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Electoral Reforms

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Ex-Chief Election Commissioner, S Y Quraishi weighs in on the debate of simultaneous organising of General and Assembly Elections
TSI | Issue Dated: October 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Prime Minister Narendra Modi | LK Advani | BJP | Delhi High Court | ECI |

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently spoke about the need for simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and the local bodies, namely panchayats and municipalities. He raised this issue in a meeting of his party's national office bearers on March 19, 2016. He gave cogent reasons for this demand – like the increasing cost of campaigning, and the political parties and their workers spending too much time in electioneering.

It is not that the PM "floated" the idea, as most media outlets reported. He actually flagged an issue that had been a part of BJP's manifesto in 2014. Even earlier, the idea had been in the air from time to time. Perhaps the first to raise this idea was the late Vasant  Sathe over two decades ago. Then, in 1999, the Law Commission too recommended it.

The most prominent proponent of the idea was LK Advani. In May 2010, in one of his blog posts, Advani had made a forceful plea for unifying multiple election processes. Leaders of other political parties have also occasionally voiced the suggestion. In the follow up to BJP's manifesto, the government referred it to a Standing Committee of Parliament, which examined the issue and submitted its report on December 17, 2015. The government also referred the matter to the Law Commission and to the Election Commission of India.

The Parliamentary Committee favoured the idea of simultaneous elections and gave the following reasons in support of holding combined elections:

1.  The massive expenditure incurred on holding separate elections would be reduced.

2.  The model code of conduct during the election period leads to a period of policy paralysis. Thus, holding a lesser number of election events (by combining elections), would reduce the regularity of such a scenario.

3.    Delivery of essential services is adversely affected during elections, due to various reasons, including reassignment of officials, infrastructure and machinery for election duty. This reduces in the case of joint elections.

4.    Burden of large manpower that is deployed disrupts normal functioning of offices during elections. Again, holding joint elections would help in reducing this disruption too.

While the desirability of holding simultaneous elections might be undeniable, the problem lies in the feasibility of its implementation. Let's analyse some of the key points forwarded by the Parliamentary Committee in favour of holding joint elections:

1. The factor of cost

The first argument in favour of holding simultaneous elections is the argument of cost reduction, a factor which has escalated in every election. This includes the cost to the government of conducting the election, and campaign expenditures borne by parties and candidates. The approximatecost of conduct elections has been variously estimated to be about Rs 4500 crores. The organisation costs include the production and maintenance of EVMs, printing of rules and regulations for the staff and political parties and candidates, stationary, public education campaigns besides training and deployment of huge staff. There is no precise figure of the total cost of election as a large part of the indirect costs (like salaries, TA/DA, petrol, etc) are borne by the respective government departments.

Campaign expenditure, however, is the more serious issue – perhaps the only unresolved electoral issue in India. One estimate had put the expenditure at
Rs. 30,000 crores during the 2014 elections. Laws and norms of expenditure regulations are cleverly and blatantly flouted with impunity. Candidates in fact spend a large part of their funds before the campaigns even start, outside the scrutiny of the Election Commission.

The absence of a cap on party expenditures compounds the problem. The Rs. 70 lakh ceiling on Lok Sabha candidates' expenditures and Rs. 28 lakhs for Vidhan Sabha candidates look insignificant, compared to the money poured in elections by political parties. This puts independents and the candidates from poorer political parties at a serious disadvantage and vitiates the spirit of free and fair elections.

2. The argument of policy paralysis

The second argument is about the alleged 'policy paralysis' that occurs due to the model code of conduct that kicks in before any election.Typically, elections to Lok Sabha are spread over two and a half months. As soon as the model code of conduct comes into operation, respective governments cannot announce any new schemes, make any new appointments and transfer or appoint officials involved in elections management. To be fair, alluding to this as policy paralysis may be extreme, as only the new schemes and programmes are stopped, to prevent undue advantage to the party in power in attracting the electorate on the eve of elections. All normal, ongoing programmes are totally unhindered. Even new announcements that are in urgent public interest (like announcement of minimum support prices for agriculture produce that must be made in time for the sowing season) can also be made but with prior approval of EC. As mentioned, the Commission has to ensure that the ruling party does not use its incumbency advantage for electoral benefit. In any case, the government has four years and 11 months to announce new policies and programs! Why does it have to wait for the election eve?

