While it may not be possible to hold single phase elections in the country, especially in large States, the number of phases and duration need to be cut down, according to Mr. T.S. Krishnamurthy, former Chief Election Commissioner of India.
Initiating a discussion on “Simultaneous polls to Legislatures: Desirability and Feasibility” at the Chennai chapter of Observer Research Foundation on February 6, 2016, Mr Krishnamurthy examined the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections. He differentiated between simultaneous polling to legislatures held in a single phase and simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. Both are a need of the hour, he said.
He opined that constitutional limitations, disparity between national and state election laws and more importantly the lack of political will to institute electoral reforms are some of the major impediments that withhold the practicality of simultaneous elections.
Analysing the possibility of single phase elections, Mr Krishnamurthy said that there are logistical and practical difficulties in holding polls in a single phase. Nevertheless, he also noted that elections held in several phases spread over a temporal spectrum does give undue advantage to voters in the later phase of the elections by significantly influencing voter choice. It also allows political parties to reassess their campaign strategy and disproportionately benefits the large cash rich parties.
The former CEC said organising elections is a laborious process. Polling is impacted by various regional considerations such as the number of constituencies, local weather conditions, regional events, availability of polling booths and state laws. While it may not be possible to hold single phase elections, especially in large states, the number of phases and duration will have to be reduced, opined Mr Krishnamurthy.
Speaking on simultaneous elections, Mr Krishnamurthy said it is not possible to hold local body elections concurrent with centre and state polls, since local body elections are governed by state laws which vary widely across states. Further, it would be highly difficult to forge a synergy between various State Election Commissions due to incongruous state laws. However, it is definitely possible to hold simultaneous elections to the State and Centre, noted Mr Krishnamurthy.
Examining the feasibility of holding concurrent polls to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, Mr Krishnamurthy referred to the Sudarshan Natchiappan Parliamentary Committee report. He endorsed the view that it is feasible to conduct simultaneous elections. However, while the constitution provides for legislatures with a fixed tenure of five years, the longevity of the legislature is subject to the vagaries of political dynamics in the state. Further, the Constitution does not allow for dissolution of an elected House for the purposes of an election. The second obstacle is the procedural incongruity in various state election laws, which will have to be harmonised in-order to hold elections in a single phase to multiple states.
Discussing the factors necessary to establish simultaneous elections, Mr Krishnamurthy said that a constitutional amendment is imperative. An amendment is required to make the tenure of legislatures (Centre and State) fixed, shielded from the vagaries of unfolding political cataclysm. Also, the constitution must allow for an house to be dissolved prematurely for the purposes of an election. Additionally, political consensus must evolve, to allow for the amendment of state election laws to be consistent with each other.
Enumerating the advantages of simultaneous elections, Mr Krishnamurthy said that concurrent elections will put an end to the election fatigue that has plagued the nation. There has been a state election almost every year in the past decade and this year five states are slated to go to the polls. Conducting simultaneous elections shall reduce the massive expenditure that is incurred for organising separate polls to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies.
The cut-down in expenditure shall benefit both the government and political parties alike. Government can minimise its administrative expenses by holding polls together, further frequent mobilisation men and resources for the conduct of year on year elections can be avoided. As for the political parties, simultaneous elections will enable them to reduce campaign costs, streamline their poll strategy and decrease competitive spending. It may also help parties to formulate a coherent poll strategy that resonates with the voter base, both at the centre and in the states.
Despite the logistical difficulties and administrative challenges involved in organising simultaneous elections, the election machinery is adequately resourced and competent to conduct such a massive exercise, observed Mr Krishnamurthy.
Speaking of electoral reforms, Mr Krishnamurthy endorsed the idea of state funding of elections. Money and muscle power play a dominant role in today’s political process, especially in elections, he said. Regardless of the expenditure-limits imposed by the Representation of the Peoples Act (1951), parties spend over and above to attract voters, this includes the promise of freebies and in many cases transaction of hard cash for votes. It is almost impossible for the election commission to review this expenditure and identify excesses, partly due to paucity of time and resources and mainly due to falsification of financial information submitted by these parties.
State funding of elections could put an end this massive campaign splurge, moreover a fixed allocation will provide a level playing field for all parties partaking in the election. A National Election Fund can be setup by a simple amendment to the Representation of Peoples Act (1951). Having a central institution that channels campaign funds to parties will be effective to track election expenditure and identify clandestine transactions. Further, the fund will also be subject to CAG’s scrutiny. Several European nations have experimented with state funded elections and the results have been largely positive, observed Mr Krishnamurthy.
Elaborating on electoral reforms, Mr Krishnamurthy stated that the ‘first-past-the-post’ system needs a critical review. This method of electing the people’s representative has given undue advantage to parties that play the number game. In many cases the winning candidate’s vote share is barely above 30 percent, leaving other voices in the electorate without any representation. While this method has served well in the past decades, it is time that we reform this process, but this would require a constitutional amendment, noted Mr Krishnamurthy.
The anti defection law that was introduced to prevent floor crossing in the house has not worked well, especially when the ruling party has a majority on the floor. Mr Krishnamurthy opined that the authority to decide on defections must be transferred to the President (from the speaker of the house), who shall act on the advice of the Election Commission.
Responding to questions on the composition of election commission consisting of a chief election commissioner and two other commissioners, Mr Krishnamurthy said that he supported collective decision making as opposed to a single member commission. Lastly on the question of right to recall, he subscribed to the idea that the ability to recall an elected candidate, after a period of two and half years in case of non-performance, will definitely improve the quality of elected representatives.
This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.