Like it is in the US, it is election time in India round the year. Elections are being held at some level or the other in some part of the country or the other. We just had Assembly elections in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, etc. Now we are getting ready for Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.
In addition to Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections, Indian voters are called upon to vote in elections to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI). While a super power like the US can afford it, can a developing country like India afford such round-the-year elections?
This is the issue that was raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi some time ago, which needs serious consideration. He said that there is a powerful case for holding the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and PRI elections on the same day. This would ensure tremendous savings in terms of money and effort. During elections, each party and each candidate has to spend astronomical sums for canvassing. According to one estimate, nearly Rs. eight crores are spent per Lok Sabha constituency in our country. Multiply this amount by 545 seats that we elect, and one gets an idea of the amount involved. Then there are VidhanSabha elections and PRI elections which are only slightly less expensive. This is the amount spent by the party and the candidates. Let us add the cost incurred by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to hold these elections. Due to 73rd and 74th amendment 1993, now each state has its own State Election Commission to hold elections to the PRI bodies. If we add all the relevant figures, the cost is indeed sky-high! In a way, there is nothing new in this suggestion. In fact till 1967, the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections were indeed held on the same day. Only when former PM Indira Gandhi dissolved the Lok Sabha in 1970, the first mid-term poll had to be held in March 1971. Since then, there has been a disconnect between the time-table of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections, adding to the cost of holding them separately. And hence, there is some merit in Modi’s suggestion that they should be held on the same day. Let us understand the pros and cons of the issue.
It is admitted that democracy comes at a price. But it should not be prohibitive, which it is today. This is why one has to reconsider the present system and look for less expensive alternatives. On one hand, we have been improving our electoral system with every general election. Now we have Voters’ ID cards, EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines) for faster vote counting, powerful laws against booth capturing, etc. However, one must also note that there is a Model Code of Conduct which is enforced by the ECI, a good three months before voting takes place. This means, the government of the day cannot take any important, policy-oriented decision. This cripples the government, as it cannot take any important decision.
Also India being a federal polity, the election results in one state affects the mentality of the people in the other state. This is why the Union government shies away from taking any hard decisions like increasing the prices of petrol or kerosene. Though such decisions would be economically sound, they may prove politically suicidal. Even prices of ordinary items like onions can make or mar a party’s fortune at the hustings. All parties have learnt these lessons the hard way and keep postponing important decisions for the fear of losing votes. But if elections for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha were to be held on the same day, such issues will not come to bedevil the Union government.
Some, however, are not convinced about these reasons. Former Chief Election Commissioner Mr. S.Y.Quraishi wrote an article in a national daily and argued strongly against this proposal. He wrote that while simultaneous elections to Panchayat, Assembly and Lok Sabha may be desirable, they are not feasible. While admitting that normal work comes to a standstill, he argued that the cost can be brought under control by ensuring that the legal cap on expenditure of candidates is followed by all parties. He further wrote that the normal election routine also keeps the politicians on their toes and enhances accountability, and more important, local and national issues don’t get mixed up to distort priorities.
While there is lot of merit in these arguments, one must also keep in mind the fact that no political party or candidate would abide by the cap on election expenses. This is the real worry, and one way to control flow of black money in our economy is to hold these elections together.
In fact, our ECI recommended this as early as 1983. It reiterated its recommendation once again last year. Not only this, even the Law Commission of India headed by the renowned Justice B.P.Jeevan Reddy, in its 170th Report on ‘Reform of Electoral Laws’ clearly articulated the need for simultaneous elections, given the cost of continuous election cycle. Again, this is not a new idea. In the 1960s, the renowned socialist economist Dr. Ashok Mehta argued that in a poor country like India we should not waste enormous money on holding elections. Let us work out a national agenda to be implemented by an all-party government. He called this suggestion as ‘compulsions of backward economy’. In a backward economy, holding general elections is a luxury which we can ill-afford.
In countries like South Africa, elections to national and provincial legislatures are held together every five years. In Sweden, elections to the national assembly, provincial assemblies and local bodies are held with a fixed time-table, which is second Sunday of September every four years. Even the mother of democracy like UK, has come out with Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011, for holding elections to Parliament on a pre-determined date to lend stability. Of course, this is easier said than done. It is no joke to hold elections for 545 Lok Sabha seats and assemblies of 29 states on the same date. But on the other hand, the cost of holding staggered elections is too high to let it prevail. The electoral tradition of 21stcentury India needs some drastic reforms, and this should be one of them. Since many bodies have favoured this change, we should move fast towards putting this into practice. In fact, we should aim towards holding the 17th Lok Sabha elections to be held in 2019, with as many Assembly elections as possible. A national debate should be initiated with this purpose in mind.