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COVID-ELECTIONS AND A LONG-DELAYED IDEA

Author: Pavan Kasturi, IV year: University College of Law, Osmania University

Co-author: M. Sai Rohith, III year: University College of Law, Osmania University


Time to discuss a timely idea

At the 80th All India Presiding Officers Conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi revived the discussion in the country for ‘One Nation, One Election’ and a single voter list for all the polls in India[1]. India is going through its worst phase during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2021. State governments are monitoring the situation and have been taking various measures in their states to control the situation. It is not the case in some of the states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Puducherry (UT) and Kerala, where the state legislatures were dissolved and the Model Code of Conduct was placed by the Election Commission. The absence of the state governments in these states made an impact on the day-to-day monitoring of the situation and administration. The election commission assures that elections will be held following the Covid protocols, but in practice, the rallies and door-to-door campaigning turned this into a super spreader event.


The focus of the political parties during these tough times must be on saving lives and improving the medical condition. But ironically, they were rather busy campaigning. The testing rate is being compromised, the vaccine availability is very less, oxygen supply is scarce, the death rate has increased. Given these conditions, is this the right time to conduct elections? Why is it that there are elections very often in India? If there was ‘one nation one election’, would that succour the present situation? The answer would certainly be ‘yes’. Even though the Covid scenario is just to digress the present issue, nonetheless, it is very much important in a mature democracy to debate such ideas.


Election is just a means in democracy, but repeated elections show that it has become the only objective of a democracy.”- Bhupendra Yadav[2].


Elections in India take place at three levels: Centre, State and Local bodies. It is one of the noteworthy countries where recognition and protection to local governments were added in the constitution (through 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments), unlike the USA where only Center and State elections are mentioned, and the UK where the elections to the local bodies are decided by the central government. Local elections are not included in simultaneous elections as these are subjects of state government and only the State governments have the power to make laws regarding it and also these elections are directed and controlled by the State Election Commissions of the respective states. Moreover, as there are many local elections, it would be impracticable to synchronize them with central and State elections.


This idea is not new to India, the 1951, 1956, 1962 and 1967 elections were conducted simultaneously. But this cycle was broken because some state assemblies were prematurely dissolved because of lack of confidence and in 1970, Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections were held in 1971. The use of Article 356 (President’s Rule) of the Constitution also disrupted the schedule of simultaneous elections. Sometimes Ruling State governments dissolve prematurely out of their will like the TRS government in Telangana decided to advance elections in 2018. Similarly, the dissolution of the 13th Lok Sabha eight months before the expiry of its term.


Constitution and Elections

Indian constitution under Article 327 read with entry 72 of the Union list, Parliament is empowered to make law for all matters relating to the election of either Houses of Parliament as well as the state legislature. Article 81(2) and Article 172(1) mentions that the duration of the House of the People and a Legislative Assembly is five years. Whereas Article 85(2)(b) empowers the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha before the expiry of its term, but while exercising this function, he is bound by Article 74(1) which directs him to act by the advice tendered by the Council of Ministers. Article 174(2)(b) allows the governor to dissolve the Legislative Assembly but, under Article 163 this power shall exercise with the aid and advice of the council of ministers.


Think tanks and their opinion

In the year 1983 Election commission of India recommended the Synchronization of elections. Further, the Justice BP Jeevan Reddy-headed Law Commission in its 170th Report[3] in May 1999 and the 79th Parliamentary committee report on law and justice in 2015 recommended the same[4]. Finally, in 2017 a research paper published by NITI Aayog[5] titled ‘Analysis of simultaneous elections: the “what”, “why” and “how”’ was also in support of simultaneous elections.


Backbreaking problems because of Unsynchronized elections

Dr S.Y. Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner said[6]that frequent elections lead to 4C’s I.e., corruption, communal & caste divisiveness, and crony capitalism. Model Code of Conduct has an impact on development programs which leads to policy paralysis, Problems relating to Law & order and governance, Massive expenditures by Government and other stakeholders for election procedure, Engagement of security forces for prolonged periods, postponement of structural reforms due to elections, low voter turnout, etc.


Another side of the coin

Operational practicability involves necessitating fresh elections because governments may lose the mandate of people, the incumbent government may dissolve the Assembly and go in for advance elections, President’s rule (Article 356) may be imposed if the State government cannot carry out its functions as per the provisions of the Constitution. To synchronize there is a need to reduce or extend the term of the State Legislatures. The imposition of president rule affects the federal spirit of States. At the same time the principle of collective responsibility doesn’t apply to the caretaker government.


Other issues like change in voter behaviour, Local issues being neglected, Regional Political parties losing their voice, reducing accountability as politicians turn blind eye to the problems because the test of election is only once in five years, elections keep the bond intact between the people and their representatives.


Logistical and Resource allocation perspective

According to the NITI Aayog report, the biggest challenge in conducting simultaneous elections is resource optimization. General resources required for conducting elections are -

  • Polling officials for supervision and conduct of elections.

  • Security personnel to ensure safe, secure, incident-free polls.

  • Electronic Voting Machines.

  • Transportation and Storage of poll-related materials – EVMs, inks, paper for electoral rolls, VVPATs, digital cameras, video cameras.

