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The people's cacophony

September 01, 2003

With about four-fifths of the term of this Lok Sabha having passed, political parties are looking ahead to the next general election. The race to the Delhi Durbar is always a hard-fought one; in our highly centralised form of government those who capture the high throne wield enormous amounts of power. New Delhi controls the significant portion of revenues and holds great discretion over their use. A little generosity here, a little withholding of funds there, can make a big difference. Mr Naidu should agree; his budget would be Swiss cheese without the federal underwriting. But even without this unbalanced power that is up for grabs, the coming general election is particularly significant.

The ruling party at the Centre is nearly absent from the Treasury benches of the state legislatures. For the BJP, nearly everything is riding on retaining power in New Delhi. During the last three years, many of the party's garrisons around the country have been overthrown, and Vajpayee and Co appear to be down to a last stand at the Red Fort. That could change if a few capitals -- Bhopal, Jaipur? -- went the other way this autumn, but who can tell how big an 'if' that will prove.

In this scenario, any talk of rewriting the rules of government is bound to raise eyebrows. Should a party whose losses during the term of this Lok Sabha have far outnumbered gains really be advocating changes in the nature of government itself? Wouldn't that task be better left to a re-elected or new government next year?

Apparently not, judging from the noises being made about synchronising elections to the federal and state capitals. On these pages Mr Shenoy is insider-in-supreme with the ruling party, and right on cue comes his opinion endorsing synchronised polls. But while his advocacy of the demand may be expected, his arguments are surprising. There are three main threads to his argument.

  • Intelligent voters: Voters should have separate opportunities to consider their choices for the two kinds of elections. Holding the two elections separately obviously brings this about. But Mr Shenoy says, with examples to support his view, that voters are smart enough to make a distinction between state elections and general elections. Therefore, even if polls to national and state legislatures were held together, citizens would make a distinction between the two slates, and not blindly transform their preferences at one level to the other. 

Synchronised elections won't synchronise voter preferences, because the people are smart. The voters are as savvy as they are, but that is hardly the point; references to voters' intelligence are a distraction from the real question. The question for us -- opponents and advocates alike -- is whether citizens ought to have separate opportunities to select their representatives to the two houses -- one at the state level and the other in New Delhi.

Synchronised elections can provide such separateness, as Mr Shenoy's examples show. But non-synchronised ones certainly will, by the simple fact of being held at different times. Therefore, if we concede that separate considerations are good, then holding the two elections at different times is the better method. 

  • Sonia Gandhi playing politics: I'm no fan of the lady or her politics, but Mr Shenoy's implication is only half right. The Congress, he says, is opposed to synchronised elections because 'Sonia Gandhi has more to lose because more of her governments will need to be dismissed abruptly if assembly terms are to be synchronised with the next general election.' Further, he wonders if this is the reason why the Election Commissioner too is reluctant to take this step.

Clever, but easily caught. It is true that if all state governments resigned, the elections could be synchronised. But that is not the only way to synchronise the elections.

For example, we could set the general election to be synchronised five years from now, and put everyone on notice than any state elections held between now and then would only be valid until the date of synchronisation. That way, none of the state governments in power now would need to resign at all, and future ones would arrive prepared for their limited mandates.

This seems much fairer to the people; the state governments were mostly elected after Mr Vajpayee took office, and it seems more people-friendly to recognise such newer verdicts than to force them to resign en masse to accommodate the Union's preference.

Politics being what it is, I wouldn't put it past Sonia Gandhi -- or anyone else -- to take stances that serve party interests above the nation's interests, but by that yardstick there is just as much reason to doubt the other side. Even as he accuses the Congress of calculated political opposition, it turns out that the method of synchronisation Mr Shenoy refers to may be the more political move, requiring recently elected state governments everywhere -- many of which unseated the BJP -- to step down!

