The late Bal Thackeray had a pithy manner of presenting facts. The SS-BJP regime was elected in March 1995 for five years. The alliance went in for early polls in 1999. When asked about the performance in four years, Thackeray said first calculate how many days the regime had to be on pause mode, thanks to the model code of conduct around polls.
The arithmetic of reality is that every year, between 1995 and 1999, there were polls in Maharashtra—Lok Sabha polls in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Then there were polls to over 230 municipal bodies, 29 zilla parishads and over 26,000 panchayats. Effectively, the regime was in pause mode for over six months of its four-year tenure.
This granular analysis—of Maharashtra for the specific period—gives an idea of the national story. Fact is, every year has been rendered into an election year. This was not so. Till 1967, polls to states and the Lok Sabha were held simultaneously. In 2014, polls to only four states coincided with Lok Sabha. To get a perspective, consider the data on the poll parade. Since 1967, India has witnessed 292 elections—that is, an average of five to six polls every year and this is just states and Lok Sabha. For scale, add by-polls and local body polls —including municipal bodies, zilla parishads and panchyats.
Typically, the model code of conduct comes into force when polls are announced and continues till the process is complete. For instance, for the five states currently going to polls, the code is in force from March 4 till May 19. The code is explicit that for these 10 weeks, processes such as new projects, grants, tenders, allocations and even inaugurations—whether they impact voting or not—are put on hold. Very simply, the Centre—and therefore policy and decisions—will be in pause mode for over 75 days.
It is a recurring grief. In 2015, the Union government was on poll mode for 90 days. First when Delhi went to polls for 30 days and then when Bihar went to polls—from September 9 2015 to November 8, 2015, that is, 60 days. In essence, between September 8 last year and May 19 this year, thanks to the polls, governance would have been on code mode for 135 days out of 254 days. Now juxtapose this math across five years—it could be argued that governments at the Centre are in pause mode for nearly 300 days in five-year tenure.
The law of unintended consequences is at play here. Clearly India can, and needs to, manage the process of democracy, its election calendar more efficiently. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mooted that elections to Lok Sabha, the state Assemblies and local bodies be held simultaneously. The idea is that governments can push the development agenda and public representatives can spend more time engaging with the people on programmes rather than electioneering. Indeed, the 2014 manifesto of the BJP promises that “The BJP will seek, through consultation with other parties, to evolve a method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously”.
The dissonance between process of democracy and the process of governance was best illustrated by former Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in July 2003. He said, “Democracy of elections has become democracy of frequent elections.” He also said, “Governance is the first casualty of frequent elections” because parties view every policy proposal through the lens of electoral prospects. Shekhawat stated bluntly that thanks to frequent polls, “political expediency overtakes genuine public welfare and national interest”.
The idea also has legal ballast. In May 1999, the Law Commission in its 170th report looked at “several distortions and evils that had crept into the Indian electoral system”. It observed that the ideal of one election once in five years had been disrupted. It urged an end to the “cycle of elections every year” and revert to simultaneous polls for LS and Assemblies. While accepting that the goal of one election once in five years cannot be achieved overnight, the report suggested a process—including advancing of polls and bunching of polls—to eventually synchronise state and Lok Sabha polls.
The idea of simultaneous polls is simple to aspire for and complex to accomplish. The onus is on the parties—who must first relinquish certain choices of surprise and disruption. At an operative level, how will the system sustain the sync between the LS and state polls? The first principle of the Shekhawat plan was to ensure a full five-year term for elected representatives—not for governments. He suggested that the parties bringing a no-confidence motion be required to suggest an option, bring a confidence motion alongside. Obviously other reforms such as right to recall will need to follow. Shekhawat wanted the Rajya Sabha to kick-start the debate, even set up a JPC.
The idea found resonance in the echo chambers. Parties declared they were open to the idea. Indeed, Chandra Babu Nadu of TDP had then said, “It is imperative we debate this if we are concerned about India’s future.” That was 2003. Since then, regimes have changed at the Centre and in the states. Parties have moaned and muttered, but there has been hardly any movement.
Simultaneous polls—Lok Sabha, states and local bodies—could be beneficial for both governance and the business model of politics. It will address the issue of delayed decisions that hurt the economy. Fewer polls will bring down the funding cost of frequent polls for parties. Additionally, simultaneous polls will enable parties to create capacity, vertically integrate interests—from grassroots to Raisina Hill.
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Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change