been covered by elections. The total picture would be staggering if by-elections and local body elections are also taken into account.

Frequent elections inevitably result in suspension of the government&’s functioning, hold up normal public services, breed corruption, and drain scarce public money. The atmospherics persist for at least two months at a stretch. Public administration is bogged down in the electoral process. Routine governmental activity is in suspended animation. As long as the Model Code of Conduct is in force, development programmes are in suspended animation. This has a negative impact on governance. Every election demands mobilization of enormous manpower and resources. Almost all government employees are deployed. Public buildings, especially schools and colleges are taken over for polling. Educational institutions are closed for not less than 20 days. In other words, even the search for learning is suspended.

Frequent elections run counter to good governance as they encourage political parties to win by cutting corners and strategic engineering, prompt political expediency, undermine public welfare, promote populist measures for alluring voters or winning/retaining the vote-bank. In a word, the concept of democracy gets denuded. While political parties generally perceive public policy through the prism of electoral benefits, they tend to go on overdrive as soon as elections are round the corner. During the period of elections, the parties often play the caste and communal cards. They instigate caste / communal flare-ups to vitiate the social ambience and trigger serious law and order problems. Round-the-clock campaigns and public meetings disrupt the movement of people and life generally.

Elections are big budget affairs and therefore expensive. The cost of every election is becoming increasingly colossal. For managing or conducting an election, the government expends a fair amount of money and the contestants and political parties overtake the government - one estimate has put the figure at Rs 30000 crore for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The ceiling on expenditure of contestants is violated with impunity and parties spend unlimited amounts collected through gifts, donations or contributions. The money is used not only for campaigning but also for purchase of votes. Indeed elections are now fought and won on the basis of money-power and the ability to raise funds. Frequent elections can multiply unproductive expenditure.

If the frequency of polls can be minimised, so too can public woes and wastage. Arguably, the time has come when frequency of recurrring elections should be reduced, to the extent possible. And the viable option is to club Lok Sabha and assembly elections together. Simultaneous elections - implying elections to all state assemblies together with the Lok Sabha - can be a complex and contentious matter with political, administrative, organizational, financial and social dimensions. Coupled with cost reduction and administrative convenience, constitutional issues and the quality of democracy should also receive due emphasis.

The Union and state executive derive their legitimacy from the elected legislature and they can remain in power as long as they enjoy the confidence of the legislature concerned. Hence, the normal tenure of five years is not unequivocal or insurmountable. They can be voted out at any time. Moreover, any executive can resign prematurely or can seek a mid-term or snap poll for whatever reasons. A State government can additionally be dissolved through the imposition of President&’s rule. There is no guarantee that every executive will complete its constitutionally specified term.

In fact, Lok Sabha and assembly elections were held concurrently in 1952 but the cycle soon snapped; marginally from 1957 and substantially from 1967 onwards. Absolute domination of the Congress party and a weak opposition incapable of confronting the Congress did lead to premature dissolution of legislatures. The situation took a U-turn after the 1977 election. The emergence of strong regional outfits and the vagaries of political dynamics, including the highhandedness of the Congress to scuttle the surge of the state parties ,led to frequent dissolution of the legislature and mid-term elections - West Bengal during 1967-1971 is one classic example. Because of political cataclysm, the shifting power base of parties and allies, internal dynamics, the Centre&’s interference, the term of the executive became incongruous. Thus, the tenure of state assemblies began to differ from that of Parliament. Delinking of the two was virtually formalised when the snap poll to the Lok Sabha was held in 1971 one year prior to the normal term. The process was repeated in 1984. Together with growing instability in the states, the Union government had to withstand the instability as in 1980, 1991, 1998 and 1999. However it has to be conceded that a few assembly elections continue to be held together with every Lok Sabha election.

Simultaneous elections will first require either the curtailment or extension of the normal term of the political executive in the states. Such an effort will directly impinge on the constitutional dispensation, as it would be patently unconstitutional to manipulate the tenure merely for joint elections. Even it it is assumed that political consensus across the board facilitates amendment to the constitutional provisions, the problem will not be readily resolved. Can it be ensured that all executives complete their full term without interruption of any sort? 

Domination of a single party is a reality of the past. Plural democracy has evolved over time and is now fairly entrenched in India. Elections are based on multiparty competition. The social base of politics is changing, diversity and shifting coalitions are firmly in place. Indeed, coalition politics is at the root of political instability and premature dissolution of seven out of 16 Lok Sabhas. What is desirable is not always practicable. 

(To be concluded)

Domination of a single party is a reality of the past. Plural democracy has evolved over time and is now fairly entrenched in India.