An election a day keeps good governance away

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A committee of Parliament which recently examined the vexed issue of frequent polls in the country has come up with what could be the most practical way to end the vicious cycle of elections, which not only takes a heavy toll of governance but  also destabilises duly-elected Governments and imposes a heavy burden on the public exchequer.

After the Constitution came into being in 1950, elections to the Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies were held simultaneously in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967 and all the newly elected legislative bodies were constituted between March and April in each of these years.

In the first three elections, it was virtually one-party rule with the Congress holding sway over the voters almost everywhere. However, in 1967, the electorate dislodged the Congress in a few States and voted in unstable coalitions. A couple of these Governments collapsed ahead of time in the late 1960s, thus marginally disrupting the arrangement of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies. However, the real damage was done by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who recommended early dissolution of the fourth Lok Sabha and a fresh election one year ahead of schedule in 1971.

Since then, the arrangement of simultaneous elections has come to an end and over a period of time, the country has got into a vicious cycle of elections which has begun to hurt governance in a big way. We are now saddled with elections in a bunch of States every year leading to disruption of normal life, phenomenal flow of black money into the electoral arenas and intense national debates on the meaning of the mandate in each State.

For example, if the party or coalition in power at the Centre is defeated in a State, all other parties see it as a mandate against that party or coalition (example: Defeat of the BJP in the Bihar Assembly election last November). Similarly, if a party or coalition which is running the federal Government wins a State Assembly election, it wastes no time in declaring that the victory signifies a renewed voter confidence in it and in its leader (victory of BJP in Haryana, Maharashtra in October 2014).

The truth is that barring exceptions, both these propositions are untrue. Time and again we have seen electorates in the States clearly distinguishing a State election from a national election, yet, no party lets go of the opportunity to confuse one mandate with another. The same holds true when a party in power in the State gets a drubbing in a Lok Sabha election (example Samajwadi Party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh in 2014). But the political slugfest that follows an election erodes the confidence of those who have been chosen to rule for a five-year term at the Centre and in the States and needlessly injects instability within the ruling parties and coalitions at both levels.

Apart from political instability, this cycle of elections takes a toll of governance and leads to some other problems as well. All this has been examined in detail by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Services, Law and Justice in its report on the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, which was tabled in Parliament last December.

On the governance front, the Parliamentary Committee has noted that whenever elections are announced, the model code of conduct comes into play in the States in question, and this results in stalling development programmes of both the Central and State Governments. Therefore, if a bunch of States go to polls every year, governance takes a hit for one quarter of each year when the code is in force.

The committee has, therefore, rightly noted that “this often leads to policy paralysis and governance deficit”. The committee is also of the view that frequent elections disrupts normal life and the functioning of essential services. “If simultaneous elections are held, this period of disruption would be limited to a certain pre-determined period of time”.

The third issue is the cost of elections. If the Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections are held simultaneously, it would reduce the massive expenditure incurred for conduct of separate elections every year. The committee noted that the Election Commission has estimated that the cost of holding elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies in the current disaggregated form was Rs4,500 crore.

Lastly, it said when elections are not held together, crucial manpower has to be deployed for prolonged periods on election duty. For example, in 2014, when the Lok Sabha election was held along with elections in four States, polling was conducted over nine phases and as many as 1,077 in situ companies and 1,349 mobile companies of central forces had to be deployed, apart from the huge contingent of polling staff drawn from Central and State services.  

There has been sufficient debate on the ill-effects of frequent elections on administration, governance, the cost of holding elections, phenomenal election spending by political parties and its links to the generation and use of black money and disruption of normal life. However, no one had really come up with a workable solution that would fit into the constitutional scheme of things.

It seemed as if there was no way in which Humpty-Dumpty could be put together ever again. This parliamentary committee however seems to have a solution to the problem. It has suggested that to begin with, States can be divided into two groups — one group of States going to the polls in November 2016 and another group in June, 2019 in conjunction with the next Lok Sabha election. This way, there will be just two rounds of elections in the country in a five-year period. In order to achieve this, the tenure of the existing State Assemblies will have to be curtailed or extended by some months. In any case, the Election Commission is empowered by the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to call an election six months prior to the end of the normal term of the Lok Sabha or any State Assembly.

This is the first concrete idea that has emerged to reduce the frequency of elections and save the people and the administration from election fatigue. All political parties need to seriously ponder over this if they wish to ensure that India’s democratic process does not become a hindrance to development and governance.

Source : The Pioneer

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