‘One Nation, One Poll’ (2/3): Rebutting the Practical Case for Simultaneous Elections

Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya

While the practical case for simultaneous elections is prima facie logical, the devil lies in the detail

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This is the 2nd installment in our 3-part series on simultaneous elections. The first post can be read here.

Introduction

As explained in the previous post, several bodies, like the NITI Aayog and the Law Commission of India have identified a host of problems with conducting non-simultaneous elections (policy paralysis, financial burden et al). According to their analysis, these problems arise because the elections are non-simultaneous. Thus, their proposed solution is to conduct simultaneous elections. Essentially, they have taken the practical problems with frequent elections, and have fashioned them into arguments for having simultaneous elections.

In light of this, I will try to answer two questions in this post: Are non-simultaneous elections really the cause for these problems? If yes, then is simultaneous elections really the panacea that it has been portrayed as? In doing this, I will be rebutting two of the practical arguments for simultaneous elections: 1. That the sustained imposition of the MCC in free-cycle elections causes policy paralysis, and 2. That the huge expenditure in free-cycle elections is the root cause of corruption in electoral funding.

Agreeing on a definition: What are ‘simultaneous elections’?

Before we delve into the analysis, we must understand the exact meaning of the phrase ‘simultaneous elections’. For this purpose, the definition adopted by the NITI Aayog Working Paper can be used:

the term “Simultaneous Elections” is defined as structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronized together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify further, simultaneous elections do not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies needs to happen on a single day. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice, provided voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha the same day.

With this definition in mind, I will now address the two major practical arguments advanced by the NITI Aayog and other bodies like the Parliamentary Standing Committee and the Law Commission: policy paralysis, and huge financial burden.

1. Policy Paralysis due to Imposition of MCC: ‘A Red Herring’

One of the central arguments made by the NITI Aayog working paper (here) is that the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct (‘MCC’, available here) before and during elections causes ‘policy paralysis’. The devil, however, lies in the detail. To understand why this argument is flawed, let us look at the relevant clause in the MCC. Clause VII(vi), which deals with the party in power, states:

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.”

With these excerpts from the MCC in mind, let us consider what the NITI Aayog and Parliamentary Standing Committee have claimed about the MCC and its impact on governance:

NITI Aayog (¶3.4 of the Working Paper):

Effectively, except the routine administrative activities, other development programs, welfare schemes, capital projects etc. remain largely suspended till the time the model code is applicable and in the area it is in operation.

Parliamentary Standing Committee (¶6.3 of the Report):

…The imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and State Governments in the poll bound State. It even affects the normal governance. Frequent elections lead to imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time. This often leads to policy paralysis and governance deficit.

Clearly, the claims made are wildly disparate from the actual provision in the MCC. The MCC only prohibits new welfare schemes and developmental activities. In other words, the ruling party cannot announce any such schemes after elections have been announced by the Election Commission, and until the elections are over. This prohibition 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. There is no bar whatsoever on completion of schemes that are already underway. In other words, there is no need to stop work on existing programmes and policies.

Further, in the ‘Compendium of Instructions’ issued by the ECI to all parties before the 2014 General Elections (available here), and in a letter dispatched by the ECI to Electoral Officers in all States in 2007, containing ‘Do’s and Don’t’s’ (available here) it was clarified that the MCC does not prohibit schemes “undertaken for tackling emergencies or unforeseen calamities like providing relief…or welfare measures for the aged, infirm etc.” (Point 7 of ‘Instructions on Model Code of Conduct on Various Government Schemes etc.’). The caveat, of course, is that prior permission of the ECI must be sought.

So to say that all development activities remain “suspended” and that the “entire development programme” is “put on hold” is extremely misleading. From a perusal of the provision and clarifications issued by the ECI itself, the argument that “normal governance” is affected is absolutely untenable. The policy paralysis argument has thus rightly been termed a “red herring”.

Further, the Association for Democratic Reforms has claimed in a report (available here) that in case the government needs to urgently announce a welfare scheme for the interest of the public, then “it can always ask for the opinion of the ECI”. The ECI has itself repeatedly stated that “if in doubt, a clarification should be obtained from the Chief Electoral Officer/ Election Commission of India”.

Counter to the counter? The problem of perception

There is another angle to the issue of the MCC, which the simultaneous elections debate has largely ignored: the problem of perception. It is a fine exercise in interpretation for me to parse the clauses of the Model Code of Conduct, and to arrive at the conclusion that the MCC only prohibits last-minute welfare schemes or developmental activities, and not ‘governance as usual’. But what ultimately matters is how the prohibition imposed by the MCC is perceived by the politicians themselves. Concerns have been voiced about the MCC acting as an excuse for government officials to not perform their duties. In addition to this, certain officials are genuinely afraid that their policy decisions will be construed as breaches of the MCC, and therefore when the MCC is in effect, they choose to not engage in governance at all.

This may be construed as a counter to the argument that I have advanced above. Basically, the argument that the MCC only bars last minute programs, although valid in terms of legal interpretation, is irrelevant because government officials do not view it to be so. However, we must recognize the fallacy in this counter-argument. The problem here is not with the MCC itself, but with the awareness of its implications among politicians.

This can be remedied by raising more awareness about the effect of the MCC among government officials (especially the party in power). The ECI might also consider adding a little more detail to Clause VII (vi), clarifying exactly what kind of developmental activities are prohibited (for instance, there is a lack of certainty on whether announcement of sub-schemes of already existing schemes can be made while the MCC is in effect).

