‘One Nation, One Poll’ (1/3): Laying out the Practical Case for Simultaneous Elections

Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya

Several practical issues like prolonged policy paralysis and a massive financial burden plague the current model of free-cycle elections. Simultaneous elections have been proposed as a solution for these issues

 

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This is the first post in the series. The second post, which rebuts the arguments of this post, is available here.

Introduction to the series

In the course of the past few months (and possibly years) there has been a significant amount of debate surrounding simultaneous elections. A lot of literature has been produced by various bodies like the Law Commission in 1999 (here) and in 2018 (here, a summary of which is available here), a Parliamentary Standing Committee (here, a summary of which is available here), NITI Aayog (here), and the Association for Democratic Reforms (here). But still, there remains an astonishing lack of clarity with respect to several issues. The recommendations proposed by some of the bodies are plagued with erroneous assumptions and based on ill-considered premises.

In this series, we will attempt to not only explain both sides of the debate, but also point out some unnoticed errors that are fatal to the notion of conducting simultaneous elections in India.

Introduction to this post

Through this post, I will attempt to answer two key questions:

  1. How are elections presently being conducted in India?
  2. What are the major drawbacks of free-cycle (non-simultaneous) elections that have been pointed out by proponents of simultaneous elections?

It is important to note that these drawbacks are explained with the aim of highlighting the key arguments of one end of the debate. These arguments suffer from some critical flaws, which shall be explained in the second post in this series.

The third and final post in the series will critique the proposed model of simultaneous elections from a constitutional perspective.

1. Non-simultaneous & Free-cycle elections in India

Elections are a regular fixture of public life in India. In addition to the Lok Sabha elections which happen once every five years, India witnesses around 5-7 State elections every year. In 2014, for instance, elections to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha (which were held from March-May), were accompanied by-elections to the State Legislatures of undivided Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Orissa. Along with this, 4 more State elections were conducted by the time 2014 was over: Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Jammu & Kashmir. If you add to this the frequent elections to the third tier of Government (Panchayats, Municipal bodies in rural and urban areas etc.), and bye-elections, it results in a situation wherein some or the other election is always being conducted somewhere in the country.

2. Disadvantages of having frequent elections

There are several adverse consequences that result from the high frequency of elections in India. Primarily, these are economic and practical in nature. These drawbacks can therefore be seen as the practical case for moving away from the free-cycle model, and conducting simultaneous elections.

(a) ‘Policy Paralysis’ due to imposition of the Model Code of Conduct

The Model Code of Conduct (‘MCC’, available here) is a set of norms drafted and enforced by the Election Commission of India (‘ECI’). It lays down a general set of rules to be followed by all political parties during the election process, both at the national and state level. The MCC is relevant to this us in as far as its impositions on the ruling party are concerned. Clause VII of the MCC, which directly deals with the party in power, states in sub-clause (vi):

“From the time elections are announced by Commission, Ministers and other authorities shall not –

(a) announce any financial grants in any form or promises thereof; or

(b) (except civil servants) lay foundation stones etc. of projects or schemes of any kind; or

(c) make any promise of construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc…”

As per FAQ No. 3 (which forms a part of the MCC), the Code is in effect “from the date of announcement of election schedule by Election Commission and is operational till the process of elections are (sic) completed.”

Understandably, this provision is aimed at nullifying the power imbalance that exists between the party in power and their political rivals during elections. It aims to ensure that the ruling party cannot misuse their governing platform to implement last-minute development and welfare programs that are aimed solely at attracting votes.

Essentially, every time an election is about to be held, the ruling government cannot announce or undertake fresh development initiatives. During elections to the Lok Sabha, the MCC is imposed on the whole of India, and during elections to the Legislature of a particular State, the MCC is imposed on only that State.

Now as we have noted above, elections are in progress for a substantial portion of the year somewhere or the other in the country. This means that the MCC is in effect for all of these months. In fact, a study conducted by NITI Aayog (available here) has found that on an average, the MCC is in effect for a total period of 4 months every year in. As a result, any potential development or welfare programs to be undertaken by the Union or State Government are put on hold for one-third of the whole year. This acute impairment has been termed ‘policy paralysis’.

(b) Huge financial burden on Exchequer

It is no secret that elections in India are expensive affairs. According to the 2016 Pocket Book published by the ECI (available here), the 2014 Lok Sabha polls cost a whopping Rs. 3,87,034,56,024 (3870 crores).[1]

The following points that can be found in Section 8 of the ECI Pocket Book are relevant:

  • Exclusive expenditures for Lok Sabha elections are borne by the Central Government entirely.
  • Exclusive expenditures for State Legislature elections are borne by the respective State Government when such elections are held independently (in other words, when the State election is conducted at a time when a Lok Sabha election is not ongoing, then the State Government bears the entire expense).
  • Common expenditures like regular election establishments, preparation revision of electoral rolls etc. are shared equally, irrespective of whether they are used for Lok Sabha elections or State elections. Further, expenses which fall within the exclusive domain of the State (like maintenance of law & order) are borne by the State entirely, even for elections to the Lok Sabha.

