Democracy is an expensive affair: A case for simultaneous elections
Elections come as a festival in India. The election commission is calling the upcoming general elections as “Desh ka maha tyohaar”. The most vital characteristic of a functioning democracy is to have free and fair elections. However, is democracy all about elections and electioneering?
India has 29 States and 2 Union Territories that have a legislature. A Lok Sabha with an absolute majority is an exception after 30 years, and the same is not true with the state assemblies. On average, India witnesses 5 elections each year; of state, municipal bodies, bye-elections. With a fractured mandate, the possibility of frequency of elections increases substantially.
Elections are announced and the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is put into action. The MCC brings the Nation (during general elections) and the State (during assembly election) to an administrative halt. The government is clipped off its power to implement developmental programs and welfare policies and the administration is left with the routine task. The policy paralysis and governance void reduce the real term of a government by 6 months on an average.
Not just the contesting candidates, but the election commission incurs huge expenditure. Election commission stated that it spent Rs. 3426 Crores alone in 2014 general elections. It has also been noted that in the race to win elections, candidates flout the prescribed maximum spending limit. A study by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) states that total expenditure by political parties and candidates during 2014 general elections was about Rs 30,000 Crores. The election commission stated that the flow of black money during general elections grows eight to ten times than usual. Root-cause of all corruption in the country is electoral corruption. When Crores are spent, Crores are to be collected. Because of frequent elections, corruption gets perpetuated.
Elections also engage security forces and other official manpower for a significantly prolonged period. Manpower drawn from government schools, colleges, banks, and other departments hamper the functioning of the institutions severely. Nearly ten million personnel are deputed on polling stations for guarding and supervisory work.
Is there a need to bring India out of consistent election mode? Does the solution lie in Simultaneous elections?
Simultaneous elections are a method of electioneering when a voter casts his vote for electing members for all tiers of the Government on a single day. India had simultaneous elections till 1967 (by chance, not by design) and this synchronization got disrupted during the 4th Lok Sabha. The idea of simultaneous elections looks appealing but the idea has several unanswered conundrums for a complex plural democracy like India. The common argument is that it will reduce black money (it is seen that the creation of black money is directly proportional to the frequency of elections) and that it will reduce election expenditure drastically, bringing a windfall gain to the exchequer. When the country is in consistent election mode; the politicians often get little time to act as office bearers. Instead, they act like hard-core politician who resorts to corruption, communalism, and polarization for quick electoral success. It is seen that after the elections are concluded, people tend to forget their caste, and society becomes very normal and peaceful. The other reason for concurrent elections is the matter of complimentary gifts – free cycles, free mobiles, free laptops, free TVs, and so on. These freebies disturb the balance sheet of every political party but they are forced to do it due to competition. Criminalization of politics is also a result of excessive competition in which a political party gives tickets to criminals and heavy weights only because otherwise the other party would. All of it turns elections into the playing field of the rich and the criminal. This is a vitiation of the constituent procedure.
Along with severe shortfalls, simultaneous elections have the potential to influence the voter’s voting pattern. A voter voting on national issues even for state elections and vice versa is undesirable and unhealthy for a federal setup. Voting simultaneously brings about such voter bias, where the voter ends up voting the same party as his preference at National and State level. As a result, there is a huge possibility that larger national party wins both the State and the Lok Sabha elections thereby marginalizing regional parties that often represent the interests of local social and economic groups. All the independents and new political parties will be left out, undermining the depth and breadth of Indian democracy. The bias to vote the same party for Lok Sabha and State Legislature was seen in 2014’s election in Sikkim and Odisha. Such trends are also verified historically.
While it may be desirable to have simultaneous elections, is it feasible?
There are several constitutional and legislative hurdles present for synchronizing elections. To synchronize elections, tenures of several state assemblies will have to be curtailed or extended. Since the constitution does not guarantee a minimum tenure to a ruling dispensation, the government can fall much earlier than its proscribed maximum term of 5 years, arising out of loss of majority in Lok Sabha and State Assembly. Apart from such challenges, there are severe operational challenges. The Election Commission draws its manpower from several government departments as it does not have its permanent workforce and with the existing structure, it fails to hold the general election in a single phase. Will it be able to hold simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and State assemblies with such limitations?
Apart from these concerns, Simultaneous elections would lead to overshadowing of the state that would be tantamount to a weak federal polity. Repeated elections keep legislators on their toes, and increases accountability. While the idea of Simultaneous election has several merits, it looks impractical to implement those in a federal polity like India. The shortfalls of electioneering in India can be plugged by amending Representation of Peoples Act sufficiently and by fixing expenditure cap not only on candidate but also on the political party. A lot of the shortcomings that election commission is presently facing can be addressed by providing more teeth to the commission. Black money can be curtailed through other policy measures. Funding received by political parties must be more transparent and election observers must have significant protection while they act against electoral malpractice. Fast track courts must be set up to expedite the process of disposal of election related disputes.
Democracy is an expensive affair, and no matter what the cost the nation bears to conduct free and fair elections, we must continue with that. The true strength of democracy lies in free and fair elections. As Hillary Clinton rightly put, Indian election is a global gold standard.
The author is an economist and has published two books. He tweets at @ShariqUS.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.