It’s an idea that calls for more debate

Columnist  | S Y Quraishi

Due to a lack of cap on total expenditure, political parties spend enormous amounts of money on elections.

It is true political leaders get busy in election campaigning and the district administration offices get active in conduct of elections. (Representational image)

The nation needs to have a better idea about the ground realities given that we could not hold elections to Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat Assemblies together.

Simultaneous elections for the three-tiers of governance in India was a prominent feature of BJP’s 2014 manifesto. True to promise, the Prime Minister has flagged the issue for the last two years. The matter was referred to a standing committee of Parliament which examined the issue and submitted its report on December 17, 2015. It was also referred to the Election Commission of India which favoured the idea in principle, provided there is political consensus.

The Law Commission is currently examining the issue and has heard the divergent views of most political parties.

The two main arguments are that the frequent elections cost an exorbitant amount of money and bring to a standstill the normal functioning of government and the life of citizens.

The first issue is the cost of conducting elections. Due to a lack of cap on total expenditure, political parties spend enormous amounts of money on elections. One estimate put this expenditure in 2014 at Rs 30,000 crore. This is in addition to the cost of conducting elections in the country - nearly Rs 4,500 crore.

The second reason cited is the disruption of normal functioning of the government and citizen's life. It is true political leaders get busy in election campaigning and the district administration offices get active in conduct of elections.

Additionally, there are two good arguments against frequent elections. As electoral corruption is at the root of all corruption, frequent elections mean we are perpetually in corruption mode. Second and more importantly, there is no respite from communalism and casteism, the two evils that polarise society. Lastly, the voter is the same, polling booths are the same, election machinery is the same and the security apparatus is the same. So why should the voter be bothered again and again?

While for the reasons mentioned above, simultaneous elections seem to be the desired option, the truth is that they are not legally and constitutionally feasible. The Constitution- makers had indeed envisaged synchronised elections at the national and state level. It did not take too long to know that it was a miscalculation. The first de-linking took place in 1959, when President's rule was imposed in Kerala, forcing early Assembly elections. In 1971, elections were formally delinked precipitating general elections. The practice has gone from bad to worse forcing the SC to intervene repeatedly.

Every state and every Assembly follows its own trajectory. This makes it extremely difficult to sustain synchronised elections in the long run. How are simultaneous elections to be continued in case of premature dissolution of Lok Sabha (like was the case in 1998 when the Assembly was dissolved in 13 days)? Do we also dissolve all state Assemblies? And what happens when one of the state Assemblies is dissolved? Does the entire country go to polls again? The idea sounds problematic and against the ethos of democracy as it undermines the people’s choice.

Many point out that frequent elections are not without their own set of advantages. They lead to creation of work opportunities for millions recycling the huge money of politicians. They also ensure the accountability of politicians as they have to show their faces to people frequently. And then local and national issues do not get mixed up.

NITI Aayog has proposed conducting two sets of elections in 5 years: hold the first set of 14 States along with Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2019 and the remaining in October-November 2021.

This, however, seems to be a radical dilution of the original proposal to conduct elections at the national, state and panchayat level at the same time. With panchayat elections already out of discussion (with its 30 lakh elected members!) and the bifurcation of the remaining two tiers of legislature (with 4,120 MLAs and 543 MPs), what is left is a very watered down version of the original proposal. And then, when we could not hold simultaneous elections to just two states — Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat —  recently, and 16 bypolls with one state —  Karnataka —  in May 2018, prolonging the model code, what moral strength is left in the proposal?

I strongly feel we should look alternative routes. A cap can be put on the expenditure by political parties which will drastically bring it down. There is an urgent need to set up a transparent system of political finance. Private fund collection may be banned and replaced with state funding of political parties (not elections) based on the number of votes they get. And to reduce the dislocation of public offices, we can consider steps to reduce the duration of elections from 2-3 months to 33 days which is possible within the ambit of existing law. It will only require additional Central police forces.

Many times several state assembly elections are held twice in a year when their terms are ending within six months. If it is extended to one year, we could move towards a 'One Year One Poll' system.

Simultaneous elections are a far reaching electoral reform. To make it happen, there needs to be a political consensus. It’s good that PM has only asked for a national debate instead of forcing it down. Let’s hope a consensus could emerge.