Country without a pause

At a closed-door meeting with BJP office-bearers recently, Prime Minister Narendra >Modi made a case for holding elections to Parliament, State legislatures and local bodies simultaneously. Last week, a group of ministers initiated a discussion with Election Commission officials on the proposal. Certainly the proposal is far from new, having been made earlier by top BJP leaders. L.K. Advani has advocated it on occasion, and the BJP’s manifestos for the 2009 and 2014 general elections promised to “evolve a method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously”. The reasons cited are to check election expenditure and to impart stability to State governments. As a general idea, simultaneity can hardly be faulted as it would check election expenditure, free the Central government from a populism that is forced on it by a constantly ticking election cycle, and end the repeated pause on decision-making because of the model code of conduct. It is a necessary debate that the Prime Minister has begun. But it must be evaluated with a clear focus on the problems it seeks to solve, as well as its practicability.

Yes, the early years of the Republic saw simultaneous elections to national and State legislatures. That this link was firmly broken by the early 1970s provides an inkling of the difficulties in mandating it for India’s Westminster-inspired parliamentary democracy. For instance, how do fixed-term legislatures square up with other constitutional and democratic processes, such as the requirement that the government command the confidence of the Lower House? This operates at many levels. In the event of a government losing its majority and no other party being able to mop up the numbers, it would be untenable to hold off elections for too long. In addition, fixed terms would militate against the freedom that a government has to go back to the people any time to refresh its mandate. Given that partisan stand-offs are inhibiting cooperation across the aisles, to dispense with the option of returning to the people for a refreshed mandate would be self-defeating. In fixed-term legislatures, as in the U.S., there is a clear separation between the legislature and the head of government. Such a system is far removed from that envisaged by the founders of our Constitution, who settled for a Cabinet system of government that comprises a constitutional head and the exercise of power through a Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The solution to excessive campaign expenditure and a much too focussed eye on the electoral cycle is better found in persuading political leaderships to develop self-discipline and to explain to the people the need for unpopular, but necessary, decisions. The sporadic advocacy of simultaneous elections by the BJP is informed by self-interest as well. An overlapping campaign would rejig the federal terms in its favour by allowing it to project its prime ministerial candidate against regional parties’ chief ministerial aspirants.

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Printable version | Apr 24, 2021 12:02:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Country-without-a-pause/article14242382.ece

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