As is fairly obvious, elections being held at different times of the year has led to the ballooning of the total cost incurred by the Central and State Governments, as the entire setup has to be regenerated and maintained several times throughout the year.

(c) Huge expenditure for political parties

As an extension to the above point, more elections lead to greater expenditure not only by the ruling governments, but also by the political parties and contesting candidates. Rule 90 of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 (available here) prescribes the expenditure ceiling for contesting candidates. In order to ensure victory, candidates often wantonly violate the ceiling amount, and end up incurring massive expenses. The Report prepared by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the issue (available here) states: “in most of the cases expenditures by the candidates are exceeding the ceiling fixed by the ECI”.

Based on the expenditure statements submitted by 6 national parties[2] to the ECI (the expenditure statements can be accessed here), the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) prepared a report (available here) analysing expenditure incurred by parties.

The total expenditure incurred during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was Rs. 1308.75 crores. Compared to the 269.42 crores spent in 2004, this represents an increase of 386%.

It is important to note that these figures represent only the officially reported expenditure. In its issue brief on simultaneous elections (available here), ADR has stated: “it is patently clear that political parties habitually and grossly misrepresent the actual expenditure when they file their sworn affidavits”. If the additional unreported amounts are taken into account,[3] it becomes clear that the expenditure incurred by parties during elections is massive.

Thus even before the results are declared, the party and the candidate herself have spent large sums of money in an attempt to win the election. Once in office, the newly elected candidate now has a direct incentive to retrieve these expenses. Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. S.Y. Quraishi calls this “recovering the investment”, and thus labels elections as “the root cause of corruption in the country”.

The argument, therefore, is that since free-cycle elections cost more than simultaneous elections, it creates a greater perverse incentive for politicians to engage in corruption once in office, in an attempt to recover their initial investment. To put it bluntly, more frequent elections à more expenses à more corruption.

(d) Prolonged engagement of security personnel

To ensure free and fair elections, and to guarantee that the polling process is conducted as smoothly as possible, the ECI engages a huge number of polling officials and security personnel. A perusal of ECI Reports reveals without fail the sheer scale of security operations that are in effect during the election process. One such report, titled ‘India Votes – The General Elections 2014’ (available here), is helpful in providing some perspective. It mentions, among other things, the ECI’s use of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), the State Armed Police (SAP), Home Guards, District Police, Indian Railways and Indian Airforce (for moving the forces from one location to the other) etc. A total of 1349 CAPF companies were deployed, 76 IAF helicopters flew sorties, and the Indian Railways provided 932 coaches. As has been done above, when such data is seen in the light of frequent elections which are conducted by the ECI every year, it becomes clear that a large portion of national and state-level security forces devote a substantial amount of their time on election duty.

Conclusion

All of these issues and several others (for instance, disruption of public life et al) represent the negative effects of conducting free-cycle elections. The aspect of free-cycle elections that lead to these problems is that such elections are too frequent in nature.

This has led many to flirt with the possibility of conducting simultaneous elections in India. Ostensibly, the argument is that conducting all the elections together will reduce the volume of all these fallouts, thus confining and minimising their adverse effects. For instance, the MCC will still be in force, but for a shorter duration. The Government, political parties, and hopeful candidates will still have to incur expenses, but not as massive as before. The ECI will still have to engage security forces of all kinds, but not for as long as before.

Having presented and explained the practical case for simultaneous elections in this post, I will be rebutting this very case in the next post.


Endnotes

[1] According to the Pocket Book, this figure includes the expenditure incurred by the Union Government (not the State Government) under heads like “electoral offices, preparation and printing of electoral rolls, charges for conduct of election and issue of photo identity cards”.

[2] BJP, INC, BSP, NCP, CPI, CPM.

[3] The PM has himself been quoted as saying that parties have spent close to Rs. 30,000 crores, which exceeds the reported expenditure by a huge margin (p. 12 of the ADR Report)


Further reading on Simultaneous Elections

  1. Law Commission of India, 170th Report on ‘Reform of the Electoral Laws’, May 1999 (available here)
  2. Law Commission of India, Draft Report on ‘Simultaneous Elections’, 30 August, 2018 (available here)
  3. Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law And Justice, 79th Report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of the People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies, Presented to the Rajya Sabha on 17 December, 2015 (available here)
  4. NITI Aayog (Bibek Debroy & Kishore Desai), Discussion Paper on ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The “What”, “Why”, and “How” (available here)
  5. Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy & Association for Democratic Reforms (Jagdeep S. Chhokar), Issue Brief on ‘Simultaneous Elections: Striking at the Roots of Parliamentary Democracy’ (available here)
  6. NUJS Law Review, Response Paper & Recommendations to Law Commission Summary of Draft Working Paper on Simultaneous Elections – Constitutional & Legal Perspectives, sent to the Law Commission on May 8, 2018 (available here)

Image Source: Examsprint.com

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