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The proposal for simultaneous elections goes against basic principles of the parliamentary system and the Indian Constitution.

Suhas Palshikar
Indian Parliament
November 25, 2017 12:41 PM

The discussion of electoral reforms in the Indian context often deflects from the main issues and tends to bring solutions that might be both irrelevant and more harmful than the pre-existing challenges.(Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

With the Election Commission of India (ECI) having indicated that it is ready to execute simultaneous elections, the issue has gathered momentum. While it would actually take a lot of time, the “preparations” by the ECI suggest that the powers-that-be might not be willing to consider the larger implications, nor wait for a consensus to evolve, nor bother with constitutional proprieties. The issue is made out to be about homogenisation — a pet theme of the current dispensation — and hence it is being packaged as “One Nation One Poll”. Nothing can be farther from the spirit of the Constitution or, for that matter, from democratic principles.

NITI Aayog has prepared a “discussion paper” justifying a far-reaching revision of the Constitution. It summarises key arguments in favour of simultaneous elections and also proposes a plan to implement and institutionalise them. Discussions on this issue have so far mainly focused on the likely effect of this measure on election outcomes and the practical aspects of conducting elections simultaneously. Just as the “why” of simultaneous election is problematic, the “how” of this measure, too, requires more detailed discussion and debate.

The discussion of electoral reforms in the Indian context often deflects from the main issues and tends to bring solutions that might be both irrelevant and more harmful than the pre-existing challenges. The move for simultaneous elections is yet another instance of this tendency. Among other justifications, the proponents have argued that it is necessary because of “governance” issues — the imposition of the model code of conduct and because of the influx of money into politics. It is evident that both these issues need to be addressed by the political establishment through serious debate, introspection and self-regulation. Instead, all the blame is laid at the door “continuous elections” in different parts of the country, round the year.

Perhaps the least debated but most worrying part about the proposal for simultaneous elections is the actual mechanism to ensure its “workability”. Elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies become staggered because of a core principle of the parliamentary form of government: The legislature shall be accountable to elected representatives. Supporters of the measure often point to simultaneous elections until 1967. But it is often forgotten that those simultaneous elections were not constitutionally mandated; they occurred simultaneously only because historically, electoral competition with adult suffrage formally took off at the same time at the national and state level and for the first two decades, electoral mandates for national and state legislatures ordinarily remained stable (barring in Kerala). In other words, simultaneous elections were not a principle but a function of historical coincidence and initial political stability. The overarching principle of legislative majority remained sacrosanct.

If we now decide to artificially and forcibly implement simultaneous elections as a principle rather than as an incidental outcome of the political process, we must ensure a certain hierarchy of principles. Supporters of simultaneous elections, however, are so excited that they are even prepared to sacrifice the higher and constitutionally mandated principles of the parliamentary system. These are the twin principles of accountability to the legislature and the five-year term. If a legislature throws out a government and is unable to form another, then elections become inevitable. On the other hand, a legislature has a five-year term once elected — if it can throw up an executive with legislative majority.

This is where the proposed mechanism falters. In the first place, it brings to the table the proposition earlier made by L.K. Advani involving the “confidence vote”. This means that a no-confidence vote becomes infructuous in the absence of a confidence vote accompanying it. This looks attractive to those who posit less value in popular mandates and more in stability. But whether this proposal passes the test of a parliamentary system or not remains a question. The implication of such a provision would be that a government cannot be removed, however anti-people or under-performing it may be, or in spite of being hopelessly in a minority, if the Opposition is not united enough on an alternative to replace the existing ministry. In either case, will this not violate the basic features of the parliamentary system? By this logic, the improbable governments of Charan Singh (1979) or Chandra Shekhar (1990) could not have been removed, nor could no-confidence in the United Front government (1998) or the Vajpayee government (1999) be articulated by the then parliaments.

Two, another mechanism that is proposed is even more problematic. As the NITI Aayog mentions, if the mechanism of confidence vote fails and the Lok Sabha is to be prematurely dissolved, then, instead of fresh elections, if the period is short, the president can carry on the administration with advice from a council of ministers (which obviously does not have the support of the legislature). This would be the most blatant violation of the principle of responsible government and such a proposal is nothing short of rewriting the Constitution via a back door and bringing in of the provision of “president’s rule” at the national level. It would also accord to the president an unreasonably wide discretion of appointing such an interim, non-responsible government.

Three, if the legislature is to be inevitably dissolved with a larger portion of the five-year term still remaining, then it is suggested that fresh elections are held but the legislature shall not have the full five-year term; instead, it would have a truncated term that remained from the previous legislature’s term. This would jeopardise the constitutional protection that a legislature, once elected, gets a five-year term.

Thus, three key mechanisms are in danger of arbitrary and unnecessary revision: Removing a government by the no-confidence measure, the mechanism that the president shall appoint as prime minister only a leader with a majority in the Lok Sabha and the five-year term of elected legislatures. All these changes would require both a constitutional amendment and judicial approval that they do not violate the “basic structure” of the Constitution. But primarily, they would require a rewriting of it on a scale and scope larger than that of the infamous 42nd Amendment.

