A Case for Simultaneous Elections

~ By Swadesh Singh & Sushant

Introduction

The kind of electoral exercise that we witness in India is unparalleled in the world. Due to the sheer size of electorate and the expanse of our democracy, this electoral exercise doesn’t only assume gigantic proportions, it also leads to huge electoral expenditure. To add to the existing woes, our general and state elections are not held simultaneously and thereby one part or the other of our country is always electorally alert. The Election Commission of India is on its foot throughout the year because of this. This is the situation when we are not taking account of local elections for panchayat and urban municipalities. The ever-rising electoral expenditure on the country because of this can prove detrimental to our governance and developmental goals.

One of the pillars of Indian democracy is the periodic organisation of free and fair elections. Thenature of our elections to be free and fair is threatened by the rising cost of elections as political parties and candidates who contest look out for other sources to cover these costs. It is an open secret that this contributes to political corruption as pointed out by many studies. The frequent elections are also an ever increasing administrative burden for the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Simultaneous elections at the Parliament and state assemblies’ level have been mooted out by many as a remedy to this problem of Indian democracy.

History of Indian Elections

The first election after Independence was held simultaneously for the Parliament and State Assemblies in 1952. The practice was followed without any hitch in three subsequent elections held in 1957, 1962, and 1967. This was mainly because non-Congress regional parties (except Communists in some places) were not as powerful and influential as Congress and thereby were not in a position to dislodge it in the legislatures or in general elections. Things after 1967 changed. It was on account of both state and national politics due to which elections to parliament and state assemblies were delinked. The Fifth General Elections were due in 1972. But in early 1971, Indira Gandhi dissolved the LokSabha, and held the Fifth LokSabha elections in March 1971. The Assembly elections took place as scheduled in 1972. This is how the initial delinking of LokSabha and Assembly elections took place. Due to irresponsible and politically motivated use of article 356, many state assemblies were dissolved in between leading to finalisation of this delinking process.

Simultaneous elections have become exceptions rather than rule. As a result, the Election Commission is busy throughout the year conducting polls in some part of the country or the other. Apart from general elections in 2014, we had legislative assembly elections for eight states: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha and Sikkim. In 2015, we witnessed elections in Delhi and Bihar. In 2016, five state legislative assembly elections took place: Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Assam. That is, in a span of three years (2014-2016) we have conducted one general and 15 state assembly elections.

Countries conducting simultaneous elections 

  • England has chosen to hold general elections and local government elections on the same day since 1997. But, in practice, local elections are delayed if polls to European Parliament have to be held.
  • Italy, Belgium, and Sweden are some countries that conduct general and local elections together.
  • In Canada, municipal elections are on fixed dates while provincial and federal elections take place at any time. The Canadian Prime Minister and provincial Premiers have a right to call elections at any time during their tenure of five years. This right could be used by them to prolong their stay in power by going to polls when their popularity is rated high. This led to the rise of “fixed election date” movement a decade ago. It succeeded in introducing set election dates in eight out of 10 provinces. At the centre, the Fixed Election Date Act was adopted in 2007.
  • In South Africa, national and provincial elections are held simultaneously. Municipal elections are not linked with these.
  • In India, the question of a fixed tenure has been discussed several times without arriving at any consensus. In 1999, the Law Commission recommended that the cycle of elections every year should be put an end to.

Now we will discuss the issues that arise due to delinking of national and state elections.

Rising Electoral Expenditure for the Government

The expenses incurred by the Government in preparation of electoral rolls, I-cards, election booths & officers etc is significant. The table below indicates expenditure incurred on LokSabha Elections in various years as available on the website of Election Commission.

Year Expenditure Incurred (Provisional) (Cr Rs)
1952 10.45
1957 5.9
1962 7.32
1967 10.8
1971 11.61
1977 23.04
1980 54.77
1984 81.51
1989 154.22
1991 359.1
1996 597.34
1998 666.22
1999 880
2004 1300
2009 1483
2014 3426

Source: Election Commission of India

2014 elections were the most expensive LokSabha elections ever, entailing a cost of Rs.3,426crore to the national exchequer, a substantial jump of 131% over the Rs.1,483 crore incurred in the 2009 polls. In 1952, the cost of elections per elector was 60 paise which increased to Rs 12 per elector in 2009, a 20-fold hike.

Rising Electoral Expenditure for the Political Parties

Electoral expenditure of political parties as per details given to ECI for 2014 elections.

Political Party Expenditure incurred (in Rs)
BJP 7,14,28,57,813
INC 5,16,02,36,785
NCP 51,34,44,854
BSP 30,05,84,822

Source: Election Commission of India

The funds collected by the political parties also show a significant rise. The EC report indicates that funds collected by national political parties increased by a whopping 418 per cent in the past 10 years. It is an open secret as to what form of political corruption takes place in fund collection by various parties.