But in any case, there should not be any lack of clarity, as the ECI (which is the very body which determines whether a particular policy measure violates the MCC) has itself repeatedly clarified that the MCC “cannot be given as an excuse for not commissioning such schemes or allowing them to remain idle.”

2. Huge Expenditure: Incidental goal at best & yet another red herring at worst

Massive expenditure incurred during free-cycle elections is one of the practical arguments advanced by the proponents of simultaneous elections. This ‘massive expenditure’ is divided into two components: expenditure incurred by (a) Government of India & States, (b) Political parties and candidates. The second category and its associated arguments are acutely problematic, and this is what I will address.

Based on the expenditure statements submitted by 6 national parties[1] to the ECI (the expenditure statements can be accessed here), the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) prepared a report (available here) analysing the funds collected and expenditure incurred by parties.

  • The total funds collected during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was Rs. 1158.59 crores. Compared to the 223.80 crores collected in 2004, this represents an increase of 418%.
  • 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%.

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”.

This has not been denied by the NITI Aayog. In fact, they have held frequent free-cycle elections to be the root cause of such misrepresentation and underreporting. Their argument, therefore, is that conducting simultaneous elections will reduce the expenditure that needs to be incurred by parties, thus doing away with the need for non-compliance with ECI rules on expenditure.

Before analysing the tenability of this premise, let us take a step back and try to understand the issues involved in the disputed field of electoral expenditure. The first major issue is that of black money. Several experts have called political funding the “fountainhead” of black money in India. On Economic & Political Weekly, J.S. Chhokar wrote: “The entire political edifice will not do anything about it so exhortations to them in the interest of the nation or in the interest of democracy are, and will be, of no use.” (available here) (In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that J.S. Chhokar has himself authored the ADR Report on simultaneous elections)

NITI Aayog has claimed that conducting simultaneous elections represents a positive step towards curbing the black money menace. Broadly speaking, electoral reform is indeed necessary to deal with black money, but treating simultaneous elections as this electoral reform is not convincing, especially when reforms like transparency in funding and internal democratisation of political parties are available. The ADR issue brief captures this sentiment while attacking the NITI Aayog’s expenditure argument:

It is intriguing, however, that in his [PM Modi] view, holding elections simultaneously to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, is a major step for getting rid of black money. Just how the government proposes to attack the problem of black money via a single combined poll is anybody’s guess, more so considering its record on cracking black money.”[2]

Even if simultaneous elections have the incidental benefit of curbing the black money menace, a clear link needs to be drawn between the two for the argument to be a valid one. As of now, the link that the NITI Aayog has made is:

As elections happen frequently in some State Assembly or the other, political parties particularly worry about need to keep inflow of funds and contributions continued. This whole cycle is consequently blamed as one of the key drivers for corruption and black-money in the country.” (¶3.20 of the Working Paper)

So the argument seems to be:

Free-cycle elections are more expensive and so parties need to indulge in illegal funding and expenditure practices to foot the bill.

Simultaneous elections are less expensive and parties will not have to use black money, because legitimate funding sources will be enough to cover the reduced expenditure.

While this is prima facie not entirely illogical, it ignores one of the key reasons that has made black money so pervasive an issue in politics: the personal incentive that party officials have in engaging in such conduct. While deconstructing the black money argument, ADR explains:

One major reason for the preference of cash donations by parties is self-evident: cash donations being unaccounted, a part of it can be siphoned off for personal use both by the corporate donors and their political beneficiaries.

So in the NITI Aayog’s paradigm, the understanding of why black money exists in the political system is a fatally limited one. It fails to account for the incentive that candidates and parties have in indulging in non-transparent funding and expenditure related transactions. In summary, the argument advanced by the NITI Aayog begs the question: How does lesser expenditure (in the form of simultaneous elections) automatically lead to reduction in black money?

As has been pointed out earlier, there exist a host of electoral reforms[3](internal democratization within political parties, revamping the criteria for selection of candidates, increased transparency in sources of funding and nature of expenditure, et al) which, if implemented, will strike at the root of the black money problem. Put bluntly, the point is: If the parties are indeed serious about the threat of black money, and are intent on using simultaneous elections to curb this threat, then why are they not adopting all the other stronger measures that have been proposed to deal with black money? While this in itself is not a conclusive argument against simultaneous elections, it is crucial in helping us question the motive that has led certain parties to propose this model.

Conclusion

Having critically traversed the practical case for simultaneous elections, it is clear that proponents like the NITI Aayog have failed to make a water-tight case, as far as pragmatism and practicality are concerned. But that is not all. Charges like incompatibility with the Constitutional and legal framework, and an adverse impact on federalism have also been leveled against simultaneous elections. Wait for the third and last post in this series for my take on these arguments.


Endnotes

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

[2] This is an intriguing argument, especially in light of BJP’s drive to introduce electoral bonds, which ensure the anonymity of the donor, and have been criticized by political commentators and opponents alike as intensifying the possibility of corruption in electoral funding.

[3]Key among these is the concept of ‘internal democracy’ within political parties, which will ensure financial transparency and accountability during elections. According to the 170th Report of the Law Commission on Electoral Reforms: “A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.” (¶3.1.2.1)


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: Reuters

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