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Opinion: Simultaneous Elections – Mother of all Democratic Reforms

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One thing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is dead against is the Chalta Hai attitude that has become the mainspring of Status-Quo-ist approach. This approach is age-old and omnipresent. Hardly surprising then that the idea of simultaneous elections has once again become a major point of debates and discussions.

Understandably, there is quite a buzz about the Ramnath Kovind-led committee tasked with submitting its report on Simultaneous Elections. (Perhaps ‘simultaneous elections’ is a more appropriate way of describing the One Nation-One Election idea). As expected, most opposition parties are attributing motives and spreading canards. Yet they can’t deny the very merit behind holding elections for Lok Sabha and state assemblies simultaneously.

Countries like Sweden, South Africa, Belgium, France and Italy, among others, are popular examples to illustrate the benefits of simultaneous elections to municipalities, state assemblies and parliament. This key democratic reform has enabled these countries to reduce their election spend considerably, consolidate the feeling of national identity and integrity, and above all, stabilise the state machinery and governance with minimal disruption of public life.

In India, we had already implemented simultaneous elections between 1952-1967, almost uninterrupted. This was discontinued after 1967 as the Fifth Lok Sabha Elections were held (in 1971) before schedule (1972). So, there is nothing unprecedented or impractical about this proposition.

After coming to power in 2014, PM Modi had advocated the need for this key reform. Former President Pranab Mukherjee also had supported this idea. On December 17 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted its report titled ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’. The committee noted that the simulations elections would enable the government to reduce:

(A) The massive election expenditure

(B) The burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time

(C) The policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; and
(D) The impact on essential services.

Against this backdrop, to start with, it is educative to have a look at the present situation. In 2019, the Lok Sabha elections were held over several phases in the months of April and May. The same year, state assembly elections were conducted for eight states – Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Sikkim. In 2020, the Delhi and Bihar selections were held. In 2021, five states, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Assam, voted. In 2022, seven state assemblies were elected – Punjab, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Manipur, followed by Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Later in 2023, Karnataka voted. This is barring the other countless elections and by-elections to local bodies, both urban and rural.

First, let’s talk about the massive election expenditure. Today, the Election Commission spends not less than Rs. 10,000 crore on just one round of parliamentary and assembly elections, while the estimated cost of simultaneous elections is about Rs. 4,500 crore. One certainly cannot ignore the fact that simultaneous elections would help save our national resources to the tune of Rs.5,500 crore. Considering that this amount equals half the annual budget of some of the smaller northeastern states, this saving is not insignificant.

A NITI Aayog paper says with the passage of time, conducting elections too is becoming expensive. Also, the cost of elections and the client-patron relation between political parties and the electorate also pushes up the expenditure, which more often than not goes unrecorded, A case in point is the distribution of goods, liquor, and money. It has been argued that such incentives and bribes are the main source of black money in India.

The second crucial point is about saving on Human Resources. In any general election, the nation sees over 10 million personnel involved as polling officials across 9,30,000 polling stations across the country, which necessities deployment of over 1,349 companies (each company has 100 soldiers) of CAPF (Central Armed Police Force).

The third important point is about the policy paralysis caused by the model code of conduct. In 2017 the NITI Aayog had brought out a discussion paper developed by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. The discussion paper has argued comprehensively for simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies in India. Its major argument hinges upon the issue of governance and the virtual stalemate of day-to-day administration in some part of the country by virtue of the poll code. There are plenty of examples of how the spirit behind the Model Code of Conduct is forgotten as the provision is stretched too far. For example, when elections to the Teachers Constituency of a legislative council are to be held, the code of conduct is applied to the entire revenue division. In a situation like this, ironically, even a small village with no registered voter for Teachers’ Constituency suffers as all development activities are stalled for at least three-four months.

Again, as pointed out by the NITI Aayog paper, in the last 30 years; there has not been a single year without an election to either any of the state assemblies or the Lok Sabha or both. The time consumed by the preps for every election afflicts not only governance but also national development. Not for no reason, senior BJP leader LK Advani had once observed that multiple polls make us a country that is perennially in election mode. Besides, election after election also forces the political class to typically think in terms of electoral gains rather than robust policy implementation. There have been multiple instances in the past where the governments have preferred to postpone much-needed structural reforms as elections were just round the corner.

Many in the opposition, as also media, rush to proclaim that the idea is impracticable. They are advised to read a 2015 report by the standing committee. This committee, headed at that time by EM Sudarsana Natchiappan, a Congress MP, had given a highly studied and structured report. Among other things, the report said: “The Committee noted that the Representation of People Act, 1951 permits the Election Commission to notify general elections six months prior to the end of the terms of Lok Sabha and state assemblies.”

Further the committee recommended that in order to hold early elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, one of two conditions must be met: (i) a motion for an early general election must be supported by at least two-thirds of all members of the House; or (ii) a no confidence motion must be passed by the House, and no alternative government should be confirmed within 14 days of the passing of the no trust motion. This Parliamentary Standing Committee has also advocated elections in two phases, in which half the assemblies could have elections along with the Lok Sabha and the other half at the midterm of the Lok Sabha.

As far as opposition parties are concerned, they need to rise above partisan considerations. Simultaneous elections need not be seen as either a BJP agenda or a Modi government agenda. This Mother of All Democratic Reforms needs to be seen as part of our national agenda. If major political parties honestly think about this, consensus should not be all that difficult.

Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is former MP, Rajya Sabha and columnist, besides being President of Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR)



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