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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Apr 20, 2018, 12:02 AM; last updated: Apr 20, 2018, 12:02 AM (IST)

Are simultaneous polls good for governance?

N Bhaskara Rao
The ‘one election’ idea undermines regional parties, local leaders and regional agenda. It promotes prospects of one leader, one party. It has implications to the spirit of federalism.
Are simultaneous polls good for governance?
Poll reforms: India’s diversity a vital point. Tribune file photo by Sayeed Ahmed
N Bhaskara Rao
Chairman, Centre for Media Studies

ON the face of it, the idea of simultaneous elections is appealing. Particularly, because codes of the Election Commission curtail the powers of the incumbent government. This, in turn, means that under the present system, the government gets restrained from some executive powers, which may result in deferring the implementation of some ongoing schemes.

The argument against simultaneous elections is that it amounts to adopting the presidential form without declaring so and that it facilitates one-person domination without the country opting for such a system formally. This also means diluting the federal system in favour of centralisation. This reflects homogenising the country instead of bringing equity, sustaining plurality and promoting local and regional leadership.  

India is a country of many states under a federal structure.  How could there be 'one election', unless there is 'one leader' as well, for the country? "One nation, one election, (and one leader)" is not good either for the democracy or for the inclusive development of the nation.  It is also not good for the federal system or for assuring free and fair election.

The idea of simultaneous elections should not deprive the states of having a popularly elected government on their own. Or, deprive a majority government to wind up if and when the ruling party in New Delhi loses majority and goes for a midterm poll. That should not mean that states dissolve the assembly and go for elections irrespective of its five-year tenure. Then there is the question of imposing President's rule on a new ground.  Simultaneous election should not offer yet another opportunity to the federal government to impose President's rule in states.

The core of the argument for simultaneous elections is that a considerable expenditure is involved in conducting elections. In addition, the development process gets impeded because of model code of the Election Commission of India. 

More specifically, the reasons given for simultaneous polls are that frequent polls hurt the economy and slow the development. Yes, elections do cost but it has to be weighed against the democratic system that the country adopted. The ECI deserves praise for its superb job of conducting polls at least cost to the government. 

What should bother the country is what the candidates and the parties spend and, even more, the kind of inducements they offer to the electorate every time and in a competitive way.  This is what should worry the nation more. What is spent on the polls in all is much less than what the union and state governments spend on publicity and advertising. 

Regarding development. Going by the poll code, certain limits are imposed on the incumbent government. But the cause to worry is the way leaders accuse each other and tend to vitiate the governance process. The model code by itself does not impede development. It could be modified if the parties come to an understanding and also abide by it so that the essential and ongoing public services are not affected. It is the incumbent that has to demonstrate, and not succumb to vote-getting compulsions. 

Since the 1950s, popularly elected states governments have been removed 108 times to impose President's rule.  Only a few times, was it due to fact that the House could not elect a leader in the normal course.  Most of the times, President's rule was imposed at the discretion of the leaders of the federal government. Transparency in the process was missing and suo motu announcements had become a practice.  

Instead of curbing such a practice, the idea of simultaneous elections amounts to denting the democratic roots and going against political plurality and desirability for tackling social diversities.    

Instead, the need of the time is to find alternative ways of conducting elections at all levels with least cost and in a free and fair way and a relook into poll time codes.  Second, find ways of curbing misuse of government machinery by the incumbent party to its poll advantage.  The question of whether there be one agenda and one leader driving the poll process, which would mean local concerns, issues and interests becoming secondary, also needs to be debated.

The distinction between elections at different levels gets blurred when voters are required to vote simultaneously.   These questions need to be looked into from both feasibilities under the Constitution and desirability as well as to democracy and development. From both these criteria, simultaneous elections could be reasonably pursued if and when, the country moves to the presidential system. 

Prime Minister Modi is a situation today to pursue issues of political reforms, which he has referred to in his speeches. The debate for simultaneous elections should not push the more important and long-pending poll reforms under the carpet. There are many issues that need to be dealt. 

The first is to debate proportional representation of polls in place of first-post-the past system that the country has. 

2 The second point to debate is the bringing of political parties under a regulatory frame and into the transparency regime by bringing them under the RTI. 

3 Third, the PM and chief ministers should be elected in the way the speakers of Parliament and assemblies are. 

4 Fourth, the whip system on the floor of legislatures should be limited to exceptional situations.  

5 Fifth, curb poll expenditure at all levels such as by the government, political parties, candidates and come up with compliance mechanisms as to ceiling on expenditure, including by curtailing the duration of the poll process. Several parliamentary committees have gone into these aspects over the decades. Simultaneous elections in India, 'one nation, one election' notion is an antithesis to good governance, on the ground. 

The "one election" idea undermines regional parties, local leaders and regional agenda. It promotes prospects of one leader, one party.  It has implications to the spirit of federalism. Certain persuasive instruments available today for consensus-manufacturing countrywide were not there during 1952-67 when the journey started started with simultaneous polls. Instead, India would be better off if it first pursued political reforms. The simultaneous election idea is easy to get adopted but it has implications. The basic poll reforms, on the other hand, are difficult to push through but have durable positive implications to parliamentary democracy and federal system in India.

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