The Perils of Prolonged Polls
A three-week election schedule would unravel stalled governance and dormant foreign policy
The election schedule for 2014 parliamentary elections has raised serious issues regarding the efficiency, cost and prolonged period of administrative paralysis. It also needs to be tested from the equity point of view in terms of equal opportunity to all the contesting parties in a deepening fractious polity.
Election notification from the EC began on March 14, and the last notification for polling was on April 17. The poll has been scheduled in nine phases, from April 7 to May 12, with the counting on May 16. Thus, a total of 72 days will be taken in the completion of parliamentary elections.
The model code of conduct leads both the state and central governments move into a slow pace of governance. New decisions on investment or other forms of policy initiatives are not taken if such decisions are likely to impact election results.
The bureaucracy, loath to any form of risk, adopts wait-and-watch mode. The ministers and other key political functionaries get busy in their constituencies with little time for disposal of serious matters.
The truth is that government functioning comes to a halt except minimum necessary maintenance, though the EC keeps clarifying that there is no stoppage of normal activity. It also impacts foreign policy as other countries wait for the next government to be installed. In some respects, security also get affected as procurement decisions in the defence ministry do not get easy passage.
Such a long duration of electoral process adversely affects the campaigns of political parties. Given a live and vibrant media, it is difficult to escape from the whispering campaign. Though exit polls are banned, election prospects get reported, indirectly signalling the party better placed to romp home. The confused voter further gets bewildered.
The cost involved in conducting the election is huge. It is impossible for candidates to stick to prescribed expenditure ceiling. Longer the period, greater will be the violation of this ceiling. Truth becomes the first casualty. It also costs the exchequer heavily. The 1984 polling for parliamentary elections was in three phases with an expenditure of about .` 82 crore. Since then, it has been escalating and the expenditure on conducting the current elections would cross .` 1,000-crore mark.
Scheduling and Remedy
The election schedule is decided in consultation with the home ministry, agencies responsible for law and order and internal security, and state governments. The agencies responsible for mobilising police forces favour prolonged elections so that the forces are able to move across the country. However, there is a need for a more efficient deployment to complete the responsibility in less time and, thus, resume normal law and order and maintenance activity.
The election schedule makes for a strong case for a shorter span of the electoral process. Barring third, fifth and sixth phases, which account for 331 parliamentary constituencies, the remaining constituencies could be easily accommodated in two more phases. There is no case for first, second, fourth and ninth phases, with only six, seven, five and 41 parliamentary constituencies respectively.
So, holding elections in about 100 constituencies in one phase is quite practical. It should be possible to ensure free and fair elections in five phases in about three weeks.
The experience of other countries should guide the EC for keeping a minimum duration for elections. South Africa, UK and US have one-day polls. Brazil and France, which have run off dates on account of proportional representation, conclude in a shorter period barring campaign period for final results than in India.
Clubbing Assembly Polls
There is a more serious aspect to the electoral process. The assembly and parliamentary elections do not necessarily coincide due to constitutional and electoral provisions. So, it distracts our focus from growth and dev- elopment to unproductive, acrimonious and extraneous agenda. During 2012-13, 11 assembly elections were held in different states.
In the last quarter of the current year, elections are scheduled in 3-4 states. Yes, coterminous elections of assembly and Parliament will require constitutional amendment, yet, EC could club the assembly elections with the parliamentary elections where they become due either in the preceding or following six months of Parliament elections. This would significantly curtail the “tamasha” of elections and the nation would focus more on the agenda of growth.
Democracy is the lifeline of our nation. It is the foundation of our constitutional fabric. Electoral process is a means to established democratic institutional framework. With the rising cost of elections and ever-increasing stakes in capturing power, the longer duration of election process has a negative impact and does not strengthen the cause of democracy, which it professes to promote.