Synchronising elections

THE SUDDENNESS with which the proposal for simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies was sprung on the country caused deep suspicions. It may not be fair, on the face of it, to ascribe motives to the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Deputy Prime Minister, L. K. Advani, who mooted the idea but credible evidence is needed to be sure that it was prompted by altruistic sentiments and that no other consideration, apart from those publicly mentioned, weighed with them. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the proposal for fixed tenures for the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies is sought to be pushed through the back door after it failed to find takers from among the enlightened sections. People need to be reminded that the framers of the Constitution had made a clear choice in favour of responsibility (and accountability) as against "stability."

Several issues are involved — practical, political and constitutional. The practical problems are obvious. Assuming that, through a sleight of hand, it is possible to make a fresh start with simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, where is the guarantee that the five-year cycle would be maintained in the future? In the initial phase after Independence — till 1971 — it was possible, by and large, to maintain simultaneity because a single party, the Congress, held sway at the Centre and in most of the States. Though we have a federal set-up, the Congress (and other political parties) was unitary, as regards its functioning, with the "high command" deciding the organisational affairs in the States or even at lower levels. As such it was possible to enforce a uniform electoral calendar. Even then some States fell out of step because of political problems, necessitating mid-term polls. But now that we are in the coalitional era, it will be difficult to avoid out-of-turn elections — in the States and at the Centre. Did we not have three general elections in the brief span of three years from 1996?

Though they do not say so, the advocates of simultaneity count on fixed tenures to avoid disturbance of the proposed new pattern. The implication of this hidden agenda needs to be examined thoroughly, especially because it would mean reversal of the national commitment — as spelt out by the main architect of the Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, while piloting the draft constitution in the Constituent Assembly. In the manner of a school teacher providing explanations for the benefit of students in simple terms, he drew attention to the choice made by the framers of the Constitution. The issue then was not the fixed tenure but choice between the presidential form and the parliamentary system. Then, as now, the debate was over the relative merits of stability and accountability.

The following excerpt from the voluminous reports of the Constituent Assembly proceedings is revealing. Spelling out the main features of the two (presidential and parliamentary) systems, Dr. Ambedkar said: "Both systems of government are, of course, democratic and the choice between the two is not very easy. A democratic executive must satisfy two conditions — (1) It must be a stable executive and (2) it must be a responsible executive. Unfortunately, it has not been possible so far to devise a system which can ensure both in equal degree. You can have a system which can give you more stability but less responsibility, or you can have a system which gives you more responsibility but less stability. The American and the Swiss systems give more stability but less responsibility. The British system, on the other hand, gives you more responsibility but less stability. The reason for this is obvious. The American Executive is a non-parliamentary executive which means that it is not dependent for its existence upon a majority in the Congress, while the British system, is a parliamentary executive which means that it is dependent upon a majority in Parliament.

"The parliamentary system differs from a non-parliamentary system in as much as the former is more responsible than the latter but they also differ as to the time and agency for assessment of their responsibility. Under the non-parliamentary system, such as the one that exists in the U.S.A., the assessment of the responsibility of the executive is periodic. It takes place once in two years. It is done by the electorate. In England, where the parliamentary system prevails, the assessment of responsibility of the executive is both daily and periodic. The daily assessment is done by Members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, non-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate at the time of the election which may take place every five years or earlier. The daily assessment of responsibility which is not available under the American system, it is felt, is far more effective than the periodic assessment and far more necessary in a country like India. The Draft Constitution, in recommending the parliamentary system of executive, has preferred more responsibility to more stability." The simultaneity proposal, thus, is not tenable on political grounds.

Equally strong are the objections, based on constitutional factors, as explained by the former Additional Solicitor-General of India, Devendra Nath Dwivedi. The simultaneity proposal would require changes in the basic structure of the Constitution, which is barred by the Supreme Court verdict in the Golak Nath case. As such, it is impractical.

Updating what Dr. Ambedkar said, he sees the synchronisation move as a direct negation of accountability. "The framers opted for parliamentary system based on the principle of responsibility, fusion of powers and the governments holding office during the pleasure of Parliament and rejected the presidential system based on fixed terms, separation of power and negation of the theory of responsibility. Their preference of accountability over stability was posited on the belief that a government based on answerability and parliamentary control over the executive was the finest manifestation of a representative and responsive government. Our experience has justified the framers' faith. Political instability is not the result of periodicity of elections; instead the frequency of elections is the result of political instability. The holding of simultaneous elections till 1971 owed not to the constitutional scheme but to the stability provided by the hegemony held by the Congress Party over the nation's politics. There is, therefore no question of `restoring' synchronicity of parliamentary and Assembly elections as the Constitution does not provide for it.''

Mr. Advani complains that because of the frequency of elections, the ruling party is always in the election mode which affects decision-taking and becomes a serious handicap to governance. He is right but the problem lies with the ruling political elite, not with the system. If key economic decisions and budget proposals are influenced by populist factors and if the ruling parties have their gaze fixed on the electoral scene and not on the merits of the issues involved, the remedy lies in politicians changing their mindset, not in opting for a questionable arrangement.

There could not be any objection to the concern for good governance but how come such noble thoughts are conspicuous by their absence on other occasions? To cite a recent case, the Government and the ruling party (as, indeed all other parties) made a concerted bid to thwart a wholesome measure affirming the citizens' right to know the background of candidates — their criminal antecedents, their financial assets and educational qualifications. The move was obviously intended to prevent the entry of criminals and the corrupt into the legislatures — an essential pre-requisite for good governance. In the end, the Supreme Court had to intervene to check the curtailment of this basic right of the people.

Over the years, several distortions have crept into the electoral processes which have not attracted the benign attention of the ruling elite. The priority sought to be given to the synchronisation of elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly is, thus, all the more surprising. Fortunately large sections of the Opposition do not share the Government's enthusiasm for this move and the chances of its success are far from bright.