The law prescribes a minimum of 22 days from the last date for filing of nomination to the date of polling.
Go Slow — Work in Progress” has been and continues to be an innocuous signboard on motorways under repair; but was enough to trigger the imagination and wit of legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman to make his “common man” and change it to “GO — Slow Work in Progress”.
I am reminded of this while experiencing the agony of our ongoing parliamentary election process which appears to be in slow motion — it began on March 18, 2019, with a statutory notification and will end on May 23 with the declaration of results — the total number of days for completing the process in seven phases being 66 days, a record of sorts. In the meanwhile, governmental activities in the country are in limbo — the Code of Conduct providing a perfect alibi to shirkers.
The law prescribes a minimum of 22 days from the last date for filing of nomination to the date of polling. The balance is consumed by the Election Commission (EC) to ensure that the process is free and fair. Yes, the logistics involved in ensuring peaceful polling are time-consuming, — but should not take as much time as we are experiencing. The previous Lok Sabha election in 2014 was in nine phases, but the time taken — from April 7 to May 12 — was a total of 35 days. The election in 2010 in five phases consumed a total of 26 days. The 2004 election, between September 7 and October 3, consumed just 25 days.
Elections are inevitable, but are accompanied by a strange low in political discourse. During campaigning, bad-mouthing opponents appears to be the order of the day, which leave scars that last beyond the elections. In addition, political corruption is traceable directly to election expenses — so is black money and a whole host of associated problems. The vicious cycle of economic offences, capturing of political power and indulging in more corruption to remain in power and to regain it periodically has a devastating effect on the nation.
During the last two decades or so there have been elections round the year in some part of India or the other, and elections in any part are capable of fouling the atmosphere throughout the country. That is why well-meaning citizens have been advocating simultaneous elections to the state Assemblies and to the Parliament so that the damage is restricted to a short period once in five years.
In fact, that was so in India till the late 1960s. But then the culture of frequent imposition of President’s rule in states that were not ruled by parties friendly to the Central government made its impact. Dissolution of Assemblies followed, necessitating state elections to fall out of sync. Thereafter, elections in states and at the Centre could not be synchronised. Restoring the situation may require constitutional changes touching upon the federal character of India. That is a long and tedious process and practically impossible to accomplish in the present political climate.
In democracies like the United States, there are no by-elections for filling unexpected casual vacancies — there are in-built mechanisms for that purpose. Being a true federal set-up, the Central government is not concerned with state elections. That is why all elections there are held on schedule. In the UK, there are no states, and thus, no state elections to contend with.
The situation in India is unique. Here we have to chart our own course. With the inevitable elections to handle round the year, having an additional election in seven phases spread over 10 weeks is equivalent to holding seven different elections one after the other. Can the nation afford exposure to such an extended toxic atmosphere… whatever be the justification?
The unending series of complaints over violations of the code of conduct is a direct fallout of the prolonged poll schedule — the complaints arise from the seemingly endless series of election speeches. Furthermore, the longer the election process, the larger are the poll-related expenses.
The Election Commission’s job is indeed tough. S.Y. Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner, said his approach to elections was like preparing for a war. An EC with just about 300 permanent staff members cannot be expected to handle the job. It should have a permanent planning wing composed of experienced police officers in addition to IAS personnel to plan future elections in advance. Those plans will not go stale — they may at worst require making some adjustments. The EC can then be ready to hold elections at a short notice, with an emphasis on the shortest possible duration of the process.
The election process in India is still in a nascent state. It needs many changes and the EC with a thinktank in place, can periodically suggest the needed reforms. For example, the problem of low polling appears to be beyond solutions. Appeals through celebrities to vote have proved to be useless. The winning candidate in India secures just about half of the 50 per cent or so votes polled, the other half being shared by multiple contestants. Thus, it is the absentee voters who decide the outcome of an election.
One easy solution could be not to make the polling day a public holiday — in the US, the polling day is not a holiday. Instead, more polling booths should be set up to enable voters to cast their votes near their workplaces. In addition, voting through postal ballots for good reasons should be permitted during the entire week preceding the polling day, authorising post offices or named banks to receive the votes in sealed covers. Appropriate steps can be devised to check impersonations and the like. This will surely take the poll figures to respectable levels.