Reforming the electoral system

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Reforming the electoral system

The electronic voting machine is one of the most significant reforms to have happened in the country’s electoral system, taking care of various malpractices and booth-capturing. For close to two decades now, it has served the nation’s democracy well and got refined with time. Those who demand its end and wish to return to the paper ballot system are on weak ground, because we live in times where the public call is for more and substantially more electoral reforms, and not roll-back of existing reforms. While the EVM is here to stay, the other change that is waiting to happen is the practice of simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies.

Almost a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had strongly floated the idea in an interview to a private television channel. Since then, it has received support from various quarters, and opposition too. But the Government is serious since it considers simultaneous polls one good way of addressing the problem of unending cycle of elections in the country. Frequent polls impact governance and policy-making since both the ruling and the opposition parties are forever in a combative mood and have little time or inclination to work together for the larger good. Policy decisions are impacted because the election code of conduct disallows the Government to announce new projects or schemes during the election period. The administrative machinery, which includes the civil bureaucracy and the police force, has to be adjusted to cater to election duty — thus disrupting its normal functioning.

Finally, there is the cost involved in conducting multiple elections. For instance, in the wake of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Centre for Media Studies had estimated that around Rs 30,000 crore could have have been spent by the then Government, political parties and candidates put together. The official spending was said to be in the range of Rs 8,000 crore. Simultaneous polls would save public exchequer’s money and also curb underhand, unaccounted for spending as well.

In the early scheme of things, it was never the intention of the framers of our Constitution to have provisions for round-the-year elections, since they had not imagined such a situation. Lok Sabha and State Assemblies polls were conducted, to begin with, alongside. There is barely anything in the Constituent Assembly debates which indicates that the police-makers were engaged in considering the issue. From 1951-52 until 1967, the synchrony of simultaneous polls had been maintained. Then, some State regimes began to collapse before their tenures ended, either because they lost the majority or were dismissed by the Centre. Later on, the bane of instability hit Union Governments too, which began falling within their five-year tenure. Harmony disappeared as various States and the Lok Sabha began to go to polls at different times.

Simultaneous elections will not address the issue of instability, but if adequate provisions are introduced that discourage the dismissal of regimes, the matter can be effectively resolved. We already have two strong mechanisms: The difficulty in imposing Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss State Governments, and the anti-defection Act. Besides, as we have seen in recent months, the courts too have been alert to attempts at destabilisation of elected Governments. Less frequent polls is in every party’s interest, and so they should be sitting together and working out solutions. Quite possibly, the idea would require amendments to the Constitution. There are practical issues too. As former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi has wondered, what would happen if the Lok Sabha gets dissolved in double quick time — as it was in 1998 in just 13 days? Would State Assemblies too go, for the sake of simultaneous polls? If so, what would happen to the five-year term of the State legislature?

But these are not insurmountable issues. Ways can be found to handle them. Various experts who have been pushing for the change have done their homework too. Back in 2002, noted constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap had, as a member of a national commission to review the working of the Constitution, had suggested a gradual but sure migration towards simultaneous polls. He believed that the process would need constitutional amendments. More than a decade after that, the report of a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice also recommended the benefits of simultaneous polls. The panel, headed by EM Sudarsana E Natchiappan, observed that “every political party likes to have simultaneous polls” and held that this could happen if either of the following two conditions was met: A motion for early polls should be agreed up by two-third majority of Parliament; and the House passes a no-confidence motion — with no alternative emerging, the road would be cleared for State elections by disrupting the present schedule. This approach does not need amendments to the Constitution.

Natchiappan observed that “common people feel there should be lesser elections and more performance by the Government”. That was indeed true then as it is now. 

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