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‘It’s not going to be simple’

www.mid-day.com | September 10, 2023

Even as a panel is looking into the government’s recommendation of One Nation, One Election, experts on either side of the divide shine light on what this would mean for the world’s largest democracy.

A lot has changed since the first general elections were held in India, starting October 25, 1951. Apart from it growing to become fiercely competitive, with extravagant amounts of money being pumped in, and newer parties joining the fray, the simultaneity of the elections have long disappeared. Back in the day, all the newly-formed states had also gone to polls around the same time; this trend continued for nearly 15 years—elections to the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 and 1967. But the premature dissolution of certain Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, broke the chain. “In 1970, the Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections held in 1971. The term of the Fifth Lok Sabha was extended till 1977 under Article 352 (Emergency),” writes Kishore Desai, former OSD, NITI Aayog and Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM), in a discussion paper. Subsequent instances of dissolution of Lok Sabha and State Assemblies followed, causing “the cycle of simultaneous elections to be firmly disrupted”.

The Centre’s One Nation, One Election plan hopes to put the cycle back in order. If Desai’s paper is anything to go by, it posits the idea that elections to all the three tiers of government—Lok Sabha, state assemblies (vidhan sabha) and panchayats/urban municipal bodies—happen at the same time. Earlier this week, a high-level committee led by former President of India Ram Nath Kovind held its first meeting to study the recommendations of holding synchronised polls.

Economist Dr Arun Kumar Kaushik and psephologist Dr Yugank Goyal whose 2022 book Who Moved My Vote? looked into complex electoral data to highlight leakages in the electoral system, feel that reviving simultaneous elections might do the country’s exchequer a whole lot of good. Elections, they say, are expensive social experiments. “Our electoral expenditure appears to be the highest in the world,” says Kaushik over a phone call from Sonipat, Haryana. “And the reason for this is that we are a large country of course,” adds Goyal. In 2014, when the BJP came to power, the Election Commission of India had put aside approximately Rs 3,500 crore to conduct elections, with Rs 46 being spent per voter. If you compare this with 1951-52, when the ECI had spent 6 paise per voter, the inflation adjusted value had gone up by 10 times. This figure, however, excluded security costs, and the amount political parties spent on their campaigns. If one looks at the private costs, Goyal says the expense in the 2014 Lok Sabha (according to some estimates) matched with that of Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton. The numbers increased significantly during the next election. In their book, they state that in the 2019 general elections, political parties were estimated to have spent Rs 700 per voter, which adds up to almost $8 billion or R55,000 crore. The US presidential elections of 2016 saw lesser money ($6.5 billion, or R44,000 crore at the 2016 exchange rate) being spent. “A developing country affording to spend as much money as a rich country [on the elections] has its own implications,” Goyal thinks. Kaushik who is associate dean, Academic Affairs at OP Jindal Global University, describes this as “unproductive expenditure”. “It could have been used for developmental purposes.”

The Government of India bears 100 per cent cost of the Lok Sabha and 50 per cent cost of the vidhan sabha elections, while the state governments spend 50 per cent cost of the latter and 100 per cent of third tier. With elections being held for one state or another, every six months, this expenditure cycle continues relentlessly.

During the time of elections, most development programmes, welfare schemes and projects also remain suspended till the time the model code of conduct is applicable. The NITI Aayog’s analysis, pointed out that if the average period of operation of the model code was two months for an election to a state assembly, “it would be reasonable to expect applicability of model code for about four months or more every year in some or another area of the country”. “No important government announcements can be made during this period; there are limitations to what they can do,” says Kaushik. “A lot of government manpower [staff], machinery and resources are also directed towards election duty, rather than governance.”       

Dr SY Quraishi admits that there is no one straight answer to the One Nation, One Election policy mooted by the Narendra Modi-led government.

