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14 June, 2016

Move to club all elections

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is working on a plan to hold the national, state and local elections simultaneously although opinion is divided on the issue.

In the early days of Independence, Lok Sabha and assembly elections were held together. They got decoupled when some assemblies were dissolved before they completed their five-year tenure and early elections held.

Today, three out of every five years are election years in many states as they go to the polls at different times to choose their Lok Sabha, assembly and local body representatives. Consequently, the parties are constantly in election mode.

The holding of Lok Sabha and assembly elections together again was mooted by Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani, who was No. 2 in the AB Vajpayee government, in 2012. He said impending elections even in a remote corner used to influence decision-making by that government. To avoid recurring periods of policy paralysis he proposed a fixed tenure for the Lok Sabha and the assemblies and simultaneous elections to them every five years.

Less than four months after Modi led the BJP to power in 2014, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice took up a study of feasibility of holding simultaneous elections. While the opposition Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar and the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee opposed the idea, several regional parties supported it.

In its report the committee proposed holding of elections in two phases instead of one. It suggested that elections to state assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year can be held together in November 2016, when the present Lok Sabha will be at the middle of its term, and elections to the other assemblies can be held along with the Lok Sabha poll in 2019.

The committee realistically assessed that simultaneous elections “may not be feasible in 2016 or even in a decade”. Yet the government began pushing the idea immediately. Addressing a meeting of office-bearers of the BJP, Modi said clubbing together Lok Sabha, assembly and local elections would reduce the time and money spent on electioneering and allow party workers time to attend to people’s needs.

Deposing before the parliamentary committee the Election Commission had said the additional electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail machines needed to hold LS and assembly elections simultaneously would cost about Rs 93 billion. When the Law Ministry sought its views on the committee’s report, it repeated these figures and said costs of storing the machines would also go up. The machines had to be replaced every 15 years, it added.

If elections to local bodies are also clubbed with LS and assembly elections, more equipment would be needed and the costs would go up further. The balance sheet of democracy must take into account costs that cannot be expressed in monetary terms as well.

Voters generally differentiate between elections to national, state and local bodies and pick nominees of different parties to represent them in these bodies. The results of the recent elections in Delhi and Bihar bear this out.

Voters in all seven of Delhi’s LS constituencies chose BJP candidates in 2014. The party led in 60 of the state’s 70 assembly segments. But in the assembly elections that followed the people voted overwhelmingly for the Aam Admi Party. It bagged 67 of the 70 assembly seats. The BJP got only three.

In 2014, the BJP won 22 of Bihar’s 40 LS seats, as against only 12 in 2009, and the party led in 122 of the 243 assembly segments. But in last year’s assembly elections it got only 53 seats, as against 91 five years earlier.

Modi is pursuing for simultaneous elections because it would help his party. Studies have shown that when elections are held together 77% of the assembly constituencies produced a winner from the same party. This means if simultaneous elections were held in 2014 the BJP might have won up to 46 assembly seats in Delhi and 93 in Bihar.

According to former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, though good in principle simultaneous elections seem to be an idea fraught with constitutional issues and administrative problems. He posits a scenario of the Lok Sabha getting dissolved in 13 days, as happened in 1998, and all assemblies being dissolved to hold simultaneous elections.

Fixed tenure may work well in a presidential system, but is unsuited for a multi-layered parliamentary democracy. Simultaneous elections may reduce costs but they will extract a heavy price by distorting the popular will. -Gulf Today, Sharjah, June14, 2016, -

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