Electoral reforms by politicians is a classic example of a fox guarding the henhouse

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On February 28, 2018, Chief Ministers and Deputy Chief Ministers from 19 states had met in the New Delhi BJP headquarters to discuss the possibility of simultaneous polls. One view that emerged during the discussion was that till India reaches a stage where there is a possibility of conducting simultaneous elections right from the panchayat to general elections, the government to contemplate the possibility of holding the state polls along with  the 2019 general elections.

Ostensibly, the rationale of holding simultaneous polls is to address the issues of massive expenditure that the government incurs when conducting elections; paralysis of governance due to the implementation of the Model Code of Conduct, and the disruptions that elections cause to public life. In a democracy, the will of the people is paramount and it forms the basis of authority. This will is expressed by exercising the right to vote in elections. Many opposition parties, including the Congress, Left parties and many regional players feel the cycle of elections indicate the level of public satisfaction and attitude towards the current government(s). Homogenization of elections is packaged as a “One Nation, One Poll” policy, therefore, is somewhat anti-democracy, they argue.

On the other hand, a discussion paper- “Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The “WHAT”, “WHY” AND “HOW” by NITI AAYOG, justifies the amendment of the constitution to execute this policy. However, a debate about the drawbacks of why and how this policy could be problematic in the Indian context is the need of the hour as even the Chief Election Commissioner , Sunil Arora, insisted that this policy is a desirable goal in an interview with a leading news channel.

Advocates of simultaneous polls argue that the practice of simultaneous elections started in the general elections of 1950-51 and continued for three subsequent general elections (1957, 1962 and 1967). The March 1967 general elections were a blow for both the ruling Congress and its supreme leader Indira Gandhi. While the Congress managed to keep power at the Centre, it lost powers in nine states.

According to V Krishna Ananth, a political commentator, 1967 elections witnessed the unfolding of the fractures in the nation’s social and political edifice. With the 1967 elections emerged the fragmented socio-political reality of India as a nation which had been stitched together in 1947. 1967 experiments in alliances, coalitions and vote appeal on the lines of caste, region etc. made far-reaching impact and continues to influence politics even today.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances , Law and Justice in its 79th report on “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State legislative assemblies” mentions the precedent of simultaneous elections in countries like South Africa and in Sweden, where elections are held on a fixed date (similar to the USA). Interestingly, the practice of simultaneous elections in these countries is complimented by the electoral system of proportional representation.

Therefore, to implement Simultaneous polls, government should adopt the practice of proportional representation. Is this feasible? The main criticism of first-past-the-post system is that individuals can be elected and parties can achieve a governing majority of parliamentary seats even though they have not received a majority of the votes. Therefore, the dissent voiced by the minority (that may be significantly a large group) would be silenced. First-past-the-post works to the advantage of political parties whose support is concentrated in certain areas but may be weaker in other parts of the country. Such a party may win more seats than a party whose nationwide support is spread more uniformly — so the number of seats that an election allocates to each party is not commensurate with the overall level of support the party has on a nationwide basis. Secondly, PR system involves complex calculations. To implement this scheme we must restrict the number of candidates and the number of parties, thereby offering limited options for the voters. Therefore, the PR system is desirable but it is not feasible in the Indian context.

Are the arguments fair?

Simultaneous elections are desirable, as quite often-Indian polity is in election mode, which leads to huge expenditures. On the contrary, concurrent elections if held would result in sharing the expenditure between the centre and the state.

Is the reason of massive expenditure a fallacy? Let’s do a fact check. Election Commission incurs a total cost of roughly around 8000 cr in the span of 5 years, out of which 4000 cr is spent on general elections (Lok Sabha) and around 800 million people participate in this exercise. Therefore, 0.03% of the total expenditure is not a huge price we are paying to celebrate democracy.

It is not the government expenditure that the advocates of this policy intend to address. Instead, their line of argument is that simultaneous polls would help in bringing down the election expenditure of the political parties/candidates. Political parties cannot fight elections without large funds as elections in recent times are all about visibility. India’s privately funded election campaign is a contrast to the trend in most countries, which have partial or full public funding or transparent regulation and financial accountability of political finance. State funding of elections is a potential solution to this problem. The Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections had endorsed partial state funding of recognised political parties and their candidates. But the lack of political will has prevented a serious discussion on this issue. Therefore, to adopt simultaneous polls the government must make laws to cap the expenses of the political parties or consider state funding of elections to ensure a level playing field and it would increase accountability.

The argument that the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) prevents the government from carrying out welfare schemes is questionable. Firstly, the absence of strong state leaders has forced the national parties to depend on the Prime Minister and the national leadership to campaign for the state elections. This essentially drains the Prime Minister’s time and distracts him from governance. Secondly, the trend where government brings out populist schemes just prior to elections to persuade a specific section, particularly the swing votes. There are instances wherein the ECI has allowed the centre to implement its schemes without much hassle (subject to restricting the publicity of such schemes). For example, the release of the second installment of funds under MGNREGA was allowed by ECI for poll-bound states of Himachal and Gujarat, with a rider that it should not be publicised. Therefore blaming the MCC for hindering governance is inappropriate. The onus is on the government to empower the ECI prior to making amendments to the Indian Constitution to boost Indian polity. If India wants to embark on the path of “cooperative federalism”, then more welfare projects should be taken up by the state and not by the center. But the current standoff between the centre and states regarding the implementation of the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM JAY) projects a different picture.

Electoral reforms in the hands of the politicians is a classic example of a fox guarding the hen house. These issues are employed as deviationary tactics to avoid debating issues that have caused crises (like demonetisation and poor implementation of GST). The gullible Indian electorate might not be able to distinguish the state and national narratives as they are not well informed. By conducting simultaneous polls, the issues of the state might take a backseat.

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