Now that President Ram Nath Kovind, in his address to Parliament, has re-emphasised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire to hold simultaneous national, state and local body elections, we need to look closely at the arguments for and against. In doing so, we should not ignore the unstated arguments or fears of those proposing the idea, and those opposing it.
The stated reasons for holding these elections together, or close to one another, are the following.
One, they will lower the logistical and other costs associated with holding these elections at different times, which force the police, various state and central officials, and polling personnel drawn from various institutions (often schools) to spend a lot of time doing jobs that are not central to them.
Two, there is constant political distraction due to major polls happening every single year, thus impacting governance at various levels at the national and state levels. No government gets to focus fully on the issues it was elected to deal with.
Three, budget proposals and political decisions based on an existing mandate need to be kept in abeyance whenever the Election Commission’s model code of conduct kicks in at state or Centre, thus impacting the delivery of poll promises.
Four, an unstated reason may be that charismatic leaders – like Modi – may get better results for their parties at all levels if the polls are held together or in close proximity.
The arguments against go something like this:
First, governments may fall at different times, based on political or party developments. Not holding an election when this happens is equivalent to denying the citizens the right to a popularly elected government.
Second, holding simultaneously elections means voter confusion, since issues get mixed up between national, state and local levels.
Third, the proposal benefits national parties more than regional and city parties.
Fourth, there is the fear that a bandwagon effect may unfairly benefit some charismatic leaders.
Many of these are valid points, both in favour of and against the holding of simultaneous elections, and hence need to be tackled head-on.
The cost factor is real, and we can safely assume that future elections could be costlier to hold than now. However, one wonders whether this statement will hold forever. When companies can enable e-voting, when digital platforms are available for remote decision-making and movement of funds, will election costs forever head north? At some point, remote digital voting could become the norm, just as electronic voting machines (EVMs) have replaced paper ballots. There can be concerns about hacking and rogue voting, but then the same applies to even financial transactions. It is difficult to argue that your vote is more sacred than your money. If sensible investments are made in cyber security (which has to be constantly updated), and if e-voters are Aadhaar (or otherwise) authenticated, election costs can actually fall.
So, we can rule out costs as the final reason for seeking a simultaneous vote. Or even as an argument against it.
The second argument is weighty, for it is clear that holding elections every six months is highly distracting for those who govern. With a constant eye on the next polls, governments have to needlessly pander to voter appetites for freebies. If we also assume that regional, caste and communal tensions are stoked in every election, the case for holding all elections together is strong. At least the polarisation of voters will be short-lived.
However, even here we need to ask ourselves: for whom is it distracting? The chances are national parties are more distracted, since their performance is being judged everywhere, both at the national level and regional ones. But regional parties are barely impacted since an election in Karnataka is hardly likely to make parties in Bihar lose any sleep over its possible outcome. However, they do impact the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress currently. One can add, that panchayat elections do impact state parties. But in a scenario where even national parties are judged by panchayat and city election results, the distraction is real.
So, it is fair to state that the strongest argument in favour of simultaneous elections is one that addresses the concerns of the big parties, both national and regional ones.
The model code is, of course, a problem in all elections, but this argument can be addressed through a simple understanding with the Election Commission that normal activities – like budgets or economic policies – will not be rescheduled either at Centre or states just because an election is called. At best, one could have a list of specific decisions that cannot be taken during election time. In any case, nothing stops a government from saying the same things in its manifesto, and try and garner votes.
The last argument – that parties with charismatic leaders may benefit more – is probably true, but this is a weak argument. Charismatic leaders like Modi have managed to do well even when elections are held every now and then. Barring Delhi and Bihar, the BJP under Modi has won practically every election since May 2014.
So, this argument has more to do with the fact that today all elections are becoming presidential in nature, with personality playing a big role in outcomes. But personality power can be overcome through rival coalitions, as was the case in Bihar in 2015. The argument is not overwhelming. Also note, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s towering personality did not save him from defeat at the hands of a lacklustre Sonia Gandhi in 2004. In the end, it is the message that counts, and not always the person behind it.
Let’s now come to the arguments against.
Yes, if governments fall early in their term, and no replacement or alternative government is possible, it would mean that any solution will involve denying the people of the state (or country) the right to have representative government.
This is an important argument, but we can find partial remedies by holding elections in two lots every two-and-a-half years. This will enable a popular government to be elected at the earliest. Even now, when a state comes under President’s rule, we get unelected administrations for six months at a time.
Another innovation would be to ask the legislature to elect a five-member ministry by single transferable vote to run the state/Centre till the next elections.
The second argument against, that holding simultaneously elections means voter confusion, since issues get mixed up between national, state and local levels.
The larger point, that national elections may drown out state issues (and states may ride roughshod over local concerns), could be valid. This, in fact, is the strongest argument against the call for simultaneous elections.
But we need to step back a bit and ask: why is this so? Can’t people decide what they want at the state level and the national level and vote differently?
If we look deeper, the reason why issues get confused is the flawed structure of law-making power between Parliament and legislatures, and between state legislatures and local and municipal bodies. Today, for example, both Centre and states can legislate on subjects in the concurrent list, which confuses voters on what to demand from whom. If you want clean and safe streets, should it be demanded that from the municipal corporation or the state government? If we want better schools, is it something to hold the Centre responsible for or the state or the panchayat? When all three can blame the others, you get electoral confusion.
Put simply, the argument that says voters can get confused when all elections are held simultaneously is valid, but the remedy for it could be constitutional amendments that provide clarity on the division of law-making powers. The concurrent list is pointless, and states also need to devolve more powers of taxation and policing to elected local and municipal bodies.
Once this is done, the voter will have no confusion on what to demand from whom, even if elections are held on the same day for three levels of government.
Due to this confusion on powers, even the media starts demanding accountability from the Centre for law and order issues in states, and MPs end up talking about Swachch Bharat and garbage piles when that is purely a municipal issue.
A clear separation of national, state and local body powers in the Constitution will actually obviate the need for holding simultaneous elections as voters will know whom to hold accountable for what. However, if there is clarity, holding elections together on grounds of cost will also not produce a bandwagon effect in favour of one party.
We need both – clarity on powers, and simultaneous polls. One without the other is sub-optimal.
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