One seat two many
The vote-seeking hoardings have been replaced with those carrying messages conveying gratitude. The big fight for seats in the 16th Lok Sabha is over. The battle has been won and also lost depending on which side the player was in. The results are out and the prime minister decided. Most part of the election data has been dissected and analysed to the last number. Eyes are now set on who gets what in the Narendra Modi-led cabinet.
Unfortunately, a very critical issue has escaped public scrutiny and debate. The issue of contestants trying their luck from two seats. The fact that Modi delivered his victory speech from Vadodara has hinted at the fact that he will let go off the constituency and choose to represent Varanasi in Parliament. Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav is yet to take a call on whether to retain Mainpuri or switch to Azamgarh. But the fact that the issue has not attracted a discussion is rather serious.
According to Section 33 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, a person is allowed to contest polls from a maximum of two seats. Before this law was suitably amended, a candidate could run in any number of constituencies.
In such a situation where the candidate wins from both the seats s/he must vacate one within 10 days, leading to a by-election, as stated under Section 70 of the Representation of the People The Election Commission doesn’t have an exact estimate of the money spent per constituency to conduct an election. But government records suggest that the cost of conducting elections per constituency is about Rs 2-3 crore. Former chief election commissioner S Y Qureshi says that each constituency has about 1,500 polling booths. Ten people are deployed to facilitate polling at each booth five of whom stay inside the polling room while five are stationed outside. Which means that roughly 15,000 people are deployed for every constituency during a parliamentary election. ‘Conducting elections is a costly affair. You have to give these 15,000 government employees TA, DA and other honorariums. In addition to this, the travel expenses of the poll officials too have taken care of by the Election Commission,’ he says.
The provision of allowing a candidate to contest from multiple seats is rather absurd. There are several examples in the country’s history where leaders holding the post of MLA/MP have contested another election. Upon winning, they surrendered their posts for re-election. Re-elections cost money;Indira Gandhi contested from two constituencies, Medak and Rae Bareli, in 1980. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, Sonia Gandhi contested from Amethi and Bellary. Akhilesh Yadav and Lalu Prasad also contested from two constituencies in the 2009 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections, respectively.
The absurdity was at its nadir before 1996 when people could contest from as many seats as they wanted till an amendment was introduced to the Representation of the People Act (RP Act) of 1951. NT Rama Rao, actor-turned-politician and founder of the Telugu Desam Party, contested from multiple seats in all the four assembly elections of his political life. In his first ever electoral fight in 1983, Rao contested from Gudivada and Tirupati. He went on to win both.
Emboldened by the experience in 1985, NTR contested from three seats, Gudivada, Hindupur and Nalgonda; retained Hindupur and left the others. Biju Patnaik left everyone behind when he contested the most number of seats simultaneously, running for four assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat in ‘Earlier, becoming a candidate used to one’s social status apart from of course the political status. One could get phone connections easily if one was an election candidate. That prompted people to contest from several seats. However, the practice got a little discouragement when the security deposits were raised for candidates,’ says veteran journalist Arvind Mohan reflecting on the past.
Mohan goes on to say that the idea of allowing candidates to contest from two seats makes absolutely no sense. ‘This can sometimes lead to confusion because in case of a hung assembly the wait for by-elections can add to confusion and political chaos. The provision must be withdrawn,’ Mohan adds
But not everybody wants a change. Delhi’s chief electoral officer Vijay Dev says there is no problem in letting people contest from multiple seats. ‘If you are a student you can apply to as many colleges as you want to better you chances of getting into the best college. Why should the same window not be open for politicians?’ Dev questions.
When asked about public money being misused in the process, Dev says, ‘But the benefit is also to be reaped by the public.’
But constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says the provision makes no sense in today’s scenario. ‘It is high time people and media build pressure on the government demanding that the provision be withdrawn,’ he says. Kashyap also adds that it is immoral and improper for contestants to fight from multiple seats leading to wastage of public money.
On the question of why was a candidate allowed to contest from multiple seats when s/he could retain just one in the first place, Kashyap says the provision was allowed to exist as there was nothing against it. ‘But subsequently politicians have misused the clause. Some leaders have chosen to play with it. There is a lot of public money which is being wasted in the process. The public pressure must be built to bring about a change,’ he says.
Dwelling on the possible solutions to the problem, Qureshi says candidates who leave a seat after winning it must be asked to pay the money required to conduct the by-election on that seat. ‘They must be made to pay the entire cost of conducting by-elections if they leave a seat after winning it,’ he says.
But will that solve the problem considering the fact that candidates have a lot of money to spare. ‘People contest from multiple seats to increase their or their party’s influence in the region. Money is not a problem in these strategic games. Candidates will pay to secure their seats and increase influence,’ says Mohan.
Supreme Court advocate M R Shamshad has some radical ideas to dissuade people from entering such contests. He says that the solution lies with the Election Commission itself and not with anyone else. ‘Amendment to Representation of People Act is a constitutional matter. Only a constitutional bench, consisting of five judges, can decide on the issue. The matter is in any case pending in the Supreme Court. Since the Supreme Court has only 30 judges and a huge number of pending cases it is very difficult for the five judge bench to convene. Other matters that require the hearing of a constitutional bench have been pending since long. We don’t know when the bench will give its ruling on this matter. Parliament can’t be expected to take much interest in the matter because it has a stake in the current arrangement. However, the Election Commission which is tasked with the job of regulating parties can step in,’ Shamshad says.
‘The Election Commission should declare that the party which leaves a seat will not be allowed to participate in the by-election since it has withdrawn a candidate from the seat under question or it can also say that if a candidate leaves a seat, the candidate with the second highest number of votes from that constituency should be declared the winner which saves public money and also gives a constituency its representatives,’ he says.
Shamshad says the Election Commission must do it right away and then let politicians reach courts for a legal recourse. ‘Like in cases related to criminal law either you get life imprisonment or you are set free there is no middle way. Similarly, the provision here should be such that either you keep the seat you have won from or give it up completely. The political class has no problem paying for a by-election and that money will be indirectly taken from the public anyways,’ he says.