  • Questions of constitutionality: Chief Election Commissioner James Lyngdoh, fresh from his Magsaysay award for government service, wondered whether this proposal would be constitutional. Here is Mr Shenoy's retort -- 'the first general election was held in tandem with the first Vidhan Sabha polls; surely our beloved Chief Election Commissioner is not claiming that all those early elections were anything less than "constitutional."'

Once again, the question puts the defence against the wall, for there is no real argument here. By this reasoning, one can also point to other elections -- including the one that brought the BJP to power -- which were not synchronous, and argue that any new requirement to hold elections together would make those seem tainted.

The Constitutional question does not arise from timing alone; synchronous elections and separate ones could both meet the Constitution's standard. Therefore, rather than challenge the past selectively, we must focus our debates elsewhere, making a distinction between a. holding the elections simultaneously, and b. being required to hold the elections together.

On this question of the CEC, it must be said that political barbs -- even 'beloved' ones -- directed against a constitutional office-holder are unfortunate. The allegation is made repeatedly that Mr Lyngdoh is pro-Congress, and therefore his assertions cannot be taken at face value. References to his Christian identity add fuel to this fire.

But Mr Lyngdoh's constitutional knowledge has won more points that the politicians interpretations. His take on the constitutionality -- or otherwise -- of recent proposals has stood up in court quite well. Whereas the big change the politicians all agreed upon last year -- the dubious Representation of People Act -- received a big zero from the Supreme Court.

Constitutionality is an important thing, and not to be slighted. I'm not certain the Constitution would permit state governments to ensure timing preferences. Still, if politics it must be, try this one. Since the BJP believes synchronisation is a good thing, and that state governments should resign [or be dismissed] to permit this, whereas the Congress doesn't appear to endorse anything of that sort, the matter could be put to a little test.

Come next year, BJP chief ministers -- and anyone else who wants synchronisation -- could resign their offices and offer the people a clean slate. That way, we'll get synchronised elections in a few states while other states continue with the current arrangement, and we'll have a fair chance at determining the usefulness of such coherence! :-)

Jokes aside, the public discourse on this move isn't as nuanced as it ought to be. The popular-sounding sound-bites -- 'elections cost a lot, therefore they should be held together to keep costs down;' 'the ruling party is constantly in election mode, and not able to govern;' etc -- are too simplistic.

One can find thousands of examples of wasteful expenditure and misguided priorities in each Budget. And it is expected in a democracy that politicians should be constantly accountable to the people, not just at five-year intervals. In themselves, these arguments offer little reason for substantive change; in all likelihood they're just as political as everything else. Of course elections cost money. And of course the ruling party finds a sword over its head by having to seek the people's endorsement at regular intervals. But democracy isn't free, and it certainly isn't hands-off.

The meaningful question is not whether we should cut off spending the few hundred millions it costs to hold separate elections now, but whether the runaway actions of a government that found itself free to run amok for five years would be more costly to India. Being able to reign in politicians and steer them to a new course is the people's prerogative.

Politicians who complain about 'not being able to govern' are in fact admitting that if they were free to do so, they would make choices that the people would not approve!! The people's right to accountable government includes the right to decide what processes are best suited to providing such accountability. Flexibility in timing -- ie not being constrained to hold these elections at particular moments -- provides a broader range of choices.

Moreover, the risk of some future government that gets elected on one platform and goes on to misgovern in an entirely different mode -- can anyone say 'George Bush, the compassionate moderate!' is simply too high. The people reign through the ballot; its efficiency is a valid consideration but its vitality is a more compelling one.


Postscript: There's an interesting parallel -- albeit a loose one -- in world affairs to this debate. The World Bank, the IMF and the WTO are arguing quite forcefully that their policies should be made 'coherent.' Their claim is that such harmonisation would make global development efforts stronger, but the other 95% of the planet is convinced this is a Trojan horse -- and a case of 'Pirate minds think alike.' In the name of harmony and synchronised policies, the developing countries will be fed more of the same poison they have come to expect from these institutions.

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