ONOE: A Reform that Needs more Reflection, Data and Debate

THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED special session of Parliament was “special” for what it achieved, and what it did not. If the universally applauded Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam Bill was labelled “a post-dated cheque, One Nation One Election could be a cheque that wasn’t presented. Apprehension was strong that the cheque had already been written as the September 2 notification on the subject stated that in national interest it is desirable to have simultaneous elections in the country and a committee headed by former president Ram Nath Kovind was tasked not simply to “examine the issue” but “to make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections in the country”.

The notification cites three reasons why the surfeit of elections in India (held almost every year and within a year too at different times is not desirable: massive expenditure incurred by the government and other stake holders, diversion of security forces and other electoral officers from their primary duties for prolonged periods; disruption in development work on account of prolonged application of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). Each reason seems strong and merits transparent scrutiny by the Committee.

As per published data, the total expenditure incurred on the conduct of the 2014 general elections was a little less than Rs 4,000 core, which went up to about Rs 9,000 crore in 2019. That is an average of about Rs 100 per voter, as the size of the electorate in 2019 was about 91 crore. Even if the cost of conducting separate elections is considered to be double the amount spent in the Lok Sabha polls, it would still mean Rs 200 per voter in five years That translates to spending about 10 paisa per voter per day for the normal duration of the elected Houses at the state and central level. I am sure the average person spends more on mobile calls per day.

If one takes into account the expenditure by political parties – a total of Rs 2994.16 crore during the Lok Sabha 2019 elections – it would add about 2 or 3 paisa per voter. It is also estimated that about Rs 50,000 crore is spent by political parties/candidates informally during elections. There is no indication that money informally spent in buying votes is being targeted through the so-called re- forms. Isn’t that the main malaise?

So far, there has been no analysis on total public expenditure incurred on the conduct of Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections separately or together and the expected savings in the event of simultaneous polls. It might seem reasonable to presume that some administrative cost could be saved but in the absence of any data, this is at best, an instinctive surmise that cannot form a sufficient basis for taking a decision that has significant implications.

The same is true of the argument of diversion from duty. The conduct of elections does involve central and state security forces as well as other government staff called upon to do election duty in addition to their normal duties. Here again there is no statistical study to show the number of days taken up in election duties when elections to State Assembly and Parliament are held simultaneously or separately. It can be assumed that staff is moved for about 60 days during one election cycle and for every state this is done two times in five years because elections are held separately. That this is done at the cost of their normal duties is not disputed but to what extent this is detrimental or undesirable is a matter of debate because elections are undoubtedly essential duty for security forces. It is also true that many civilian officials consider it a privilege to do poll duty. Our system is built on using the services of full-time public officials for occasional activities such as census and elections, which are considered national duty and for which it would be counterproductive to have a permanent cadre. The Constitution, in fact, even provides for appointing regional election commissioners only for the duration of the elections.

The third rationale of disruption of development work is also not supported by data. A careful reading of the MCC would show that only a certain category of public expenditure is prohibited when the MCC is in force with a view to denying the ruling party an unfair advantage by spending public resources. The MCC doesn’t curtal expenditure on ongoing schemes, routine government expenditure or any kind of emergency spending.

In the absence of credible data, the three reasons cited in the notification seem impressionistic.

The notification states that elections to the House of the People and Legislative assemblies were “mostly held simultaneously from 1951-5210 1967 after which this cycle got broken”. This simultaneity for 15 years was without any specific provision in the Constitution to this effect. The founders of Indian democracy did not think it necessary to straitjacket the conduct of elections as it may have been neither desirable nor possible to envisage the vicissitudes of politics. The political dynamism at a given time would determine the fate of an elected government and the exigencies of that situation were to be dealt with by the EC within the framework of the Constitution and related laws. Prescribing anything beyond that would have meant getting into the operational mechanics of the election process. Laying down that an election cannot be held before the five-need not be year term to ensure simultaneity would amount to proscribing the liberty to express lack of confidence in an elected government or resign en masse from the ruling party. Imposing such limits on free political behaviour would muzzle democratic functioning of political parties which are central to any democracy.

In a federal polity such as India, elections in any state concern the voters and political leaders of that state and do not preoccupy the voters of other states. How do elections in Nagaland affect the administrative functioning in Tamil Nadu or how do elections in Haryana concern the voters in Kerala? Nor for that matter should the election in any state affect the functioning of the central government. However, if party leadership is obsessed with campaigning in every state and would not like local leadership to manage state-level campaigns, it would see every election as affecting its functioning; it is the centralisation of politics in India that has not let local democratic institutions flourish. Simultaneous elections would further diminish the focus on elected local bodies and turn them into nondescript representatives of their central leadership rather than effective representatives of local voters.

In a country where normal functioning of the system is disrupted if there in heavy rainfall or because of hazardous air quality, where educational institutions are closed due to heat waves or a G20 meeting, where agitations persist for months leading to total paralyses of normal life, there are more immediate and pressing issues of governance to be addressed than expending energy in issues such as simultaneous polls, that too without adequate data and sufficient debate. There are far more effective ways to bring about greater transparency in election related expenditure than chasing the mechanical scheduling of elections. Yes, there might be a need to bring about more managerial efficiency in conducting elections but that might not need onerous constitutional amendments.

A nation that does not tire of a surfeit of inane IPL matches need not be presented as suffering from the exhaustion of exercising its democratic right.


Ashok Lavasa is a former IAS Haryana cadre officer, has served in senior positions in state and central governments; former member of the Election Commission of India. This article was first printed in The Indian Express. Reproduced here with permission of the author.

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