Sun, 07 Jun, 2020

Electoral reforms should ‘deepen’ democracy

If the NITI Aayog wants to be the think-tank for reforms in politics, elections and democracy, it should work to energize grassroots governance

06th July 2019, 03:31 Hrs


The nationalist vocabulary of “One nation, one civil code; One nation, one tax; One nation, one ‘dharma’; One ‘Rashtra’, one community; Ek Desh, Ek Jubaan” has actually less to do with national solidarity. It exhibits absolute disdain for inclusiveness of multiple communities, cultures and languages. The heartbeats and the soul drenched with the jargon of ‘Ek titli, anek titliyan’ (One butterfly, many butterflies) would be today scoffed at as pseudo-secular and bogus nationalism. The “Mile Sur Mera Tumhara” is dwindling from the dictionary of the nouveau patriots and nationalists. We may get today song promoting “Ek Desh, Ek Sur” as opposed to “Mile Sur Hamara”.  

 The atmosphere in the 17th Indian Lok Sabha, the apex chamber of the world’s largest democracy degenerated into a public street with BJP parliamentarians relentlessly shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ to ridicule non-BJP MPs during the oath-taking ceremony. The vocabulary stinks of majoritarian repression and contempt for liberal thinking and free choice. Such a vocabulary dilutes national belonging and eventually damages unity of the ‘union of States’ and 

the people.   

 Simultaneous elections in a restricted sense would mean that the voter casts the vote to elect the representatives to the Lok Sabha and State Assembly on the same day. If extended to the grassroots layer, it would mean that the choice to the District, Taluka and Village Panchayat could be concurrent. The current debate is on simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Assembly as it would be highly unfeasible to fasten over 2.5 lakh Panchayats to a single day. Commencing in 1951, the first four elections were simultaneous. Political developments from 1968 onwards necessitated a departure as the tenure of Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies did not fit into the initial straight jacket.  

 In 1999, the 170th Report of the Law Commission of India headed by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy had recommended simultaneous elections in its package of electoral reforms. The issue resurfaced in 2015 when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice examined the feasibility of simultaneous elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the “One Nation, One Poll” jingle at the Valedictory Address on the Law Day Celebrations in 2017, organised by the Law Commission of India and NITI Aayog. Later, the President of India and the Prime Minister are forcefully hitting the ball of simultaneous elections raising the issue of the ‘Code of Conduct for Elections’ which supposedly eclipses public projects and governance. The government made a reference to the Law Commission in April, 2018. In less than four months, the Commission presented its report strongly recommending simultaneous elections. Interestingly, the lead was taken by NITI Aayog, with a discussion paper entitled “Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The What, Why and How” authored by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, though its core business is to focus on Sustainable Development Goals and to enhance cooperative federalism using a bottom-up approach.  

 Undoubtedly elections are costly affairs in terms of public resources getting locked into the conduct of the mammoth exercise. It has to be accepted that ordinary governance gets fractured due to the engagement of the administrative machinery and security personnel in the election process. In addition, the election spending by candidates and political parties is nothing short of being prodigal. Caste and communal sentiments get the polish and shine during the election time. But, these are the inevitable costs of elections of Indian democracy with multi-political parties, innumerable castes and multiple interest groups divided by language, culture, regional identity, economic status and access to opportunities. Election is the price and also the prize of democracy. Election is the engine of political and social transformation of the wagons of the train of parliamentary democracy. It is wrong to start with the hypothesis that elections are roadblocks and speed breakers for India’s governance, development and transformation. The case for simultaneous elections cannot rest on such foundations. Any electoral reform should be examined on whether such reform ‘deepens’ and ‘extends’ democracy.   

 Simultaneous elections would necessitate quite major amendments to a host of constitutional provisions. The term of the Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies will have to be synchronized by amending Article 83/172 respectively. The power of the President and the Governor to dissolve the House (Article 85/174) will either require deletion or restriction. The box of Emergency provisions under Article 356 would require re-writing. The sin qua non of parliamentary democracy which is embodied under the canon of ‘collective responsibility’ of the Council of Ministers to the House (Article 75/164) cannot stand unless the ‘no-confidence’ against the government is supported by a constructive vote of confidence on the successor. Such constitutionally baptized commitment of the Council of Ministers and the House to a fixed term derecognizes parliamentary accountability. All the above being constitutional amendments would require two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament and ratification by at least half of the state assemblies. This means that a strong consensus needs to emerge amongst the political parties.   

 Apart from the challenge of constitutional amendments, the significant factor is the fear of regional parties getting marginalized and irrelevant over the might of national parties. A few research studies conducted on voter behaviour indicate that around 77% of voters get enveloped with national issues and national leadership showing tendencies of voting for same party both at centre and state level. Though the performance of the BJD in Odisha is put forward to counter such claims, it is more of a rare exception. The correlation of voter choice for same party is strong. If elections are held at different time, the electoral outcome could be different. Simultaneous elections tend to put national parties in a distinct advantageous position. It is this issue which hits at cooperative federalism. This will not only arrest but also reverse the deepening of democracy curbing the legitimate aspirations of the multiple-interest groups to effectively participate in the democratic exercise and share political power.  

 If the problem to be tackled is of governance and related speed breakers due to the ‘election code of conduct’, there could be intervention on these specific issues with the ECI. There is no need to change the baby if the issue can be resolved by tinkering with the bath-tub. If the NITI Aayog wants to be the think-tank for reforms in politics, elections and democracy, it should work to energize and provide the vision for the grassroots and the bottom layer of governance. 

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