  • Transportation requirements of Election Commission officials and security personnel.

  • Strong rooms for the storage of EVMs until counting.


Global Picture

Sweden, South Africa, Philippines, Brazil, Belgium, Germany (through a constructive vote of no confidence) and even in the UK (through Fixed-term Parliament’s act, 2011.) elections are conducted simultaneously.


Is it feasible to implement in the existing legal and constitutional framework?

  • Preparation of Electoral Rolls

Under Article 324 the Election Commission has the power to control, conduct and direct elections to all Parliament, to the Legislature of every state and elections to the offices of the President and Vice President. Whereas Under Article 243 State election commission has the above-mentioned powers to conduct local body elections. Both the bodies are free to prepare their electoral rolls for elections, and this exercise does not have to be coordinated. Some states like Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha etc. allow the SEC to use the EC’s voter’s rolls for the local body elections. In others, the SEC uses the Election Commission’s voters list for the preparation and revision of rolls for the local polls.


  • Two solutions by PMO

First, a constitutional amendment to Articles 243K and 243ZA grants the power to prepare electoral rolls and the conduct of local body elections by the SECs. Through this amendment, it would be mandatory to have a single electoral roll for all elections in the country.


Second, to persuade the state governments to amend their respective laws and adopt the Election Commission’s (EC) voters list for the local polls.


  • President Rule

After S.R.Bommai’s case[7], the misuse of President rule has been reduced because the usage of Article 356 is widely regulated by the judiciary. Restoration of the Congress-led Nebam Tuki Government in Arunachal Pradesh (Nabam Rebia v. Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly[8]) in 2016 is a classic example of this. As it is mandatory to conduct an election before completion of 3 years of president rule, elections in a particular state where president rule is imposed have to be conducted in the forthcoming schedule.


  • No confidence motions

Procedure relating to the no-confidence motion is mentioned under Rule 198A in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha. The rule mentions that the Speaker has to take cognizance of a no-confidence motion when at least 50 members of the Lower house are in support. By introducing a ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ the government can only be removed if there is a positive majority in an alternate government.


  • Hung Situation

Hung is a situation where no particular political party or pre-existing coalition has an absolute majority to form the government. Hung Parliament or success of no-confidence motion is a grave Constitutional crisis and to maintain simultaneous elections, it is advisable to conduct the election in the forthcoming schedule, i.e., the election which is due within the next 2.5 years. Till then, the President on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers should run the government. The same should apply to the State Legislative Assemblies and the Governor should be entrusted with this task. The parliamentary committee has envisaged holding of elections of some legislative assemblies of midterm of Lok Sabha and remaining with the end of the tenure of Lok Sabha.


  • Budgetary defeat

If a bill fails to attain the majority in Lok Sabha, it can be considered as the defeat of the ruling government. A defeat in the money bill is a political/parliamentary defeat of the government, no government has ever lost its power due to Budgetary Defeat. Since India is a Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, the defeat would necessitate the resignation of a government (Article 75(3) and Rule 198 of Lok Sabha). But in such a far-sighted situation, the hung procedure mentioned above can be one solution. Along with that, with a successful constructive vote of no confidence, the newly elected government can help this situation.


  • Operational Feasibility

To conduct these elections simultaneously Election commission would need certain logistic arrangements in terms of procurement of more electronic machines, hiring of poll employees, and staggering the election dates. But since the election commission is on board and suggested that operational feasibility will not be an issue for conducting elections together provided there is consensus, unanimity of opinion among the political parties along with necessary constitutional amendments.


CONCLUSION

It is the Constitution that provided sufficient room to make amendments to suit the changing times. While simultaneous elections, as a potential solution to the above problem, needs to be seen in a wider context rather than its literal meaning. It is not just the idea but also the implementation which should be taken care of. Nowadays constant political dissent is common among parties, but a consensus is needed on an issue of such importance. A proposal that transforms the Indian election system and largely synchronizes electoral cycles and thereby significantly limiting frequent election cycles should be encouraged even if it is politically risky and unpopular to implement.


[1]Modi pitches for ‘one nation one election’,The hindu, (Nov 26, 2020) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/one-nation-one-election-need-of-india-says-pm-modi/article33183867.ece, (last accessed: May 05, 2021)

[2]BJP’s agenda of ‘one nation, one election’ is a threat to democracy and federalism, National Herald India, https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/bjps-agenda-of-one-nation-one-election-is-a-threat-to-democracy-and-federalism, (last accessed: May 05, 2021)

[3]https://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/lc170.htm

[4]http://164.100.47.5/newcommittee/reports/EnglishCommittees/Committee%20on%20Personnel,%20PublicGrievances,%20Law%20and%20Justice/79.pdf

[5]Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, ANALYSIS OF SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS: THE “WHAT”, “WHY” AND “HOW”, NITI AYOG, (2017) https://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/Note%20on%20Simultaneous%20Elections.pdf

[6]Money power in elections is the biggest problem, The Economic Times, Oct 31, 2012,

Read more at:

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/money-power-in-elections-is-biggest-problem-former-chief-election-commissioner-s-y-quraishi/articleshow/17036686.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

(last accessed: May 05, 2021)

[7]1994 AIR 1918

[8]2016 SC 694.