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Holding LS, Assembly Polls Together is Desirable But Not Feasible

Holding LS and assembly polls together is fraught with financial and logistical challenges, writes S Y Quraishi.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Holding
LS, Assembly Polls Together is Desirable But Not Feasible

(As Prime Minister Narendra Modi moots the idea of simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, which is now being backed by President Pranab Mukherjee as well, The Quint re-publishes a piece from its archives illustrating the logistical challenges that the poll panel may face. The piece first appeared on 13 June, 2016.)

The need for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies has been voiced for several years now. The most prominent proponent of the idea was L K Advani, as far back as May 2010. Recently, a parliamentary standing committee examined the issue and submitted its report on December 17, 2015. This was referred by the government to the Law Commission and the Election Commission of India. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also voiced his support to the idea which has a lot of merit but is fraught with problems.

The Parliament committee gave the following reasons in support of simultaneous elections:

  • The massive expenditure that is currently incurred on holding separate elections.
  • The policy paralysis that results from the model code of conduct during the election period.
  • The impact on delivery of essential services.
  • The burden on large manpower that is deployed.

Save for the delivery of essential services, which actually improves as the government seeks to ensure that voters are happy, the concerns are legitimate.

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Implementation a Big Problem

While the desirability of holding simultaneous elections is undeniable, the problem is in the feasibility of its implementation. The single biggest argument against simultaneous elections is that the terms of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies do not coincide though that was the original intent of the Constitution.

Of the 16 Lok Sabhas, seven were prematurely dissolved. However, lately, the legislatures have been generally completing their full term, thanks to the 1985 anti-defection law and the Supreme Court’s strong observations on the routine resort to Article 356 to suspend a state assembly for political reasons.

Typically, Lok Sabha elections are spread over two-and-a-half months. As soon as the model code of conduct (MCC) comes into operation the government cannot announce any new schemes, make new appointments and transfer or appoint officials involved in election management. Ministers get busy in election campaigning and stop attending offices.

Also read: Not Combined Polls, Frequent Elections Ideal Recipe for Democracy

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Staff Crunch

During elections, you would be hard pressed to find any government department from which no official is withdrawn for election duty.

Drafting teachers as polling staff disrupts the educational routine in schools. In 2007, the Delhi High Court ruled that teachers could not be engaged in non-teaching jobs. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that without teachers adequate election staff is not possible. It has nevertheless advised to ensure minimal disruption of the school schedule.

However, elections cannot be conducted without adequate staff. The law mandates the deployment of only government servants. Further, Article 324 of the Constitution requires the president or a governor to provide the EC with whatever staff it may require.

Since 1952 the size of the electorate has increased to nearly 850 million and the number of polling stations to 9.3 lakh. 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.

Cost of Elections

The second argument in favour of simultaneous elections is the cost, which has escalated with every election. This includes the cost of organising the election, and campaign expenditures borne by parties and candidates. One estimate put the cost of this at Rs 30,000 crore in GE 2014. The approximate cost of conducting elections, direct and indirect, is estimated to be about Rs 4,500 crore.

Campaign expenditure is the more serious issue – perhaps the only unresolved electoral issue in India. Laws and norms are blatantly and cleverly flouted with impunity. Candidates, in fact, spend a large part of their funds before the campaigns even start, outside the scrutiny of the EC.

The absence of cap on parties’ expenditure is a huge problem, which they exploit. The Rs 70-lakh ceiling on candidates’ expenditures is like peanuts, compared to the money political parties pour in. This vitiates the spirit of free and fair elections.

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Ending Social and Political Evils

Thirdly, elections are polarising events which have accentuated casteism, communalism, corruption and crony capitalism. If the country is perpetually on election mode, there is no respite from these evils. Holding simultaneous elections would certainly help in this context. 

Election Commission personnel carrying electronic voting machines. (File photo: Reuters)
Election Commission personnel carrying electronic voting machines. (File photo: Reuters)
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Compelling Counter-Arguments

However, arguments in favour of frequent elections also exist and are compelling. First, having to face the electorate more than once every five year enhances accountability of politicians and keeps them on their toes. Second, many jobs are created during elections, boosting the economy at the grassroots level.

Thirdly, rigorous enforcement of discipline like non-defacement of private and public property, noise and air pollution, ban on plastics etc. benefits the environment. Voters actually love discipline. And finally, local and national issues get separated.

How to Include Panchayat Polls?

The debate, however, seems to be missing one critical issue – panchayat elections. The logic of simultaneous elections must extend to panchayat and municipalities since one cannot subjugate the people’s mandate at the local level. This would also further reinforce enmeshing party politics in local elections. If a state assembly is dissolved, should a panchayat also go? Replacing constitutionally-elected local representatives for extraneous reasons like post-defection dissolution would be a cure worse than the disease.

The Constituent Assembly had envisaged this issue to a certain extent. It initially considered a part-time election commissioner, on the ground that there would be no work to do between elections. But considering the eventuality of de-linking general and state elections, the Constituent Assembly did appoint a single full-time CEC.

The first delinking took place in 1956 when President’s Rule was imposed in Kerala, forcing early elections. In 1971, elections were formally delinked, precipitating general elections. The practice has gone from bad to worse forcing the SC to intervene.

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Snapshot

Feasibility of Simultaneous Polls

  • Despite EC’s nod for simultaneous Lok Sabha, assembly and local body polls, a foremost challenge would be tackling the varying electoral cycle.
  • Holding simultaneous polls will be tough for the election commission, stretched both in terms of staff and funds.
  • A logistical challenge for the EC would be procuring EVMs, two to three times more than their present number.
  • An alternate mechanism of state funding of political parties may cap the expenditure and curb illicit means of financing the campaign.
  • Widening linkage between Lok Sabha and assembly polls has an adverse impact on overall governance as well.

The EC’s Stand

The EC would be the happiest if it has to conduct simultaneous elections only once in five years and also finish it in a day instead of several phases. The EC’s stand was reproduced in the parliamentary committee’s report and reiterated them when its comments were sought on the report.

The EC has spelt out various logistical challenges and financial requirements. The costliest requirement is to have two to three times the number of EVMs.

A group of ministers (GoM), which is examining the existing demand, has also been mandated to examine the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections. Logistical and financial issues are important no doubt, but it is the legal and constitutional challenges that require strong political will.
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Women queue up to cast their vote during the state assembly polls in West Bengal, April 2016. (Photo: IANS)
Women queue up to cast their vote during the state assembly polls in West Bengal, April 2016. (Photo: IANS)

Rationalising All Polls

Efforts can and should be made to rationalise the conduct of elections, notably the time consumed. But rationalisation 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 legislative assemblies ) are held. We will also need five times the number of central armed forces, that is 3,500 companies instead of eight hundred.

Recruiting a few battalions of various paramilitary forces would not only help solve the problem, it would 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 election period by one month that is required for movement of CRPF from one phase to another.

More fundamentally, the question of campaign expenditures, and particularly parties’ expenditures, must be addressed. Parties’ expenditures should be capped. There is no ceiling on expenditure by political parties which negates the purpose of having expenditure limits in elections.

The bulk of the sources of party funds are dubious, with nearly 80 percent of it shown in cash from anonymous donors. ‘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 5,500 crore 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. Modi enjoys a majority and the clout to introduce these reforms. He has already expressed his desire. It is hoped he is able to create the necessary political consensus.

(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’. He can be reached at @DrSYQuraishi)

Also read:

Can the Election Commission Ensure Free and Fair Polls in Bengal?

In Bengal, Parties Bank on Frugal Means to Achieve Electoral Gains

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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