Double game

Contesting from two constituencies undermines electoral accountability.

Updated: April 2, 2014 9:22:05 am

Contesting from two constituencies undermines electoral accountability.

There is something absurd about a candidate contesting an election under the promise that they will faithfully serve the interests of that constituency and represent its people, but with the proviso that they might decide to abandon it if they also win in another constituency. Yet this is the case where big-shot leaders decide that one constituency is not enough, and they will fight the election from two places simultaneously.

That is the strategy that Narendra Modi has adopted for the 2014 elections, contesting from both Vadodara in Gujarat and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress can hardly object, since Sonia Gandhi also divided her attention between Amethi in UP and Bellary in Karnataka in the 1999 general elections. Despite defeating Sushma Swaraj in Bellary, Sonia Gandhi retained Amethi and had to resign from her other seat, leaving Bellary unrepresented in the Lok Sabha until a by-election was held in the subsequent year.

There is a clear strategic rationale to this double contestation, but it also reveals a lack of confidence about the electoral strength of a party. One seat acts as a means of reaching out to a symbolic or critical battleground, the other constituency as a fall-back option to ensure the leader is in the Lok Sabha if the voters in the first seat reject them. Amethi was a constituency which had resonance for the Gandhi dynasty, having been won by Rajiv Gandhi, and before him, Sanjay Gandhi. Varanasi has obvious resonance for the BJP as a holy city. In both cases, contesting from constituencies in UP reflects the importance of standing in a state likely to be critical to the outcome of the national polls.

Similar considerations lie behind Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to stand for election in both Azamgarh and Mainpuri. Mainpuri, where he is the incumbent MP, is the back-up option, while standing in Azamgarh serves to bolster the Samajwadi Party’s challenge in the east of UP. The Election Commission has already suggested that candidates should not be allowed to contest from two constituencies in the same election. In its 2004 report on proposed electoral reforms, the EC called for the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, to be amended to prevent this, and suggested that, as an intermediate measure, candidates for two Lok Sabha constituencies post a deposit of Rs 10,00,000 to cover the costs of any subsequent by-election.

It could be argued that the sanction should be left to the voters. If they know that a candidate is dividing his or her attention between two seats, they could object by voting against. It has been argued that contesting from two seats provides flexibility, allowing parties to extend their appeal while hedging against the chance that their leaders will not be returned to sit in the Lok Sabha. However, there is also a sense that it undermines the representative process: a candidate rejected by voters in one constituency can still become a legislator making decisions that affect the whole country. If a key democratic principle is the right of the electorate to reject a candidate, this accountability is undermined by simultaneous candidacy.

Bangladesh is the only other country which has a first-past-the-post system and allows candidates to stand in multiple constituencies. In 2008, three party leaders won three constituencies each, leading to six by-elections to fill the seats they decided not to retain. Previously, candidates had the option of standing in up to five constituencies. Although the practice of multiple candidacy was common in 19th century elections, most countries now prohibit it. In France, Adolphe Thiers’s election in 1871 to some 30 departments demonstrated his widespread appeal and led to his appointment as president.

In Canada, standing in two districts was standard practice among party leaders, until prohibited in 1919. Under mixed-member proportional electoral systems, where elections are contested from both constituencies and party lists, candidates often contest from a constituency and appear on the party list, although in Ecuador and Panama this practice is not allowed. In Japan, there were widespread complaints about politicians who lost the constituency election entering the Diet from the party list. Again, this is seen as preventing the electorate’s ability to vote to exclude a candidate, weakening the process of electoral accountability.

Many countries, including India, prevent candidates who already hold legislative office from contesting elections to a different legislature. Modi, who is currently a member of the Gujarat assembly, representing Maninagar, will have to give up this seat if he wishes to sit in the Lok Sabha. Prohibiting dual mandates has been seen as a way of maintaining the autonomy of federal legislatures, and avoiding conflicts of interest and corruption. Dual mandates are allowed in France, the Netherlands and Spain, but there are objections to people holding two legislative offices simultaneously.

In Britain, we are waiting to see if Boris Johnson, the flamboyant mayor of London, will decide to fight a constituency in the 2015 general election. Many Conservatives see him as a future leader of the party, in which case he has to have a seat in the House of Commons. But contesting a seat while being mayor is seen as a diminution of his office and a slight on the London electorate. In the US, where electoral regulations vary from state to state, there is currently a move to allow Rand Paul, a Republican with backing from the Tea Party movement, to stand for president and contest a Kentucky Senate seat. He would not be the first to contest for two offices in the same election — both Joe Biden in 2008 and Joe Lieberman in 2000 contested as vice presidential candidates while also fighting a Senate campaign.

It is for the electorates in Vadodara and Varanasi to judge whether Modi’s dual candidacy is an issue in the 2014 general election. Under the existing law, he has every right to stand in both constituencies. Yet this provision clearly challenges principles of electoral representation and accountability. For a candidate that wins both seats, there is the inconvenience of a by-election. For a candidate that wins one seat and loses another, there is the uncomfortable scenario whereby a defeated politician gets to sit in the Lok Sabha via the back door. The EC is right to consider that this is a practice that has no place in a modern democracy.

The writer teaches at the University of Sheffield,UK,and is author of ‘Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India’

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