India can’t be run with a single stick!

The Narendra Modi-led BJP government has been batting for simultaneous holding of Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections though it belies common sense and every democratic principle and norm


Anand Paliath

This is what the then President Pranab Mukherjee had said in his address to the nation on January 25, 2017:

“The time is also ripe for a constructive debate on electoral reforms and a return to the practice of the early decades after Independence when elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies were held simultaneously. It is for the Election Commission to take this exercise forward in consultation with political parties.”

His successor in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ram Nath Kovind, suitably prodded no doubt by the cabinet, has also expressed himself in favour of the idea. The Prime Minister, of course, has been persistent in raising this issue, arguing that simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies would save public funds and allow governments more time to govern. From the perspective of the political elite and the establishment, this seems to make sense.

Just one big riot, just one surgical strike, just one media blitz or just one Rath Yatra will achieve the same results across the country instead of getting bogged down with pesky, local issues!

Controversy over land leased to industry in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, mining rights in Jharkhand, depredation of forests and mountains in the hill states, drugs in Punjab or pellet guns in Kashmir need no longer become election issues. Inconveniences of democracy - here a hostile government, there a popular uprising - need no longer bother politicians.

The Modi government has already ushered in unprecedented centralisation of power. The Union Finance Minister actually mooted a ‘Joint Tax Bureaucracy’ of the states and the Centre—a convenient concept for federal command and control of the economy. States have already swallowed the bait of the GST, not realising how they have been ceding ground to the Centre.

Simultaneous elections are dangerous for India’s pluralistic, diverse democracy and can pave the way to a fascist takeover of its polity. The idea of simultaneous elections, being plugged with the zeal of an end-of-season sale by suspiciously smooth salesmen to a notoriously ill-educated and gullible electorate is a particularly pernicious one.

Yes, even in this era of passing off disasters like Demonetisation or inviting the ISI to Pathankot or PM Modi’s ill-fated Lahore detour as masterstrokes.

None but the dangerously delusional could fail to see the irony of such suggestions being put forward. State elections in Punjab, Gujarat and Karnataka and byelections in UP and Rajasthan as well as other states offered the electorate an opportunity to vent their feelings and preferences.

Had this outlet not been available, the hot steam of discontent building up in the pressure cooker of public opinion against intolerance, minority baiting, Dalit suppression, repeated anti-reservation barbs, the cow vigilantism, mob lynchings, gross mishandling of the Kashmir unrest, the steamrolling of the UID and GST legislations, and most of all Demonetisation, would have burst out by now as a full-fledged revolt of the people against the BJP government at the Centre.

It is strange that a nation that recently brought in the NOTA option to put recalcitrant political parties in their place if they field undesirable candidates, and which has been actively debating the right of recall of law makers who disappoint, fail to perform, or betray the electorate, should now be asked to give away the modificatory power and the salutary corrective potential of the existing system of separate election schedules; to give up his right to vote against a regime that may have betrayed his trust or expectations and send the sobering message to a party in power that needs to pull up its socks.

One can sympathise with the RSS- BJP combine which has just one star campaigner: PM Modi himself, whose histrionic skills and entertainment quotient can throw even Hema Malini into the shade. He alone is the khoon-ka-rishta waala son of Punjab, the true Krishna -the -saviour of the Yadava voters in Bihar, and also the adopted son of Uttar Pradesh.

Being constantly in campaign mode must be exhausting, even frustrating for the PM who’d much rather be in the British Virgin Islands or Iceland or even Croatia on a state visit. But the remedy for that would be to ban PMs and Central Ministers, CMs and Ministers from other states and possibly even celebrities and film stars from states other than the state where election is to be held from campaigning.

That would certainly ensure less wastage of money in election campaigning and would also create a level playing field for all parties, whereas at present the party in power at the Centre, overtly or covertly promising greater benefits to the state if voters vote the same party into power in the State, enjoys an unfair advantage. On the other hand, the party in power in the state is often battling anti- incumbency and may find itself at a disadvantage in dealing with the onslaught of the Centre. A ban on the PM and Central Ministers to campaign will leave them free to do what they are elected to do-work.

Let us not forget that state elections are important for Rajya Sabha elections too, and some sort of election process, be it to local bodies, or in Teachers’ and Graduate s’ constituencies for State Councils is always going on - and that’s how it should be if we are to run our democracy properly from the grassroots to the very top.

We have a full time Election Commission of India- why not let them work full- time instead of putting them to grass for four years or so. Staggered elections force ECI to keep electoral rolls up to date, its EVMs repaired and ship- shape, its staff active and alert, and its systems evolving and up to date. Don’t grudge this expense or this exercise in the name of false economy.

What have we done to make elections such a heavily militarised process? Can’t political parties just stop giving ticket to criminals? And stop bribes- like under-the-table donations in black money to candidates and parties to subvert the common good ? Suggestions for these changes have been on the table far longer than this highly suspect idea of simultaneous elections. First decide on those reforms recommended by both the Election Commission and the law Commission in the past.

The less power a citizen gives to the State, the better it is for Democracy. For power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and therefore the reins of governments should be in the hands of the citizens and not vice versa.

Arguments against simultaneous elections:

1. Comparing Sweden (population of 1 crore), Belgium (1.1 crore) and South Africa (5.5 crore) - countries which hold simultaneous elections – with India (132 Crore) is illogical.

2. The entire expenditure for conducting general elections in 2014 was Rs 3,870 crore. A government which spends Rs 3000 crore on a single statue and Rs 4,600 crore on publicity can hardly complain about expenses in conducting elections.

3. Holding ‘one election’ will actually cost more. Even the Election Commission foresees a recurrent expenditure of Rs 10,000 crore every 15 years on replacing EVMs and VVPAT units

4. The Model Code of Conduct is in force for 45 days in states every five years while in the case of general elections, it is enforced for three months in five years. Governments have 1,800 days to perform!

5. Model Code of Conduct does not prevent governments from carrying on with development work without fanfare and any attempt to make political capital out of them.

6. Article one of the Constitution says India is a ‘Union of States’ and the central government cannot curtail the rights of the states and their people.

7. The Constitution does not provide for a ‘fixity’ of tenure for the Lok Sabha or the state legislatures.

8. Local and regional issues which dominate Assembly elections may get overshadowed by national concerns.

9. Smaller and regional parties will lose a more level playing field and find themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis bigger and national parties.

10. In case of a hung house, the proposal to allow the President and Governors to run the administration on the ‘aid and advice’ of a council of ministers ‘selected’ by them is against the basic structure of the Constitution.

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