Simultaneous Staggered Elections
“One Nation, One Election” or “Simultaneous Elections” is one of the burning topics of the day.
A note prepared by Niti Aayog1 has defined the term “Simultaneous Elections” as “structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronised together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify further, simultaneous elections do not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies needs to happen on a single day. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice, when voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha the same day”.
Thus what is proposed in the note, and generally accepted, is simultaneous elections conducted once in five years – not on the same day, but conducted in a phase-wise manner over a period of a couple of months.
In support of the proposal, the following benefits are cited:
(i) Lower cost of conducting simultaneous elections;
(ii) Elimination of frequent elections, leading to massive expenditure by the government and other stakeholders, that apparently fuels corruption and boosts the black economy;
(iii) Policy paralysis due to enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC); and
(iv) the temporary diversion of massive local security and administrative resources due to their being allocated and dedicated to election duties, disrupting long-term programmes and interfering with local administrative service quality.
The opposition to this proposal, not without justification, suspects that it is politically motivated. The note from Niti Aayog reads like a command performance, and the gathering of support for it appears orchestrated. However, the success of any attempt to improve the existing system must depend on the cooperation of all stakeholders. Unless all are brought on board, with the suspicions of dissidents and skeptics resolved openly and transparently, the chances of success are dim.
The note, instead, recommends starting the process immediately, with a five-year phased programme towards completion. Not only is such a step premature, it may also be counterproductive; delays could jeopardise any future effort as well. A consensus needs to be built on the proposed changes, all possible hurdles anticipated, and a legal framework agreed upon before embarking upon such a sea-change.
A Closer Look
Let us examine each of these claimed benefits:
(i) the cost saving in this scheme, if any, will be more than cancelled out by the sharp increase in other costs. By their own estimate, 50 lakh EVMS and VVPATS, at a cost of Rs.15,000 crores are required to conduct simultaneous elections: thus, there is probably no saving at all, and every possibility of increase;
(ii) Simultaneous elections per se will not eliminate midterm elections, without creating constitutional amendments, that can lead to the sabotage of democratic process, and the cost of managing the amendments, to avoid this risk, is certainly not trivial;
(iii) A better way to deal with the policy paralysis resulting from enforcement of the MCC – if found to be counterproductive – is to abolish it. The party in power already has the advantage that it can offer some sops before elections, and the disadvantage of anti-incumbency sentiments. Approximately, these tend to cancel each other out;
(iv) While the temporary diversion of local security resources will decrease in frequency, the necessary intensity, for countrywide deployment, will increase manifold, during the two months of elections.
These benefits are marginal at best and hardly worth the effort of amending the Constitution and migrating to a new system.
The root cause of the Election Commission’s problems is the seasonal nature of its business: worse, this is not even annual, but a once-in-five-years affair. There is no reason why this cannot be converted to a perennial business. All that is needed is to phase the proposed simultaneous elections over a period such as the existing five years – sixty months – instead of a frantic two or three months. This scheme would involve dividing the 543 Parliamentary Constituencies into 60 sections, translating into just about ten elections a month. These can also be distributed as widely as possible, minimising the demand on any particular state for electioneering staff and support in any given month. The same method can be applied to the cascading electoral demands in states and municipalities/ gram panchayats.
All the elections in any of these proposed sections, whether Parliamentary, Assembly, Municipal, or to Gram Panchayats, can be conducted simultaneously once every five years as far as possible. These elections, as suggested above, can be staggered across the country over a period of five years, with roughly 9-10 elections every month.
The workload of the Election Commission will be evenly distributed over a period of 5 years (60 months) instead of over 2/3 months. In this scenario, the requirement for EVMs and other peripheral equipment will be reduced by a factor of 25-30. No additional EVMs/ VVPAT machines will be required for the 2024 poll – the stock currently available is estimated to have cost INR 2,000 crore.
Indeed, a lot of what we have can be sold or even gifted to democracies in our neighbourhood as a gesture of goodwill. For the 2024 Simultaneous Poll, it has been estimated that we will need new units, costing an estimated INR 14,000 crore; with staggered elections, this will shrink to INR 500 crore.
There are several reforms that can be considered, as funds will now be available.
i) At present we have about 10,00,000 (ten lakh) polling stations – each one equipped to handle, in theory, about 800-1,000 voters. This is not enough, as the long queues currently seen at polling stations, comprising people waiting for an hour or more, testify. What we need is one polling station per 500 voters. A voter presenting herself at a polling station should be out in less than 5 minutes, having voted successfully. To do this, the cost of staggered elections will go up to INR 1,000 crore, which is still insignificant compared to the INR 14,000 crore that would have to be set aside for simultaneous (without the staggering of poll dates) elections.
