Another Lok Sabha election nears with change in the air - Hindustan Times

Another Lok Sabha election nears with change in the air

Mar 18, 2024 04:22 AM IST

The Kovind panel has proposed simultaneous polls. Any such change should factor in all possible consequences so that intention and outcome are in harmony

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced the schedule for the 18th general elections. Like last time, the commission will hold the poll in seven phases. Voting in the first phase, for 102 constituencies, will take place on April 19, and the last set of votes will be cast on June 1. The vacancies created in the ECI by the retirement of Anup Chandra Pandey (on February 14) and the resignation of Arun Goel (on March 9) possibly delayed the announcement of the general elections.

The Kovind panel noted that simultaneous elections “will fundamentally transform the electoral process and overall governance. PREMIUM
The Kovind panel noted that simultaneous elections “will fundamentally transform the electoral process and overall governance.

With the ECI announcement, the Model Code of Conduct kicked in. It prevents ministers from laying foundation stones for projects and the government from issuing advertisements highlighting its achievement at the cost of the public exchequer. The ECI timetable also provides the dates from which candidates must adhere to expenditure limits for their campaigns. In this election, Lok Sabha hopefuls can spend up to 95 lakh in larger states and 75 lakh in smaller states. Two days before voting in the seven phases, political parties and candidates must stop campaigning to give voters quiet time to decide before they vote.

The ECI will count the votes on June 4, and the results will be out on the same day. In the last four Lok Sabha elections (2004 to 2019), the gap between election announcement and result declaration was roughly 74 days. In 1999, when the general elections took place in September-October, this period lasted 86 days. One of the shortest gaps, of 66 days, was in the 1998 elections, which the ECI conducted in four phases. This time, the gap will be 80 days. It will delay the constitution of the Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim legislative assemblies – their terms end on June 2. There will be less time available for government formation in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and at the national level since the term of the AP legislature expires on June 11 and for the Lok Sabha on June 16.

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Earlier this month, another significant development related to the general elections occurred. The high-level committee headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind submitted its One Nation One Election report. The committee suggested a framework for simultaneously holding the elections to the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. It recommends that the process kick off from a specified date, after which the Lok Sabha will have its five-year tenure, which will be called its full term.

The term of individual state legislatures will end with the tenure of the Lok Sabha. This way, both elections will take place in a synchronised manner. After this specified date, if a government loses a no-confidence motion and resigns, then mid-term, elections will occur. The newly elected legislature will only be in office for the unexpired portion of the full five-year term.

The Kovind panel noted that simultaneous elections “will fundamentally transform the electoral process and overall governance. They will optimise scarce resources and encourage voters to participate in the electoral process in larger numbers. Disruptions to governance and policy paralysis resulting from the application of the Model Code of Conduct and its adverse impact on economic growth will be mitigated”. It is up to the next government to see which of the panel’s recommendations it will want to take up.

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But, before taking any policy action, it should undergo a careful evaluation to check whether it would fulfil its intended purpose. For example, it is common knowledge that candidates contesting elections spend beyond the expenditure limit. In this and earlier elections, parties have declared their candidates before the ECI announced the polls. This move allows candidates to start spending money before the ECI can start counting it towards their expenditure limit. Similarly, in a phased election, there is no question of a quiet period for voters. If campaigning stops in one area, the star campaigners of parties are moved to other regions. Traditional and new media then carry the message to the voters where polling will occur, defeating the purpose of the quiet period. These are two simple examples of well-intentioned actions failing in their purpose.

Policy actions can often have unintended consequences. Some can defeat the purpose of the action or have undesirable results. Robert Merton, a Harvard professor, examined this theory in a 1936 paper titled The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action. He identified a few sources of unanticipated consequences, like ignorance, analytical errors, and the “imperious immediacy of interest”. The last one refers to prioritising short-term gain over long-term consequences.

The mechanism proposed by the Kovind panel could also have unanticipated consequences. For example, legislators are already being horse-traded after polls where no political party gets a clear mandate. Will this trend become more pronounced when parties realise there will be a higher political cost if they do not seize the opportunity to form a government at the beginning of the five-year cycle? Would it increase political pressure on the Governor and the non-partisan office of the Speaker?

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Under the proposed simultaneous polls scheme, a government that comes into power after a mid-term election will have a shorter tenure. What will be the incentive of such a government to take tough policy decisions when it will have less time to prove its governance record? It could resort to populist short-term measures to win the next election. Such mid-term polls would reduce the time for legislatures to function. Since elections will have to be held again at the end of five years to maintain the synchronous calendar, it will not reduce but add to any perceived inefficiencies caused by the polls.

Renowned jurist Nani Palkhiwala called elections the heartbeat of democracy. Therefore, any change in something so critical should avoid a surprise. The changes in our electoral system should be rigorously evaluated to ensure that the intention and the outcome are in harmony.

Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed are personal

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