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One Nation, Many Elections: Time to repair the feet of clay!

TIOL - COB( WEB) - 912
MARCH 21, 2024

By Shailendra Kumar, Founder Editor

IF the unquestionable soul of democracy is the election, the heart of election is the turnout! After all, elections are won by turnout! Voters' participation is of paramount importance which makes democracy a living thing or a changing organism! In fact, this is what makes democracy a beautiful mosaic of different religions and different people of diverse cultural moorings! This element also makes it a class apart and a degree higher than other political systems that exist in the political governance realm, worldwide! However, what triggers fatigue to voters in the participatory democracy is the episode of non-synchronised elections. Fatigue along with many other factors such as costs involved for almost one-third of Indian voters who are migrants within the country for work purposes and have to suffer wage loss and incur travel expenses to cast their votes, is one of substantive reasons for low voter turnout in most elections. For instance, it was 66% in 2014 and a bit above 67% in 2019 general elections. This is despite mega awareness drumbeats orchestrated by the Election Commission!

Intriguingly, the voter turnout was recorded 75% way back in 1951. Logically, with the growing use of technology and greater facilities being provided by the Election Commission today, the participation should have swelled but, ironically, it has been on a slide for myriad reasons. For assembly polls, it is a bit higher because voters tend to feel more strongly about their local issues and participate in overwhelming number. Overall, it may safely be inferred that frequent polls tend to inject boredom and apathy among voters about exercising their right to franchise and tend to give it a go-by! Hence, it does not warrant hair-pulling by political scientists to make an inference that non-simultaneous conduct of federal and state elections is evidently not doing any good to the institution of democracy - of late, plagued by many ailments. A contrast can be traced back if we look at the history of polls after Independence. Till 1967, all elections were held with a bright element of synchronicity and, statistically speaking, the voter turnout was pretty handsome - above 75%. Post-1967, thanks to frequent and grotesque invocation of Article 356, the synchronicity was torn away and, with each passing decade, the frequency leapt many notches, bringing the country to a vapid point where we stand today! The chunk of voters jumped manifolds in the subsequent decades but, um, not their participation! So, it is clearly an ill calling for legislative cure to be applied with alacrity!

Then comes the administrative and logistics costs. It is unmistakable horse sense that non-synchronised or frequent polls are bound to make deeper holes in the treasury chest. Such an exercise, albeit indispensable in nature, demonstrates non-creative administrative approach of a nation which can barely afford profligacy. Holding simultaneous polls for the federal, state and local bodies, would, beyond the pale of doubt, cost more and would also stretch the logistics machinery but would end up putting putty in the treasury holes in the long-run. Over a period of five years, the federal and state governments would be saving scarce public resources which can be spent on public welfare programmes. Secondly, what the Kovind Committee on 'One Nation, One Election' (ONOE) naturally felt coy about discussing is that simultaneous elections would also entail less resources to be spent by political parties which often seek shelter under such expenses to indulge in corrupt practices when in saddle of power! In other words, besides the lesser Exchequers' expenses, the burden on political parties and their politicians would also significantly lessen to mobilise resources to win elections. Thirdly, all such expenses by politicians are often beyond the books of account and are spent in cash which provides cemented legs to the shadow economy - bete noire of official GDP figures as they are unaccounted! I am of the opinion that merely-single-necessity to spend in cash by politicians means limited need for corruption in government contracts; lesser chances of warranting involvement of agencies like ED, CBI and Income Tax and lesser number of political scandals. This would also mean relatively cleaner politics which would attract more of educated and polished citizens into the vocation of public service. Financial murkiness of our polity and other political sludge are powerful drivers to drive away sophisticated and successful technocrats and others from taking any chance with the vocation of politics.