Quraishi who joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1971 and rose to become the 17th chief election commissioner of India serving from 2010-2012, has during his tenure, introduced a number of electoral reforms, including the creation of a voter education division, expenditure monitoring division, the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management, and launching the National Voters Day. He, however, doesn’t identify One Nation, One Election as an electoral reform, even if it is being touted as one. “While nearly R60,000 crore is estimated to have been spent in the 2019 elections [by parties and candidates], many argue that this avoidable expenditure is also desirable expenditure,” shares Quraishi over a call, explaining, “The money exchanges hands from the politician to the poor, as well as workers on the ground. This creates jobs and helps the economy. If you look at it that way, it’s a logical argument.”

Even if the Centre wants to cut down on election expenditure, he believes that there are better alternatives. One Nation, One Election, he thinks, is a “complicated, constitutional exercise”—the Law Commission, he says, had stated that five articles, as well as the 10th schedule of the Constitution will have to be amended to make this possible. “One alternative is putting a ceiling on expenditure by political parties.” This would make elections more democratic and corruption-free. For starters, elections won’t be a game that only rich people play, as everyone will have equal opportunity to contest. “Right now, parties are getting crores for their campaigns from corporates, who in turn get licences, contracts, and bank loans from the government. All of this is a direct result of our elections.” This is also what makes a good election, a bad one.   

While many argue that simultaneous elections took place historically and is hence, something we shouldn’t hesitate going back to, what we need to ask is “why did that cycle break and why did the elections begin to get staggered?”. “This has happened in the past, and will happen again,” he says, “There will be state assemblies that will fall prematurely, and if that happens, we will need to have bye-elections. We can’t have President’s rule until the next elections are announced. It’s not going to be simple.”   

His soon-to-release book, India’s Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through Its Election (HarperCollins India), which is a compilation of essays on some of the key questions the country faces today, investigates this issue in depth. “Elections and democracy…,” he says, “are two sides of the same coin. They can’t do without each other.” “And democracy is about janta, and not about the convenience of the Election Commission. As BJP MP Bhartruhari Mahtab once pointed out, “What do people want? People love frequent elections, because this is the only power they have. Every few years, MPs and MLAs come to them with folded hands, and they get to decide whom they want as their representative.”

One of the key criticisms of One Nation, One Election is that it is politically motivated and may influence voter behaviour in the long run. Political analyst Dr Surendra Jondhale says that since ours is a federal structure— a system of government that divides the power between the Centre and the local and regional government—it’s against our Constitution to conduct a common election. He says even in a democracy like the US, elections for the states happen at different points in time. “At present, in India, several regional parties have been forming the government at the state-level. They represent the regional, developmental aspirations of their people. Their ideologies are also different. How can the mandate of the national party be imposed upon them?”

Jondhale fears that national issues will take precedence over state issues. “If there’s a drought in Maharashtra, locals will be more concerned with that issue, as opposed to what’s happening nationally, like the Adani fraud, Ram Mandir, Chandrayan or G20,” he says. “But when you have simultaneous elections, all the local issues are going to get buried.” It’s a defeat of democracy.  

Goyal and Kaushik feel otherwise. Indian voters, they say, are discerning enough to differentiate between the voting choices for the state assembly or Lok Sabha if simultaneous elections are held. They cite the example of LS and vidhan sabha elections in Delhi. In the Lok Sabha elections of April 2019, the BJP took away all the seven seats in Delhi, but Delhi’s elections scheduled barely a year later in February 2020, saw Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) take away 62 out of the 70 seats. “What can be more telling?” asks Goyal who is associate professor in public policy at FLAME University. “It’s not necessary that people will vote for the same party in the Centre, as well as the state. In fact, Kejriwal as CM and Modi as PM was a popular slogan during the elections,” adds Kaushik. Goyal says, “And while we can’t predict what will happen in the future, data shows that voters are intelligent with their choices.”  

This article includes valuable insights of Prof. Yugank Goyal, Faculty of Public Policy, FLAME University.

(Source:- https://www.mid-day.com/sunday-mid-day/article/its-not-going-to-be-simple-23308204 )