Fears about the Centre somehow gaining greater power, or regional parties being at a disadvantage during simultaneously held elections seem naïve
As the elections in four states and one Union territory in March-April are suspected to have contributed to the second wave of Covid infections, a well-reasoned debate on a concept as important as “one nation, one election” is called for.
The idea has been around since at least 1983, when the Election Commission first mooted it. The concept needs to be debated mainly around five issues: Financial costs of conducting elections; cost of repeated administrative freezes; visible and invisible costs of repeatedly deploying security forces; campaign and finance costs of political parties; and the question of regional/smaller parties having a level playing field.
The costs of conducting each assembly or parliamentary election are huge and, in some senses, incalculable. Directly budgeted costs are around Rs 300 crore for a state the size of Bihar. But there are other financial costs, and incalculable economic costs. Before each election, a “revision” of electoral rolls is mandatory. Each election means teachers missing from schools and colleges, and on election duty, the entire revenue machinery on election-related work, officers and vehicles of practically all other departments “requisitioned” for election duty, disrupting the work of, say, building roads, or supervising welfare schemes. These costs of the millions of man-hours used are not charged to the election budget; and the economic costs of lost teaching weeks, delayed public works, badly delivered or undelivered welfare schemes to the poor have never been calculated.
The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) has economic costs too. Works may have been announced long before an election is announced, but tenders cannot be finalised, nor work awarded, once the MCC comes into effect. Time overruns translate into cost overruns. But the huge costs of salaries and other administrative expenditures continue to be incurred.
Add to this the invisible cost of a missing leadership. Ministers are politicians, and politicians need to campaign, to select candidates, and to devise strategy for their party. The time for their ministerial duties reduces sharply, in spite of most of them putting in 16-18 hours of work each day. Important meetings and decisions get postponed, with costs and consequences that are difficult to calculate.
These financial and economic costs are incurred repeatedly. A NITI Aayog paper says that the country has at least one election each year; actually, each state has an election every year, too.
There is little doubt that the fiscal and economic costs of an election are not trivial, and that two elections, held separately, will almost double costs, including those incurred by political parties themselves.
There are also huge and visible costs of deploying security forces and transporting them, repeatedly. A bigger invisible cost is paid by the nation in terms of diverting these forces from sensitive areas and in terms of the fatigue and illnesses that repeated cross-country deployments bring about.
Fears about the Centre somehow gaining greater power, or regional parties being at a disadvantage during simultaneously held elections seem naïve. Fixed five-year terms for state legislatures in fact take away the central government’s power to dissolve state assemblies. Regional parties are supposed to be at a disadvantage because in simultaneously held elections, voters are reportedly likely to predominantly vote one way, giving the dominant party at the Centre an advantage. Those that take this view need to be reminded that “Indians became voters before they were citizens”, as perceptively observed by Ornit Shani in her book How India Became Democratic. In any case, votes cast the same way may, as they have in the past, help regional parties tot up a nice enough number in Parliament to be a part of the central government.
It has been argued, rightly, that if protecting democracy and federalism carries a high cost, so be it. Do simultaneous elections compromise democracy and/or federalism, as has been alleged? Well, they apparently did not do so until 1967 when simultaneous elections were the norm.
Several commentators seem to have the strange notion that if a government loses its majority in the House, it necessarily means fresh elections. Firstly, with the current anti-defection law, it is virtually impossible for a ruling party/coalition to lose numbers. Secondly, even if a Prime Minister or Chief Minister loses a vote of confidence, those who voted against her have a majority, and their leader should become the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister. The dissolution of Parliament or Assembly is not a necessary consequence.
That the Constitution and other laws would need to be amended is obvious. But that is hardly an argument against the proposal in a country which averages one-and-a-half constitutional amendments a year.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 5, 2021, under the title ‘One Nation, One Election’. The writer is a former civil servant
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