3. Disruption of normal services

While it is assumed that essential services staff are reassigned to election duty during each elections, the fact is that the Election Commission takes absolute care not to put any public services staff in departments like electricity, water supply, gas, telecommunications, sanitation etc on election duty.In fact, the experience shows that essential services actually improve close to the elections as no government would like the voters to be unhappy with the services during that period.

4. Burden on government manpower:

It is true that work in many government and district offices is affected significantly during elections. For example, the district administration led by the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and their subordinate officers get their machinery totally focussed on elections at the cost of virtually everything else. During elections, you would be hard pressed to find any government department from which no official has been withdrawn for election duty.As the in-booth polling staff largely consists of teachers, it disrupts educational routine in schools. Teachers and parents have always been restive about being reassigned during the polls.

In a writ petition in 2007, the Delhi High Court ruled that teachers could not be engaged in non-teaching jobs. That would have made the conduct of elections almost impossible as teachers constitute the backbone of the polling staff. EC, therefore, lost no time in approaching the Supreme Court. The Apex Court overturned the HC ruling, agreeing with EC that without teachers, adequate election staffing is not possible. It nevertheless advised the commission to frame guidelines to ensure minimal disruption of school schedules. But that's easier said than done.

It is important to appreciate that elections cannot be conducted without adequate staff. Law mandates the deployment of only government servants. Further, Article 324 of the Constitution requires the President or the Governor of a State to provide the Election Commission with whatever staff they may require. Since 1952, the size of the electorate has quadrupled to nearly 850 million and the number of polling stations to 9.3 lakhs. The staff required to conduct the elections satisfactorily is now almost 11 million. Their deployment on election duty does affect normal working of their departments. That is the inevitable cost of democracy, which must be borne.

Sometimes, it is suggested that private citizens and retired government servants should be used additionally. This unfortunately, is not only against the law but is not acceptable to the Election Commission as it cannot guarantee honest conduct by them or significant control over this genre of staff. Let's also analyse a few additional reasons forwarded by politicians and experts alike in favour of conducting simultaneous elections.

5. Social polarisation and corruption

Besides the four points listed by the Parliamentary Committee and echoed by various political leaders in favour of holding simultaneous elections, a few expert sociologists forward another distinct and significant advantage of the same. And that is that frequently held elections aggravate the already adverse side-effects of elections, namely, increased casteism, communalism and corruption. It's a sad reality that political parties exploit caste and communal differences to the hilt to nurture and woo their vote banks. And the collection of money to fund the elections leads to dependence on money bags like the corporates, real estate, liquor and drugs mafia. Post each election, they demand their pound of flesh – in terms of contracts, licenses, posting of officers, portfolios of ministers et al. But then again, there are a few notable arguments against the holding of simultaneous elections.

The single biggest argument is that the terms of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha mostly do not coincide. But the fact is that such deliberate coinciding was the original intent of the Constitution.Of the 16 Lok Sabhas, 7 were prematurely dissolved (1969, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1996, 1998 and 1999). However, lately the Legislatures have been generally completing their full terms, thanks to the 1985 anti-defection law, and Supreme Court's strong observations against the routine resort to Article 356 to suspend the State Assemblies for political reasons on dubious grounds. In a landmark judgement in the SR Bommai case (1994), the Supreme Court pronounced that without the concurrence of Parliament, the Assembly cannot be dissolved but can be put in suspended animation. It also declared that the Presidential proclamation can be examined by the judiciary.

While the anti-defection law has created some stability, but it has no safeguard against fickle coalition partners. It may be recalled that the 13 day Vajpayee government fell because one coalition partner – AIADMK – withdrew support.

The second argument against holding simultaneous elections is that facing the electorate more than once in five years enhances the accountability of politicians and keeps them on their toes. In other words, a party that may have won a Parliamentary seat from any constituency may lose the subsequently Legislative election for the same constituency, in case of non-performance, instead of being ensconced at both the Parliamentary and Legislative level for five years.

Thirdly, many jobs are created during elections giving a boost to the economy at the grassroots level.

Fourthly, elections see the rigorous enforcement of discipline like non defacement of private and public property, enforced reduction in noise and air pollution, ban on plastics, etc. And this is applied not just to the electioneering parties, but all across the geography. This surely benefits the the environment.

Fifthly, there is a sharp drop in the crime graph because of the strong preventive measures taken by the Election Commission and the doubled visibility of police and election forces. Detailed mapping of vulnerable areas, seizure of illegal arms and ammunition, deposit of licensed arms and execution of pending non-bailable warrants are all undertaken during this time.