If we refer to the last week-released Kovind Committee Report, it has been profusely reported that simultaneous polls for all the layers of government would do a great deal of good to economic growth, investment decisions and opportunity cost of deferred decisions and disruptions to overall social harmony. Frequent enforcement of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) necessarily paralyses decision-making in the government which not only balefully hurts the pace of economic growth but also snarls FDI and investment eco-system. Leave aside the freezing of important policy decisions, even Corporate India suspends its capital-intensive decisions, fearing a change in policy framework by the new government. The report cites a study which reveals that in case of certain states which go to polls immediately after general elections, the impact of MCC lingers on over a horizon of seven months! Terrific disruptions in business environment! Modern India which needs to catch up with many large economies in terms of higher per capita income, can hardly afford such bumps which warp the economy!

One of the prominently highlighted chapter of the Kovind Committee Report is a comprehensive and lucid study done by Mr N K Singh and Prachi Mishra. They have examined the macroeconomic fall-outs of harmonising the electoral cycles in India. And their key findings underline comparatively high growth at both the national and state levels, and relatively lower inflation if synchronised polls are held in the country. It also suggests relatively higher post-election government expenditure which may be careened toward capital compared to revenue spending and better performance indicators in sectors like health, education and governance. The study concludes that overall, the simultaneous conduct of polls can have far-reaching salubrious economic benefits, in addition to curtailed administrative and logistics costs. The study also refers to simultaneous elections culture being nourished in many Western and even African countries. And some of them are Sweden, Belgium and South Africa. Even in the oldest democracy, the US, the timings for elections of President, the Congress and local elections are synchronised. Thus, it is certainly not a new-fangled idea and it has been working pretty gratifyingly in many countries.

About a raft of myths which were circulated against the concept of synchronised polls, the Committee was told by several distinguished judges, corporate captains, economists, academia and politicians that all such myths do not hold water in terms of kosher substance. Out of 47 political parties which were invited to share their mind, 32 supported the proposition. One of the myths being talked about loudly is that the federal election is fought on national issues whereas State polls are on regional issues and regional parties may not be able to champion local issues strongly! No leg for such an argument as empirical evidence from the previous federal and state polls suggest that although BJP was overwhelmingly voted for the Parliamentary seats, the regional parties scored over the BJP for the State Assembly elections! A case of hollowed claim! The second myth is about diluting democratic federalism. Incidentally, constitutional experts have rightly argued against it as merely holding elections simultaneously will have no bearing on either the basic structure of the Constitution nor its federal character which is now ingrained in the nature of the nation's polity. Antagonists just need to snooze over such hand-wringing!

In a nutshell, kudos to the Kovind Committee for executing the Herculean task with flying colours and also taking the pain to draft the wordings of Constitutional amendments required to undertake such an exercise. The Committee has also suggested tailoring of a common electoral roll and national voter identification card. For those who prosaically continue to be hypochondriac and burn PM's effigy and also disagree with the recommendations of the Committee, not based on merit but for partisan political reasons, they should continue to do so as the most towering virtue of democracy is a rich variety of individual differences! Given the quality of research resorted to by the Committee of eminent and savant members in a short span of time, the Modi Government indeed missed the opportunity to sink its teeth into the red-hot issue of freebies which could have been a part of the High-Level Committee's terms of reference. Merely holding all the elections in synchronicity would not cure all the ills of the Indian democracy. The abusive culture of irresponsible spending of taxpayers' money in the form of eye-popping package of freebies is another ailment which calls for immediate cure before many States sink in their financial mulch! Looking at the brittle health of state finances for many, freebies sound more like a Faustian pact! Yuck, joy of weeping, perhaps! For more than half of the States, the hangover of pre-election promises turns into anxiety or, it may be called, severe 'hangxiety'! Mama Mia! Save the Indian democracy from the deepening morass of despair, aggravating pathology and disenchantment among its citizens! Let's once again believe that it is possible to pull it off and repair the feet of clay ailing our polity! Ciao!


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Shri N K Singh, recipient of TIOL FISCAL HERITAGE AWARD 2023, delivering his acceptance speech at Fiscal Awards event held on April 6, 2024 at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi.

Shri Ram Nath Kovind, Hon'ble 14th President of India, addressing the gathering at TIOL Special Awards event.