Merging elections on PM’s mind
Immediately after completing two years in office next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will rigorously push for a plan to hold simultaneous elections to Parliament, state Assemblies, panchayats, and urban local bodies.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have prepared a ground map for the same. RSS-backed think-tanks will work overtime to create a favorable atmosphere for the proposal until mid-2018 when the Modi-government hopes to come up with a constitutional amendment for the same.
These are “electoral cycle reforms” with an aim to limit the amount of time and money spent in electioneering, according to Modi. “Politicians must have more time for people-oriented programs rather than investing most of their time in electioneering for different political institutions,” he said. But are those his real intentions?
At an all-party meeting a few months ago, Modi floated the idea. The proposal seeks to save public money worth thousands of crores spent on elections by holding them simultaneously. The proposal was raised again at a meeting of the BJP’s national executive. The message was loud and clear. But this was a plan in motion even before the last general election. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s manifesto had underlined: “Evolve method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously.”
Modi went another step further in December 2015 when the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice tabled a report in Parliament on the “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies”. “A solution will be found to reduce the frequency of elections which relieve people and government machinery, tired of frequent electoral processes,” the report said.
“This is important for India if it is to compete with other nations in developmental agenda on real time basis as a robust, democratic country.”The standing committee stated the following reasons for exploring simultaneous elections.
* Simultaneous elections would reduce the massive expenditure incurred for the conduct of separate elections every year.
* Elections lead to the imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in the poll-bound State/area. The imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time leads to policy paralysis.
* Frequent elections lead to disruption of normal public life and impact the functioning of essential services.
* Simultaneous elections would reduce the crucial manpower deployed for prolonged periods.
“Elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the midterm of Lok Sabha and elections to the remaining Legislative Assemblies could be held with the end of Lok Sabha’s term,” the report said. It also proposed a poll cycle for the same.
“The proposed first phase of Assembly elections could be held in November 2016. Elections to all state Assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year before or after the appointed election date can be clubbed together. Similarly, the second phase of elections can be held in 2019 with the General Elections to Lok Sabha,” it said.
The proposal is motivated by political considerations. It is no secret that when simultaneous elections are held, voters tend to vote for the same party. An analysis of Election Commission data from 1999 onward confirms that there was a 77 percent chance the Indian voter would vote for the same party at the state and Centre if elections were held simultaneously. It is quite obvious why Prime Minister Modi is keen to implement this idea in 2019. But this proposal ignores fundamental Constitutional questions.
Constitutional provisions are very clear on the matter. Article 83(2) provides for a term of five years for the House of People (Lok Sabha), from the date of its first sitting, unless dissolved earlier. Similar provisions under Article 172 (1) provides for a five-year tenure for state Legislative Assemblies from the date of its first sitting. The mandatory term has to be completed first. It is the prerogative of the Assembly to decide when to call an election. But in doing it for the conduct of simultaneous elections would be misusing the Constitution.
The President of India has the power to extend the period of Assemblies by up to one year to bring about uniformity in holding the elections at the same time. In July-August 2017, we will have a new President who will reach Rashtrapati Bhavan with the BJP’s support. But, will it be ethically and constitutionally right for any President to exercise this power to fulfill the desire of a particular political party? Organising simultaneous elections will face several other practical difficulties also.
To conduct elections across the country on the same day, about 4,000 companies of paramilitary forces will be required. The country is able to make available only around one thousand at the moment.
Sparing four times the number of personnel is not easy. How many new companies can you raise in next three years? Where will the money come from to maintain them permanently? Purchasing Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines would cost approximately Rs 10,000 crore if elections are to be held together. State and national elections are often fought on different sets of issues.
In simultaneous elections, voters may end up privileging one set of issues over the other in ways they may not have otherwise. National issues could be left ignored. Conversely, local issues could be swept away by a national “wave”. Will it ultimately be healthy for a democracy like ours?
Prime Minister Modi must realise that politics is an art, and not a science. Mastery of Indian politics is not based on the rationality of an engineer but the wisdom and the moral strength of a statesman. I would advise him to think a thousand times before going ahead with his proposal.
(The author is Editor and
CEO of News Views India. Views
expressed are strictly personal.)