This situation was no different in 2009 when cash accounted for 75% of the money raised by the Congress and half of that of the BJP. In 2009, BJP spent Rs 448.66 crore in the 2009 LokSabha elections, while the Congress spent Rs 380.04 crore. Data analysis shows that only 24 per cent of the total election funding the Congress received was made through cheques and demand drafts, the remaining being in cash. The BJP, however, received close to half (49 per cent) through cheques and demand drafts.

The funding of political parties increased by 35.53 per cent from Rs 854.89 crore in 2009 to Rs 1,158.59 crore in 2014 general elections. The poll expenditure jumped in recent years as over a period of 10 years, as the spending by national political parties during the LokSabha elections went up 386 per cent.

Altogether, the political parties exhausted Rs 858.97 crore on publicity, Rs 311.8 crore on travel, Rs 104.28 crore on other expenses and Rs 311.47 crore on expenditure towards candidates.

According to a projected expenditure estimate of Centre for Media Studies (CMS), Rs 30,000 crores would be spent by government, political parties and candidates in 2014 elections. A study carried out by CMS on poll spending says “unaccounted for” money pumped in by “crorepati” candidates, corporates and contractors has pushed up the expenditure to elect 543 MPs.Out of the estimated Rs 30,000 crore, the exchequer will spend Rs 7000 to Rs 8000 crore to hold the electoral exercise for the 16th LokSabha. While the Election Commission is likely to spend around Rs 3,500 crore, the Union Home Ministry, Indian Railways, various other government agencies and state governments will spend a similar amount to put in place means to ensure free and fair polls.

In India while we have ceilings for the expenses to be incurred by a candidate in their constituencies, there is no such ceiling on the use of money by political parties. The money spent by political parties is not added to the candidate’s expense statement. Another data (published by Association for Democratic Reforms) which gives a good idea about the increasing expenses of the political parties and candidates is the amount received by candidates from their respective political parties. To make matters worse, election expenditure statements have to be submitted only by national and recognized regional parties and rest are exempted from it.

Table: MPs’ declaration of aid for election expenses from the party

S. No Party Total LokSabha MPs No. Of MPs who have declared receiving aid from party Total amount declared by MPs as received from party No. MPs to whom aid was given by the party Total amount declared by party as given to MPs
1 BJP 282 229 Rs 6,589.22 lakhs 159 Rs 4,875.03 lakhs
2 INC 44 18 Rs 403.60 lakhs 7 Rs 270.00 lakhs
3 NCP 6 6 Rs 279.70 lakhs 5 Rs 250.00 lakhs
4 CPI 1 1 Rs 21.83 lakhs 0 Rs 0
5 CPM 9 9 Rs 265.46 lakhs 4 Rs 128.50 lakhs
Total  342 263 Rs 7,559.82 lakhs 175 Rs 5,523.53 lakhs

Source: http://adrindia.org/content/lok-sabha-2014-election-expenditure-analysis-declaration-lumpsum-amounts-political-parties

This data is still limited to national elections. One can imagine the scale of problem if we add up the electoral expenses incurred during various state elections happening almost every year.

From the above data presented in this section, one can imagine and make a fair estimate of the gigantic proportions our electoral expenses have assumed. It’s a burden for the government, taxpayers, political parties and the candidates.

Policy Paralysis due to Code of Conduct

The model code of conduct (MCC) is a set of norms which has been evolved with the consensus of political parties who have consented to abide by the principles embodied in the said code in its letter and spirit. It comes into effect the moment Election Commission of India announces an election schedule for polls and stays in force till the end of the electoral process. Under the code, governments cannot do anything which may have the effect of influencing voters in favour of the party in power. Grants, new schemes / projects cannot be announced. Even the schemes that may have been announced before the MCC came into force, but that has not actually taken off in terms of implementation on field are also required to be put on hold.

Due to these stringent guidelines, which comes into effect for 45 days after the schedule for elections are announced by the EC, the whole country (during the times of general elections) and states (during elections to state assemblies) come to a virtual standstill. The normal functioning of the government is hampered. It leads a situation of policy paralysis. It has become a model for inaction. Designed to prevent pre-poll populism by governments and political parties, the frequency of its application has turned the Election Commission’s model code of conduct into a charter for non-governance. There are many examples as to how application of Model Code of Conduct for elections causes policy paralysis, however, we have listed a few prominent ones.

Even if status quo is maintained on the code of conduct, there are ways to ensure continuance in decision-making. One solution stems from the way the Delhi High Court decided the dispute over the new telecom policy – by making its continuity conditional on its clearance by the next LokSabha.

