Free Press Journal

Rationalising the election cycle



School teachers dread elections, with good reason. Deploying school staff on election duty inconveniences both, faculty members and students, interrupting academic schedules and piling additional stress on teachers who are already stuck with non-academic duties like census-taking. This, despite a 2007 Supreme Court ruling against election duty for teachers on working days.

Simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies, as proposed by the Law Commission, will certainly come as a relief to this segment. Many ordinary citizens may also prefer to avoid the repeated election rigmarole, which disrupts normal life: blaring loudspeakers, traffic jams, rowdyism by party workers, posters and flyers defacing walls and public roads, liquor being distributed on the sly. Transporters, tent-wallahs, printers, caterers, etc, who are called on to provide free-of-cost services during election campaigns will doubtless be relieved.

Savvy citizens realise that the enormous amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, over and above the cap set by the Election Commission of India, will ultimately impact their pockets. Corporates, who make political donations, will pass on the burden to consumers and/or receive a slice of public wealth as a quid pro quo.

Independent India started off with simultaneous polls, but premature dissolution of state and central governments altered election schedules with the result that now, political parties are perpetually in election mode. After coming to power in May, 2014, the BJP immediately revved up for polls in Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana and Jharkhand. A couple of months later, Delhi went to the hustings and towards the end of 2015, Bihar. Five assembly elections followed in 2016 and seven in 2017.

The relentless demands of electioneering on the central leadership of national parties must be exhausting, particularly as the contest becomes increasingly presidential. Not so for regional parties and therein lies the rub.

Regional parties have a limited theatre of action, and thus, have no problem with asynchronous polls. Nay-sayers have argued that simultaneous polls will dilute the spirit of federalism by giving national parties an unfair advantage over their regional counterparts. National issues will overshadow local affairs, to the detriment of regional forces, they claim.

Let’s consider this argument from the perspective of differential voting behaviour. Less than ten months after it won 100 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats from Delhi, the BJP was all but wiped out in the assembly elections. It wasn’t as if voters had become disenchanted with the BJP overnight; they had decided on the “Kejriwal in Delhi, Modi at the Centre” formula early on and stuck with it.

Similarly, Karntataka endorsed the Congress in the 2013 Vidhan Sabha polls, but gave the BJP a lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats in 2014. Likewise, Bihar threw out the NDA in 2015, after giving it 31 of 40 seats in Lok Sabha 2014. Recent election history has established that voters can approach general and assembly elections differently.

For the most part, however, dominant regional players tend to have committed votebanks. Thus, Mamata Bannerjee can win a majority of the seats in both the assembly and general elections in West Bengal, as can Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

The hypothesis that simultaneous elections will engender new patterns of voting behaviour to the benefit of the ruling party is just that – an untested hypothesis. Let’s face it, much of the negativity vis-a-vis #OneNationOnePoll arises from a deep suspicion of Narendra Modi and his Machiavellian electoral machinery. After all, the suggestion was originally made by the Election Commission and supported by the Law Commission and a Standing Committee of Parliament.

The other contention is that a synchronised, set-in-stone polling schedule will shift the balance of power against the states. With reference to President’s Rule, this may be a valid argument. In the event that a state government falls and a new one cannot be cobbled together, or deteriorating law and order necessitates President’s Rule, the life cycle of the legislature may be used an an excuse to defer elections beyond the six-month limit.

But, these are rare and exceptional circumstances and certainly can’t serve an excuse to junk the whole proposal. Safeguards can be put in place to ensure that President’s Rule does not continue beyond six months, even if it means holding two elections in place of one. Alright, so the life of one legislature may be truncated as a result, but it’s hard to see how that could hurt democracy.

As stated in a recent editorial in this paper, frequent elections diminish good governance and place an unfair burden on citizens and government staff. Already, teachers in Karnataka have protested against being drafted for the assembly elections next month. Indeed, state election officers have sought the ECI’s permission to deploy not just government schoolteachers, but those from private schools and colleges as well!

To dismiss out of hand the proposal for rationalising the election cycle, on the basis of purely subjective opinions, is irresponsible. Lobbying for measures such as the Right to Recall (RTR) and state funding of elections would be a better way of expressing concern for democracy.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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