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PM Modi’s reasoning for simultaneous elections stands on weak ground

India’s elections are neither as expensive as it is thought to be nor does it have to be as disruptive to national governance as it is made out to be. On the other hand, simultaneous elections can have tangible costs of reduced autonomy for states, potentially altering voter behaviour and locking in the voter for five years.

opinion Updated: Aug 31, 2017 12:22 IST
Narendra Modi,Simultaneous Polls,simultaneous elections
There is clear empirical evidence that a majority of voters tend to choose the same party when elections are held simultaneously to both the Centre and the state(Arun Sharma/HT PHOTO)

NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, has released a “three-year action agenda” report for India. NITI believes moving to a two-phase simultaneous election from 2024 is a much desired reform for the economic development of India. The argument is that India is on a “permanent campaign’ mode, a phrase coined by Sidney Blumenthal in 1980. India has had either a state or a national election every year for the last 30 years. Incessant demands of elections are exorbitantly expensive, derails governance and causes policy paralysis is the underlying premise for the clamour for simultaneous elections.

This reasoning stands on weak ground.

India’s elections are neither as expensive as it is thought to be nor does it have to be as disruptive to national governance as it is made out to be. On the other hand, simultaneous elections can have tangible costs of reduced autonomy for states, potentially altering voter behaviour and locking in the voter for five years.

NITI Aayog’s recommendation for simultaneous elections is based on an earlier discussion paper by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. The paper attempted to demonstrate that the present mode of elections imposes huge financial costs and induces policy paralysis. It is first important to determine if these are indeed as problematic as the paper claims.

The costs incurred by the Election Commission of India (ECI) for conducting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was Rs 3,870 crore. It costs another Rs 4,000 crore for elections to all the other 29 states of India. So, over a five-year cycle, the government incurs a total of Rs 8000 crore for all elections. This works out to roughly Rs 1,500 crore every year or a paltry Rs 20 per voter per year. To put this in context, India’s annual GDP is Rs 150 lakh crore. Every single year, India’s public sector companies alone lose 20 times more money than it costs to keep India a vibrant electoral democracy. This notion that the government can save enormous sums of money to help lift millions out of poverty by holding simultaneous elections is plain outlandish.

In 1979, all major political parties agreed to grant ECI the powers to regulate the ‘party in power’ during elections to provide for a level-playing field through a Model Code of Conduct (MCC). The MCC restricts certain capital expenditure projects of an incumbent government once elections are called. If India is indeed moving towards an era of greater devolution of finances and powers to states as NITI Aayog also claims, then why should an election code of conduct during elections in say, West Bengal lead to a policy paralysis in the rest of India when other states are free to launch projects and programmes? There is also sufficient research that shows there is little correlation between an incumbent government’s projects and electoral outcomes.

So, the four-decade old MCC may be in need of an overhaul, not India’s election schedules. This notion of a ‘policy paralysis’ is a mere alibi for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other senior ministers to spend a lot of their time campaigning during state elections at the expense of governance. But that is the prerogative and problem of just the two national parties, not of the electoral system or other regional parties.

Disparate election schedules are not the reason for policy paralysis. The dependence of the two national parties on their leaders to campaign for all state elections is. The case for simultaneous elections is feeble. The problems are neither as large as posited nor is the solution as elegant. However, there are some real significant costs to holding simultaneous elections.

To hold simultaneous elections, states will have to give up their existing powers under Article 172(1) of the Constitution that allows an elected state government to recommend dissolution of the assembly and call for elections. How is it that the Union government will retain its right to call for elections whenever it wants but the state governments cannot? There can be legitimate reasons for states to dissolve their assembly and call for fresh elections, as should be the case in Tamil Nadu currently. Under a simultaneous elections regime, the state will be beholden to the Union government for elections to its state, which goes against the very grain of political autonomy to states under our federal structure.

More importantly, our empirical research of 513 million voter choices in 16 elections between 1999 and 2014, covering 2600 assembly constituencies across six states shows that simultaneous elections impact voter behaviour in a significant manner.

In 77% of the constituencies, voters chose the same political party for both the state and Centre, when elections were held simultaneously. While only 61% of these constituencies chose the same party when elections are held even six months apart and when they are held wider apart, the relationship breaks completely.

There is clear empirical evidence that a majority of voters tend to choose the same party when elections are held simultaneously to both the Centre and the state. Further, why should a voter not be given the right to express her choice once more within a span of five years than restricting her to vote just once in a simultaneous election every five years? It is evident that the potential ramifications of simultaneous elections in terms of true federalism, impact on voter behaviour and denying a voter to cast her choice at least once more in a five-year period are not worth an annual estimated savings of Rs 1,000 crore every year or a disingenuous claim of policy paralysis.

Praveen Chakravarty is senior fellow in political economy, IDFC Institute & Founding Trustee, IndiaSpend

The views expressed are personal

@pravchak

First Published: Aug 31, 2017 12:18 IST