Simultaneous polls: cost, efficiency arguments bogus

Simultaneous polls: cost, efficiency arguments bogus

Newly independent India held parliamentary and assembly elections simultaneously until 1967. Indira Gandhi is often blamed for the breakdown of the synchronisation of elections. However, the onset of the transition from an effectively single-party democracy toward a multi-party coalitional democracy would have forced this outcome irrespective of her immediate political compulsions.

In 1983, the First Annual Report of the Election Commission recommended "holding simultaneous elections" to avoid the wastage of resources. The issue was raised again in 1989 during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure. The BJP supported simultaneous polls even though it lacked the capacity to manage nationwide campaigns. A decade later, the Law Commission argued that holding separate elections "should be an exception and not the rule."

More recently, a Parliamentary Standing Committee report and a NITI Aayog discussion paper have supported simultaneous polls, while the President and the prime minister have called for a debate.

There are at least five proposals for synchronisation of elections. The simplest of them calls for holding all by-polls due in a year within a pre-declared period. Under a slightly ambitious proposal, parliamentary and all assembly elections due in that particular year would have to be held simultaneously.

Another proposal calls for holding all assembly elections along with parliamentary elections. A milder variant of this proposal requires about half of the assembly elections to be held along with parliamentary elections and the rest around parliament's midterm. The most ambitious proposal requires synchronisation of elections to all three tiers of the government.

The current debate on this issue is centred on the synchronisation of quinquennial assembly and parliamentary polls. Opponents argue that synchronisation will require amendments to the basic structure of the Constitution.

Moreover, staggered elections are helpful in the absence of the right to recall because they compel governments to perform. Also, simultaneous polls could lead to one-party rule by allowing national parties to frame the agenda of elections and outspend smaller parties and independents. As a result, dissidents and minorities might find it difficult to find space in the polity.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that simultaneous elections will contribute to national solidarity/security, increase voter participation, reduce costs and improve policy-making.

Those who stress national solidarity/security argue that holding simultaneous elections will nudge voters to prioritise national issues. The assumption that national issues are necessarily more important than local ones is problematic, though.

A variant of the above justification suggests that reducing the frequency of elections will help avoid social fragmentation because election campaigns are socially divisive. However, it would be more helpful to ban divisive campaigning,
instead.

urthermore, it is argued that frequent elections divert Central Armed Police Forces meant to fight insurgencies. The diversion is, however, necessitated because of the lack of insulation of state police forces from politics. Holding fewer elections is not the solution to this problem. We need police reforms.

The second set of justifications relates to voter behaviour. It is argued that less frequent elections will reduce voter fatigue and enhance participation. Also, clubbing elections will help increase participation in parliamentary elections as assembly elections generally attract more voters.

More importantly, simultaneous polls will not allow national/multi-state parties to make contradictory promises in assembly elections of different states and in parliamentary and assembly elections in the same state. We need voter awareness campaigns, a culture of informed public debate, and a free media rather than fewer elections to address these concerns.

Cost argument

Reducing the cost of conducting elections is one of the most important justifications offered in several official reports and popular debate. The Election Commission will certainly reap economies of scale and scope by conducting nationwide operations both at the state and central level. However, potential savings do not appear to be substantial.

The Commission presently spends not more than  10,000 crore on conducting one round of parliamentary and assembly elections, while the cost of conducting simultaneous elections is about  4,500 crore.

So, ignoring the expenditure on the purchase of additional EVMs, the potential savings are of the order of  5,500 crore that is about half the annual budget of some of the smaller north-eastern states. However, these savings amount to less than  10 per person per year.

 Proponents argue that the money spent by the Commission is insignificant compared to that spent by candidates. Frequent elections cause large-scale diversion of resources from productive projects to speculative investment in elections. Fewer elections will reduce this wasteful expenditure.

However, one big election every five years will aggravate the desperation to win at any cost.  

The last set of justifications relate to the impact of frequent elections on policy-making and governance. It is argued that frequent elections induce policy myopia/short-termism, policy paralysis and risk aversion among ruling parties as they face populist pressures ahead of elections.

Also, the Model Code of Conduct arguably compounds policy paralysis in the run-up to elections. Lastly, elections divert the state machinery from regular administrative and developmental activities.

The Code only restrains ruling parties from misusing state machinery to influence voters. The implementation of the Code in a state does not affect activities of any other state government or the central government in any other state. So, in each state, simultaneous elections will at best save one or two months of "diversion" out of sixty months, which is about 3% of a government's tenure.

In short, the question is not whether simultaneous elections are feasible. If the newly independent country could hold elections simultaneously, so can 21stcentury India.

However, the deepening of multi-party democracy over the years has meant that in the changed context, simultaneous elections may no longer be desirable as they promise minor efficiency gains at the cost of a level playing field in elections and the accountability of
governments.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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