Instability

Connected to the above issue, the delinking of elections also leads to a situation where we witness instability at the national level. When elections happen, it involves the whole machinery of government. The party in power cannot afford to look away and even the ministers of highest ranks get involved in the campaign process. In the Bihar elections we saw that even the PM was not spared and was actively engaged in the hectic campaign process. This leads to hampering of normal functioning of the government and negatively affects the governance of the country. Among the parties, the BJP organized the highest number of election rallies — 850 — which were addressed by the party chief Amit Shah, several union ministers, Chief Ministers, party’s MPs and other star campaigners.

Lack of bold decision-making

If a party which is in power at centre loses election in a state, it is projected by the opposition as the results have made severe dent on its mandate to rule. This also leads to loss of confidence in the ruling regime. A negative atmosphere is created which contributes in affecting the governance of the country in an adverse way. A loss in a state election in the middle of the tenure of a government at national level is rapidly projected as a loss of credibility and hence all efforts are made by the strengthened opposition to stall any new reform measures.

Security issues

Fearing outbreaks of attacks by Maoist rebels, terrorist violence and communal clashes between communities, the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2014 mobilised some 200,000 security personnel – comprising 175,000 paramilitary forces and 25,000 state police officers – across the country to protect polling stations and safeguard election results. In the last general election in 2009, the central government-provided security deployment consisted of 120,000 personnel. These figures do not include the hundreds of thousands of other provincial police and local security forces that were deployed to polling stations across the country. This added feature makes our elections more expensive and the fierce competition in elections may also lead to loss of lives at many places. With the elections happening so often, these features have become a recurrent theme of our democratic process.

Recommendations made in this regard

  • In the first annual report of the Election Commission submitted in 1983, the then chief election commissioner R.K. Trivedi had observed: “The commission is of the view that a stage has come for evolving a system by convention, if it is not possible or feasible to bring about a legislation, under which the general elections to the House of the People and legislative assemblies of the states are held simultaneously.”
  • 170threport of Law Commission of India on ‘Reform of the Electoral Laws’, 1999 mentioned in this regard the following:

This cycle of elections every year, and in the out of season, should be put an end to.  We must go back to the situation where the elections to LokSabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once.

  • One of the reform proposals mentioned in National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution is: “Hold State level and parliamentary level elections at the same time. This would reduce election expenditure.”
  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice headed by EMS Natchiappan submitted its report on the Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections LokSabha and State Legislative Assemblies. The Committee noted that the holding of simultaneous elections to LokSabha and state assemblies would reduce: (i) the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections; (ii) the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; and (iii) impact on delivery of essential services and (iv) burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time.
  • There have been demands to hold the two elections together as it can save money, time and resources and ex-Chief Election Commissioner HS Brahma recently said that he is not averse to exploring the possibility.
  • President Pranab Mukherjee, during his lecture to school students on the Teachers’ Day (5 September) had endorsed the idea of holding simultaneous LokSabha and state legislative assemblies’ elections. President Mukherjee had said that with some election or the other throughout the year, normal activities of the government come to a standstill because of model code of conduct. “This is an idea the political leadership should think of. If political parties collectively think, we can change it”, he had said.
  • TheElection Commission has supported the idea of holding simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies, in a letter sent to the Law Ministry in May, 2016. This is the first time the poll watchdog has officially expressed its willingness to conduct LokSabha and state polls together. The ECI wrote, “In so far as the Election Commission is concerned, the issues involved in holding simultaneous elections are not insurmountable for it. If there is political consensus and will across the board, needless to say, the Commission supports the idea of considering simultaneous elections”.
  • The NitiAayog’s discussion paper, ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The What, Why and How’, bats for simultaneous elections stating that frequent polls change the focus of policy making because “short-sighted populist” and “politically safe” measures are accorded higher priority over difficult structural reforms.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has floated a very pertinent idea of having simultaneous elections for the LokSabha and state assemblies.

Conclusion

Despite all the difficulties and occasional setbacks that we face, one of the admirable features of Indian democracy is the consistent and fairly high voter participation in elections. This undoubtedly reflects the deep entrenched belief of Indian people in the democratic traditions of this country. We should not return this favour by burdening our citizens with sky-rocketing electoral expenditure and the ill-effects that comes with it. India, being a developing country, cannot ill afford to bear the huge expenditure involved in electoral exercise. From the above discussion it is evident that the issues that we are facing now in terms of spiraling costs of elections, administrative burden on government and Election Commission and governance deficit resulting from these can be better resolved if we revert back to our earlier electoral system whereby we had simultaneous elections for both parliament and state assemblies.

(Swadesh Singh teaches Political Science in a College of Delhi University and Sushant is a Research Scholar in JNU, New Delhi)

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