Elections and Governance Paralysis – Need for Simultaneous Elections.
Five states go to polls soon. Almost 20% of India’s eligible voters will have a chance to cast their valuable vote to elect members to the assembly of these five states. Importantly these five states[tps_header][/tps_header] have governments of five different parties and there is a chance that the incumbents in each of these states are bracing themselves for rude electoral shock when the results come in. The party in power at the center, BJP, is riding on an unprecedented popularity and pro-incumbency wave generated because of its leader and country’s Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and is a strong contender for power in all these states. Big-ticket economic reform like DeMonetization that was announced on the 8th of November will see a sort of ‘referendum’ as people queue up to cast their votes. But such important reforms need to be backed up with a series of economic & political decisions. They cannot be held hostage for things like ‘code of conduct’ that Election Commission of India has put into force. That makes me wonder if the poll panel and government initiates a nationwide debate on synchronization of election cycle, with an aim to eliminate election-related governance gaps. It may not be common knowledge that general elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies were held simultaneously initially – in 1951, 1957, 1962 and 1967. The cycle was broken by the disruption of some state assemblies in 1967, advancing of Lok Sabha elections to 1971 by PM Indira Gandhi and the dismissal of six state assemblies in 1978 by the Janata Party. So, I am not advocating something new. Instead what i am advocating is bringing back of the same sane practice that prevailed in our country earlier. The debate over the timing of the election cycles was revived after the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted its report on the ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’ on December 17, 2015. The prime minister Narendra Modi’s statement on September 15 was in favour of the concept and was followed by the discussion on the MyGov web portal soliciting citizens’ views on holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies. Electoral reforms, especially simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies, are the need of the hour. As with any major change in policy and procedure, there are advantages and disadvantages involved in this. The disadvantages in this regard are that the parties will use simultaneous elections as a platform to consolidate political advantage, the logistical and financial obstacles seem insuperable and regional parties may have their concerns regarding the constitutionality of conducting concurrent elections. The advantages, however, outweigh the disadvantages. Going frequently into the election mode consumes both time and resources away from efficient conduct of governance. The management of finances and logistics may be a complex exercise the first time around, but a uniform election cycle will ensure that logistics and finances are streamlined in future years. The constitutionality of holding concurrent elections may require amendments required to existing laws. If consensus is arrived at, this should not be really difficult. Atleast national parties and comfortably placed regional satraps will come on board looking at the mouth-watering prospects. Certain Acts and parts of the constitution will require to be amended to re-establish the practice of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and assemblies. The Representation of People Act, 1951, provides the statutory basis for the Election Commission of India (ECI) to conduct elections and prescribes qualifications for candidates, procedures for conducting elections and resolution of disputes. The Act would have to be amended to build in provisions for stability of tenure for both parliament and assemblies. Another bone of contention for simultaneous no-confidence and confidence motions (the former for the incumbent government and the latter for an alternative government in order to maintain continuity of governance without disruption of administration) will need a lot of consultation and consensus. Coordination between the ECI and state election commissions will be the key in ensuring that financial issues do not remain an issue. A mechanism needs to be worked out for the smooth conduct of elections between state and central election commissions. Again, it is possible as it is more of an administrative impediment that can be overcome. The issue of centre-state relations too needs to be factored in. States generally control when and how local body (municipal and panchayat) elections are held. The states’ contention is that the President’s Rule is used as a tool to disrupt state governments. Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand’s situations from earlier last year have been used as examples to illustrate this. The central and state governments will need to have a joint meeting to discuss such differences of opinion and put concrete solutions that both sides can agree to on the table. However, regulatory or even financial concerns are not as important as the political issues involved. This is because synchronising elections at all levels without curtailing the terms of sitting governments seems to be the main concern. Constitutionally, the extension of terms of sitting assemblies and houses is not possible unless under conditions of emergency. In most reports where the comments and suggestions of political parties have been sought, some parties have mentioned their aversion to the conduct of simultaneous elections quoting the constitutional restriction on extension of terms of assemblies. The behavioral pattern of voters too is an important consideration. IDFC Institute published an analysis of voter behaviour during simultaneously held elections. Their conclusion was that voters do not tend to make distinction when choosing state and national representatives, especially if done at the same time or in quick succession. That is, voters tend to vote for the same party if state and national elections are held concurrently or within six months. The analysis that conducting simultaneous elections potentially influences voter preferences to the same political party, will have a huge impact on electoral outcomes. But such analysis cannot be validated with strong reason or statistics as there is no scientific study to back the probable outcomes. But then many psephologists and economists do say that simultaneous elections will help remove a lot of the inefficiencies that plague our democracy. The law commission recommendation, that elections of assemblies whose term ends six months after the elections to Lok Sabha can be clubbed can be the first step. The election law permits the EC to notify general elections six months prior to the end of the terms of Lok Sabha and assemblies. Elections to all state assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year before or after that date can be clubbed. This will reduce the governance paralysis that is observed during the period the draconian model code of conduct is in force. But then, we in India, have a parliamentary democracy and the much-touted federal set up to contend with. This system worked well when the Congress party dominated the political scenario for the first two decades since Independence. But with the collapse of the Congress’ dominance, a lot of national and regional parties mushroomed in every nook and corner of the country, each having considerable presence in their respective states with varying strength in Parliament. With multi-party parliamentary system like the one that exists here, it is an even more Herculean task to build consensus over this issue. But having said that, the vicious circle of continuous elections still needs to be broken. It affects stability and without it, there can neither be economic development nor a satisfactory law and order situation. Efficient governance is the first casualty as winning elections becomes the first priority of all politicians. Running administration and attending to people’s grievances take a back-seat and if someone is happy, it is the bureaucracy. It helps them justify red-tapism. If all elections are held in one particular year, it will give a clear four years to the political parties to focus on good governance and it will also be a better situation to be in, for the voter, who can then judge the performance of the incumbent and cast his/her vote accordingly.
By – Vedant Kumar
(Vedant Kumar is a part-time writer, part-time journalist and full-time traveller. He has interests in spirituality, history, culture and politics. He tweets from @VedKr)