And the last reason is that holding separate elections allow national versus state-level issues to be differentiated appropriately and discussed keenly.

It is important to highlight one more critical issue that's missing from the debate – the Panchayat elections, though PM Modi had mentioned it in his address of the party workers. The logic of simultaneous elections must extend to Panchayat and municipalities as well since we cannot subjugate the people’s mandate at the local level. If a state assembly is dissolved, should the Panchayat also go? Replacing Constitutionally elected local representatives for extraneous reasons like post-defection dissolution of Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha would be a cure worse than the disease.

The Constituent Assembly had visualised a five yearly cycle of elections.It, therefore, initially considered a part time Election Commissioner, thinking that there would be no work to do between elections. But considering the need for a possible occasional bye election and periodic updation of electoral rolls, they agreed to a single full time CEC.

It did not take too long to know that it was a miscalculation. The first de-linking took place in 1956, when President’s rule was imposed in Kerala, forcing early assembly elections.In 1971, elections were formally delinked, precipitating general elections. The practice has gone from bad to worse forcing the SC to intervene.

What is ECI's stand?

ECI would be the happiest if it has to do simultaneous elections only once in five years and also finish it in one day instead of several phases. It had given its views to the Parliamentary Committee which has reproduced it in its report. It has reiterated the same views when asked to comment on the report.

The Commission has spelt out various logistical challenges and financial requirements. The costliest requirement is to have two to three times the number of EVMs (electronic voting machines).A Group of Ministers which examined the existing demand of EC for purchase of more EVMs to replace some of the old ones, was also mandated to examine the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections. It however refused to get drawn into this issue and left it to political parties.

Logistical and financial issues are important no doubt, but it is the legal and Constitutional issues that make the simultaneous elections non-feasible without a consensus among political parties which requires an extraordinary political will.

What is the way forward?

We may consider an alternative route to deal with the concerns which are legitimate, no doubt.Efforts can and should be made to rationalize the conduct of elections, notably the time consumed. Can it be reduced? Yes certainly, but it has a cost. Holding elections in one day would require about three to four times the number of EVMs if simultaneous elections to all three levels (or even just LS and VS) are held. We will also need five times the number of central armed police forces, that is 3500 companies instead of seven to eight hundred.

This is solvable by creating/recruiting adequate number of battalions of various paramilitary forces. It would not only help solve the poll security issue, but would also fulfil a growing need for enhancing the security apparatus so essential in the face of growing law and order concerns. One-day, single phase elections would cut down the election period by one month, that is required for movement of CAPF from one phase to another. Another two weeks could be cut down by reducing the discretionary period of 21 days that is available before the notification of the poll till the EC announces the election schedule and the model code of conduct. Thus, the entire election process may be compressed to 33 days.

For years, we have seen that alongside Lok Sabha, four to five state assembly elections are held simultaneously. These are the states whose assembly terms are ending within six months of the due date of LS. This clubbing is done at the discretion of EC. If the discretion is extended from 6 months to one year, nearly half a dozen more states can be clubbed. Over some years, many more can be incorporated. That will make it a mini general/simultaneous election.

The question of campaign expenditures, and particularly parties’ expenditures, can also be addressed. The major cause of high expenditure is that there is no ceiling on expenditure by political parties, which negates the purpose of having expenditure limits for the candidates.

A majority of sources of party funds are dubious, nearly 80% being shown in cash from anonymous donors. It has become the fountainhead of corruption. A 'recovery' drive begins soon after. 'Party funds' have become a euphemism for bribes and favouritism in licensing, contracts, etc.An alternative system of state funding of political parties (not elections) must be considered. For every vote received by the party (or even candidates), an amount of say one hundred rupees may be considered. This will add up to over Rs 5500 crores in one election which is a little more than what the parties report as their aggregate collection in five years. Corporate funds must then be banned. And the accounts of political parties would be subject to audit by an independent
audit firm.

The Prime Minister has flagged a very urgent issue that must be considered very seriously. May be an all-party meeting called by PM will give some opening. Though PM has suggested such a meeting by EC, my experience is that senior-most leadership of the parties do not come for such meetings to Election Commission.

My feeling is that the problem has not been thought through to its logical end. Maybe the time has come now.

S. Y. Quraishi is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of 'An Undocumented Wonder - the Making of the Great Indian Election'.


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017