Not Combined Polls, Frequent Elections Ideal Recipe for Democracy
Frequent elections ensure positive policy outcomes and deepen governmental accountability, argues Mayank Mishra.
What would have happened if the BJP had won the 2015 Bihar assembly elections? With the benefit of hindsight, we may say that the beef ban would likely have become a national obsession, campaigns against so-called love jihad and ghar wapasi would have become shriller, the finance minister wouldn’t have repeated the rural mantra 25 times in his budget speech earlier this year and the tone of celebrations for the NDA’s completion of two years in power would have been quite different.
The Bihar verdict was some sort of a reality check that perhaps forced a course correction. Something like this will not happen if we have simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. The idea of holding all elections -- to Parliament, state assemblies and panchayats -- in one go was first mooted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year. Now the Election Commission has reportedly supported the idea.
Different States, Different Election Cycles
As per the current election cycle, elections to four state assemblies immediately precede the Lok Sabha polls. In nine other states, polling takes place within two years of the general election. Elections to five states, including politically crucial UP, take place almost in between two Lok Sabha elections. There are six states where elections take place almost a year before the Lok Sabha elections. And finally, there are states where elections to assemblies take place together with the Lok Sabha elections. That is to say that in between the Lok Sabha elections, we have important assembly elections almost every year.
Towards Greater Policy Outcomes
- An argument in favour of combined polls is that it prevents
policy paralysis by enabling the govt to take
decisions on economy and other issues.
- Historically, politically fragile coalition governments have
taken tough decisions while some of the stable political regimes have dithered
to do so.
- Non-concurrent electoral cycles have seen govts going ahead with crucial decisions like the golden quadrilateral project and RTI legislation.
- Varying cycles of Lok Sabha and assembly elections act as
necessary checks and balances for the government to improve its performance.
Risks and Benefits of Simultaneous Polls
For some, frequent elections are a major irritant which disturbs political stability and the flow of continuous policy making. Concurrent polls with decisive mandates help long-term planning, giving a boost to the country’s economy. We did have concurrent elections from 1952 to 1967. For the last 50 years, however, state assemblies and the Lok Sabha have followed different election cycles. Reverting to the practice of concurrent polls means going back to pre-1967 years.
What are the risks of holding simultaneous elections? Once again, with the benefit of hindsight, we may say that very stable political regimes have yielded very little, whereas fragile coalitions at the Centre have taken some of the most enduring decisions. To the credit of the relatively unstable V P Singh regime goes the decision of implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations, awarding reservations to other backward classes in government jobs. The Narasimha Rao regime is credited with initiating economic reforms with far-reaching consequences.
The two not-so-stable coalition governments under the NDA, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the UPA-I government of Manmohan Singh gave us, among others things, a nuclear test, the golden quadrilateral highways project, the Right to Information legislation, the rural employment guarantee scheme and the India-US nuclear deal.
On the other hand, the infamous Emergency was a by-product of the stable Indira Gandhi regime in the 1970s and soft Hindu and Muslim communalism were a result of yet another stable regime headed by Rajiv Gandhi.
The point I am trying to make is that very stable political regimes, which is what is sought to be achieved by holding concurrent elections, have not quite worked in the country. Not thus far, at least.
Governments have done some tangible work (you may agree or disagree with their impact) whenever there were strong checks and balances. Different elections at different points in time are those checks and balances that help the government of the day to make necessary adjustments.
Inputs from the People on Policies Launched
It is always desirable for a democratically elected government to receive inputs from the people on programmes and policies it launches. Periodic elections provide that necessary input. Even if this results in some tweaking of policies, isn’t it good for the health of democracy and, therefore, overall health of the country?
How will it help if the system of getting feedback from the people through elections stops? We need to learn the right lessons from India’s contemporary history. What we need are governments that score high on democratic accountability. Can we afford to wait five long years to force accountability? Any debate on whether to have simultaneous elections or continue with the existing system must take this question into account.
(The writer is Consulting Editor, Business Standard, and contributes regularly to The Quint on politics and contemporary issues)
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