It can be argued that constitutions do require massive changes. So, one need not go into the question of rigidity or inability to make suitable changes. The key question here is whether this effort and violation of existing provisions and principles is really required. This takes us back to the purpose behind pursuing this change. If expenditure is an issue, that logic would finally take us to the argument that elections are expensive and hence problematic. If the interference of the model code of conduct is an issue, political parties need to impose self-regulation when in power and ensure that the boundaries between rightful and legitimate decision-making and wrongful advantage of positions of power to win votes are strictly and legally defined. If black (illegal) money is the problem, then it can hardly be addressed by this measure; changing both laws and practices involving electoral finance will be the best route to adopt.

While questions over how and why the ECI allowed itself to sideline these fundamental issues are moot, it is also necessary that we take with a fistful of salt the NITI Aayog’s pious-sounding conclusion that simultaneous elections “would be a stepping stone towards… larger ‘electoral reforms’.”. We surely need to “re-boot Indian polity” but not at the cost of giving democracy the boot.

The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’.

Published: November 24, 2017 12:30 am

Asian Age

BJP’s secret poll dealings need to be exposed

A G Noorani
O.P.Rawat Election Commissioner India
October 20, 2017 12:54 PM
Election commissioner O.P. Rawat is the latest victim of flattery. Recently, he said that the Election Commission of India would be capable of holding Lok Sabha and states Assemblies elections simultaneously by September 2018, and that the government had sought the EC’s views. The government was told that funds would be needed for electronic voting machines and other equipment, but the EC had already placed orders; machines were already being delivered. “But it is up to the government to take a decision and make necessary legal amendments for it.”
No government has the right to take such a decision without consulting all major political parties. Rawat knows they have done nothing of the kind. He also knows that many are opposed to the decision. Why, then, did he — or perhaps his two other EC colleagues, assuming they were consulted — do so without the requisite consensus and announce it?
Unsurprisingly, the day after his announcement, most Opposition parties responded by rejecting the proposal. They pointed out that there was no political consensus on the matter. Rawat belatedly acknowledged that all parties had to be brought on board. The EC itself favoured simultaneous polls, he said, to give the government more time to formulate policies.
This absurdity was capped by a damning disclosure. The government had sought the EC’s views in 2015, which it provided “in March that year”. The exchange was kept secret for two years. The government had floated the proposal in several trial balloons in recent months. Rawat was well aware of these moves — he reads the newspapers. Why he chose to walk into a political minefield so confidently, with his eyes wide open, can only be guessed. On its merits, the proposal violates the country’s federal Constitution, parliamentary system and democracy itself.
It is well known that Narendra Modi and his energetic stooge Amit Shah are out to capture total power over the country by targeting non-BJP-ruled states. Two of them, Karnataka and Tripura, will go to the polls next year, along with Gujarat where the ruling BJP faces serious challenge. The next targets are West Bengal and Odisha, where the BJP’s ally Naveen Patnaik has discovered that the alliance provides no protection against threats to his rule.
In a parliamentary system, the head of government (Prime Minister or chief minister) wields a necessary and powerful weapon: dissolution of the legislature. It keeps his unruly followers in check. (After an aborted revolt, Prime Minister Harold Wilson warned Labour MPs that “every dog is allowed one bite”.)
He could advise the queen to dissolve the House of Commons and send the MPs packing to their constituencies to fight a mid-term election at great expense and risk to their seats. He also has the right to a dissolution if a major issue crops up on which he is entitled to seek a fresh mandate. To deny him this right by imposing a fixed term is to deny the electorate its democratic right to pronounce its verdict on that issue. This is not all.
Heads of state also enjoys the power of what jurist Eugene Forsey called a “forced dissolution”: if the head of government chooses to brazen it out, the head of state may step in and ask him to secure a mandate through fresh election. In the last century, Britain had two general elections within a year when the king exercised this power. There is also the anachronism of imposing direct Central rule over a state, which denies the people the right to pronounce on the Centre’s violation of state autonomy.
In a federal polity, states need not be ruled by the political party that holds sway at the Centre. Political diversity infuses life into federalism. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress swept the polls in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde — who belonged to the Janata Party opposed to the Congress — advised the governor to dissolve the Assembly even though he was not obliged to do so. An impressive majority returned him to power. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and West Bengal all had powerful chief ministers in the 1980s, who opposed the Congress and provided an invaluable political check on the Centre’s power by forming a group. Simultaneous polls at the Centre and in the states are not a matter of administrative convenience; they touch the entire constitutional and political system.
We now have one EC member pronouncing his opinion and revealing the government’s interaction with the commission. This is not a private affair between them. The people have a right to know. The entire correspondence must be published so that the public knows the terms of the governments’ reference and of the EC’s response.
By arrangement with Dawn
A G Noorani-The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai
Published : Oct 15, 2017, 12:19 am IST Updated : Oct 15, 2017, 3:11 am IST
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