Editorial | Election calendar suits BJP well

Editorial | Election calendar suits BJP well

The long-drawn out election schedule, especially in states where BJP is weak or has high stakes, allows Modi to campaign extensively

The country has formally entered the election battlefield with the Election Commission of India (EC) announcing the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections. The war imagery is appropriate because the contending parties and candidates are going to fight it out with every weapon at their disposal in a no-holds barred struggle. The ideas and campaigns that will dominate the campaign are known. What strikes one most now is the long duration of the poll process, spread over 36 days in seven phases. This goes against the idea of keeping the elections fair and clean by keeping the poll process and the campaign short. Even for states where polling will be held on May 19, the last day of polling, the campaign actually starts now. Long campaign periods deny a level playing field to parties because only those with more resources will be able to sustain the campaign. In the present situation, it advantages the ruling BJP. That’s especially true because the schedule of polling announced seems to be tailor-made for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be able to criss-cross the country many times and campaign in the maximum number of constituencies possible. After all, he is the BJP’s main, if not the only, campaigner, and he cannot campaign as extensively as his party desperately needs him to if the elections were held in a shorter duration and with a more logical polling schedule. The EC has, of course, officially said that the reason for the very complicated, back-and-forth polling schedule is the need to move security forces around.  

It is difficult for candidates, party workers and others involved in the election to undertake such a long and arduous campaign in the searing summer heat. The physical, mental and economic cost will be very high. The main reason cited for holding elections in many phases is the need to ensure security for polling. This argument is not as valid now as it was in the past because poll violence and irregularities have come down over the decades, especially after the introduction of voting machines. The movement and deployment of security forces do not warrant such extended periods in these times of faster transport and communication facilities. States like Karnataka and Odisha, where polling has been traditionally peaceful, also have multiple phases of polling. But in Telangana, where there is a threat of disruption from Maoists, there is only one phase of polling. There are questions about the schedules for other states, too. The explanations are not very convincing and those who find politics behind this cannot be faulted. 

Keeping the poll process short is good in many ways. It will reduce the cost of elections and avoid waste of time, energy and other resources. It is known that election expenditure is the biggest black money-spinner in the country. No amount of control and supervision which the Election Commission claims to exercise has been able to reduce the election expenditure of candidates and parties. The expenditure has actually been increasing from election to election. There is more expenditure when there are more campaign days. When there is more expenditure, there is more corruption and room for poll malpractices. Moreover, the voting machines have to be kept in safe custody for long periods after the polling. The commission has to ensure their safety and parties have to keep vigil over them for weeks. This demands much expenditure and use of manpower. There is a view that the machines are vulnerable to manipulation in that period. 

The model code of conduct has to be in operation for a long period and the commission has to ensure that it is not violated. The normal functioning of the government both at the Centre and in the states stops for that period. Governments of states where the elections are held in the first phase will not be able to take any decisions that might be considered as violations of the model code till the last phase concludes. For example, the Tamil Nadu government will not be able to take any policy decisions for over a month even though the election in the state will be over in one day on April 18. In Karnataka also, the state government will not be able to take any important decisions for about a month even after April 23, when the polling concludes there. This is unfair to the people of these states. 

The duration of the poll process has increased over the years, though the technologies and facilities have improved over the same period. The 2004 Lok Sabha election was held over 21 days in four phases. The 2009 election saw five phases and 28 days. There were nine phases spread over 37 days in 2014. This year, the phases are only seven, but the process still goes on for 36 days. State assembly elections are also held over many days in many phases. Since elections take place in some state or the other almost every year, such long polling periods are not in the interest of the states or the country. 

There is no satisfactory explanation for some of the anomalies in the Election Commission’s scheduling of the elections and their phasing in many states. It has made the election process more difficult, inconvenient and cumbersome, and this goes against basic democratic principles and culture. Questions are increasingly being raised about the neutrality of the Election Commission and its functioning. While the scheduling of the elections has raised questions, equally inexplicable was its announcement at Sunday’s press conference that Jammu & Kashmir had eight Lok Sabha constituencies, while it has only six. It was corrected later, but such a mistake is not expected from the commission on a formal occasion like the announcement of the poll schedule. It is not right to expect the CEC to remember the number of Lok Sabha seats in all states, but such egregious mistakes should not be made by the commission.