Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion that elections to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and local bodies should be held simultaneously has brought to centrestage an issue that has been raised intermittently, for years. Earlier, L.K. Advani had made the same suggestion. In a May 2010 blogpost, he advocated a fixed term for elected bodies and a need for simultaneous elections. Leaders of several parties also raised the issue, leading to a Parliament committee examining it. The idea is good in principle but seems fraught with constitutional issues and administrative problems.
Let’s first examine the reasons that have prompted this proposal — that frequent elections bring to a standstill normal functioning of the government and life of the citizens and bring a heavy recurring cost.
It is true that 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.
The second reason, the cost, is a 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. In my book, I had documented 40 ways of abusing money power which we had identified and taken steps to check. But the politicians soon outsmarted us. Among other things, the money is now spent much before the EC comes into the picture. The worst problem is that there is no cap on the expenditure of political parties, which exploit this loophole to the hilt. The ceiling of Rs 70 lakh looks like peanuts when political parties spend ten, twenty times more to promote their candidates, which distorts the level playing field besides vitiating the spirit of free and fair elections. One estimate had put the cost of this at Rs 30,000 crore in the 2014 elections.
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. “Let EC Raj continue” was one headline in a Punjab paper. And one national newspaper from the south carried letters to the editor for one week after the 2011 election in Tamil Nadu, expressing appreciation for the quality of life during the MCC days!
Four, local and national issues do not get mixed up to distort priorities. In voters’ minds, local issues overtake wider state and national issues.
I have often heard a “solution” — that the vote of no-confidence must contain an expression of confidence in an alternative ruling arrangement. That will be an unmitigated atrocity against the people’s will. How can a few dozen MLAs — purchasable as they are — upturn the people’s mandate? Horse-trading will rule the roost. Just a few MPs changing loyalty can bring down the government, to be replaced by the opposition party that organises the coup.
Some suggest that the Vidhan Sabha and panchayat elections could be clubbed — at least, the impact is restricted to the state. But I doubt if subversion of the people’s mandate at the panchayat level, too, can be taken lightly. Infringement of the people’s right to choose their representatives for the sake of saving money or for administrative convenience, or “to save party workers their time” (the immediate provocation for PM Modi’s suggestion) cannot pass judicial muster.
Imagine a scenario when the Lok Sabha gets dissolved (in 13 days, as actually happened in 1998), and for the sake of simultaneity all state assemblies with full or thin majority are also dissolved. And then, in the resultant Lok Sabha elections, the same party comes to power (as actually happened in 1999), but state assemblies go topsy-turvy!
Did the Constituent Assembly visualise such a situation? Only partly. Initially, it considered a part-time EC, thinking that there would be no work between two elections for five years. Eventually, as a concession to a remote possibility, it allowed a single, full-time CEC. We didn’t have to wait long to see that possibility becoming a harsh reality. In 1956, the Kerala Vidhan Sabha was dissolved, establishing a questionable trend that worsened with time.
In conclusion, if the reasons for the demand are accepted (money and dislocation), let’s look at what is possible. It’s possible to reduce the duration of the election process by half — by conducting the elections in one day. That requires making available to the EC five times the Central armed police force that is currently provided. Instead of 700-800 companies, the EC will then need 3,500 companies. Raising a few battalions of various paramilitary forces will also give relief to the extremely stretched and stressed forces, provide employment and contribute to better enforcement in troubled areas.
The other possible and desirable action is to cut the role of money power in elections. It requires two things: Putting a cap on political party expenditure and state-funding of political parties (not elections), with a simultaneous ban on all private, especially corporate, funds. Prime Minister Modi has the majority and clout to get these reforms implemented.