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Simultaneous polls in India: Boon or bane?

By Y V Reddy
May 08, 2018 12:48 IST
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In the first of a two-part series, Y V Reddy argues that while the merits of the proposal to hold simultaneous elections to Parliament and all state assemblies appear self-evident, the reality might be very different.

IMAGE: The proposal to conduct simultaneous polls enjoys the support of many informed and respectable citizens. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Simultaneous elections to Parliament and all state assemblies have been mooted by the Union government. The President and prime minister lent support to it. It is supported by the 79th report (December 2015) of the Parliament of India (Rajya Sabha) titled 'Feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and state legislative assemblies'. 

The analytics behind the proposal are described in detail in a 2017 NITI Aayog discussion paper, 'Analysis of simultaneous elections: The “what”, “why” and “how”.' More recently, the Law Commission seems to have put out a draft paper endorsing the proposal for simultaneous polls in which it is reported to have said that the Constitution needs to be amended to enable simultaneous polls. 

The proposal enjoys the support of many informed and respectable citizenry, since merits of the proposal appear self-evident. I felt the reality may be very different from the apparent and hence, this unusual opinion piece. 

The justification for replacing the existing electoral cycle is said to be its infirmities, namely, (a) imposition of model code of conduct by the Election Commission resulting in policy paralysis; (b) massive expenditure on elections by government and other stakeholders; and that (c) frequent elections disrupt normal public life; warrant engagement of security forces for significantly prolonged periods; perpetuate caste, religion and communal issues across the country; and adversely impact the focus of governance and policy making. 

First, it is undeniable that the model code of conduct is, on occasion, making timely policy actions difficult, and in any case, contentious. But to amend the Constitution changing electoral cycle in a federal set-up to reduce the downside of a code of conduct appears odd. 

One could instead ask: How effective has been the model code of conduct in achieving the objective of ruling party influencing election outcomes? Is it possible to help the voters become conscious of such practices, rather than have a “shut period” for unfettered governance by elected governments? 

In a way, the present system of code of conduct is demanding energies of the Election Commission to give a ruling, based on limited information on policy decisions or expenditure decisions. Perhaps the Election Commission could comment on the propriety of proposed decisions to enlighten the voters rather than prohibit decisions that are likely to influence the outcomes.

In fact, it could outsource this function of commenting on violation of code of conduct to a group of eminent persons and putting it in the public domain. This would give relief to the Election Commission to eliminate restraints on legitimate functioning of the government, and empower people with full information. 

If people could distinguish between national party manifesto and state party manifesto in simultaneous polls, as claimed by the discussion paper, they should be able to decide whether specific decisions are meant to influence the outcomes. 

In brief, a revision of the model code of conduct system to reduce its adverse impact would render contentious recourse to simultaneous elections somewhat superfluous.

Second, it is undeniable that expenditures are incurred in connection with elections. There are limits to what candidates can spend. Obviously, the reference here is to “massive” expenditures incurred by governments, Union and states, on account of elections. 

As a percentage of the total budget in the year in which elections were held, the expenditures of the Union government since 1967 till 2014 ranged from a low 0.11 per cent in 2009 to a high 0.32 per cent in 1991-92 and 1999-2000. The elections are not annual but periodical, and hence on an annualised basis the expenditures are insignificant. Consequently, savings through simultaneous elections will be minuscule. 

Of course, the states bear the bulk of the expenditure. The framework for allocation of expenditure is: (a) for Lok Sabha elections, the Union bears all the expenses, and for state elections, the state concerned bears all the expenses. If they are concurrent, expenses are shared 50:50 basis. All expenditures towards law and order, be it Lok Sabha or state, the states share the cost. In a way, the states rather than the Union should be more concerned with the cost in the conduct of simultaneous polls, vis-a-vis the current system. There is no evidence that states are at the forefront in pleading for simultaneous polls. 

Third, the argument that frequent elections are a diversion from the focus of governance is strange because elections are to be held to ensure legitimacy of governance. Indeed, simultaneous polls will call for amending the Constitution to make possible a reduction/extension of the tenures of Parliament/state assemblies where required, thereby undermining this legitimacy. These amendments will place greater powers in the hands of the President/governors for them to carry out administrative functions when the tenures of Parliament/state assemblies are extended. This may violate the parliamentary system of governance which is a central pillar of our democracy. 

The engagement of security forces for a prolonged period is principally a reflection of several factors and not unique to the electoral system. Is the problem simultaneous elections or law and order? It will be interesting to compare the expenditure on security forces deployed for the personal security of legislators and parliamentarians in 1950, 1970 and now. 

Any election is a diversion from normal activity. So, where, how and when does one draw the line between necessary and not necessary diversion? Is this diversion new or proving to be not worthwhile now? It is not clear how caste and communal issues are brought out in election times only. How many communal riots have coincided with elections? 

The most critical factor to be considered is, whether simultaneous elections impact the voter behaviour in a way that influences electoral outcomes at the Union and at the state levels? Data indicate that the turnout for parliamentary elections is generally higher when simultaneous elections are held. It is hard to imagine that the relative positions of the contesting parties will remain unaffected when turnout is more in one system. 

The available evidence is indicative of possible advantage for national parties over regional parties in simultaneous polls. If that be the case, the federal democratic structure of the Indian polity could be harmed.

However, such concerns are somewhat summarily dismissed in paragraph 4.16 of the discussion paper, saying that these concerns “would be over-simplifying the complexity of voting behaviours and undermining the maturing of Indian electorate as well”. 

Y V Reddy is a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

To be concluded 

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