ii) Another weakness of the ECI is that it is almost entirely dependent on the staff on loan from the local administration for conducting elections. And with the seasonal nature of its work, there is no alternative. But once the work is perennial, this need not be so. The ECI can have its own staff, highly trained and dedicated, and completely free from potentially parochial political influence. The need for borrowed staff, with limited powers, for the duration of election in a particular section, will be relatively minimal. This can be done by creating an Indian Election Service, answerable only to the President, through the Chief Election Commissioner. All responsibilities and accounting of the entire staffing operation can be and should be segregated and isolated from the usual executive line of command.
iii) The proposed funding of candidates, hanging fire for ages due to lack of funds, can be implemented now. Only the modalities to ensure its just and fair distribution needs to be agreed upon. The present system, that allows political parties to muster up concealed resources for candidates, can be eliminated. The recent introduction of anonymised funding through electoral bonds has hugely distorted electoral politics and tips the odds massively against independent representatives. This scheme can be shut down once candidate funding is set up.
iv) The monthly results of elections will serve as a bellwether to policymakers, and the ruling party will be called upon to show progress reports continuously, and not every five years, by which time memories of serious breaches of trust and accountability have dimmed. Another advantage is that the timing of the election in each area can be chosen in accordance with that area’s climate. This will further ease the burden of voting itself on the electorate, whose polling numbers have never been sufficient to demonstrate that the nation is politically engaged.
The Nemesis of History
The experience of the Emergency, declared in 1975, should be a lesson when amending the Constitution to modify national institutions. Luckily, there was almost no violence at the time, the armed forces remained distant from civilian matters, and normalcy was soon restored. But it must be ensured that such a thing never happens again.
With Simultaneous Staggered Elections, the legacy of dissolution of the Parliament, and the possibility of mid-term elections will be put to rest. The Parliament will become a continuing entity, with members retiring after their five year term, substituted by newly elected members. This is a major change in the manner of conduct of a parliamentary democracy, with enormous potential to eliminate significant ills of incumbency and accumulation of power. It restores the ability to effectively build the Parliament itself into a functioning electoral college, which could make the government in power far more accountable, as its continuance will be dependent on its ability to win votes on Bills proposed by the ruling party. In turn, this raises the possibility that Bills proposed by non-ruling parties or independents are treated on their merits, professionalising the functioning of the Houses of Parliament and minimising the ills of partisan politics interfering with governance.
If there is a vacancy due to the resignation or death of a member, a midterm election may be held, with the incoming member elected for a truncated term of service, if the remaining term is more than two and a half years, otherwise the seat should remain vacant for the remaining term. There is another option, though. At the election, every candidate could have a Nominee, a pro tem alternate, who will take her place for the remaining term, in case of death or resignation.
If the party in power loses the confidence of the House – and the empowering of a bifurcation of Bills proposed by the Government from those proposed by individual members is made palpable, so that the House’s votes on confidence are clearly segregated from the resolution of other matters for which laws are necessitated – and no other party can form a government, then Parliament can elect a committee of ten members by a single transferable vote and the President will rule with the advice and consent of this Committee. To provide checks and balances, the Parliament will have the power to overrule any decision of the President by a two-third majority. This will continue until some party comes to the President with the requisite majority support. This may amount to going briefly from our present Westminster model, to ‘Washminster’ when circumstances demand, and returning as soon as possible. In bicameral legislatures, there are some precedents, but only for the second chamber.
Where do we go from here?
The Niti Aayog note has succinctly enumerated the steps needed to take its proposal forward to an actionable state. It suggests that a focused group of stakeholders, comprising Constitutional and subject matter experts, think tanks, government officials and representatives of various political parties come together and work out the implementation-related details, formalising the drafting of appropriate Constitutional and statutory amendments; agreeing on a workable framework to facilitate the transition to simultaneous elections; and developing a stakeholder communication plan.
Prudence demands that this be done before starting the implementation and not as we go along. Our nation does not need to be inflicted with more seminal changes implemented without full stakeholder involvement and consensus. One demonetisation experience and one indirect taxation transformation have been far too gut-wrenching, and largely damaging, both to the people and to the economy. In both cases, they were also entirely avoidable, demonstrating a major gap between the concepts of government and governance. They stand as a bellwether for abuse of both Parliamentary and executive privileges.
The idea of staggered elections in the context of political legislatures is an enterprising, perhaps even out of the box, one, and it may not be easy to buy into, given the ailments and distortions that have set in to the practice of Parliamentary democracy and electoral politics. But the principles of Democracy are not compromised here, and the ultimate aim of accountable governance shall be better served, due to the introduction of continuous feedback. It has sufficient merits not to be rejected out of hand without proper evaluation, together with the alternate idea of Simultaneous Elections. If we do not consider alternatives to centralisation and consolidation of executive powers, it will be a great opportunity lost.
The watchword for revolutionising elections should be – Hasten slowly, and don’t miss the bus.
1 Debroy, Bibek & Desai, Kishore: ANALYSIS OF SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS : THE “WHAT”, “WHY” AND “HOW” A Discussion Paper