India put on hold for two months in needlessly lengthy poll exercise

Lengthy poll exercise - electoral process India
This is the second-longest election schedule (39 days) since the first general elections of the country held in 1951-52 which ran for 119 days

The prolonged, elongated election process initiated by the present Election Commission has proved to be a taxing and time-wasting exercise with a deep impact on governance in the country, besides depriving voters of an opportunity to deliver a quick mandate.

This is the second-longest election schedule (39 days) since the first general elections of the country held in 1951-52 for 119 days since it was a first-of-its-kind exercise in grassroots-level democracy with adult franchise, moving away from monarchy. In the first election, there had to be a postal box for every candidate!

In 1962, the process was streamlined to complete the elections in six days, and this was further brought down to just four days in 1967, 1977, 1984 and 1989, and just three days in 1980. Even in 1998, elections to the Lok Sabha were conducted in seven days.

Thereafter, the process has been a tortuous one – from 31 days in 1999 to 25 days in 2014 and now a peak of 39 days despite availability of modern communication and digital facilities.

Such a lengthy process has left a deep scar on governance, with the announcement of the Model Code of Conduct whereby even routine decisions are not being taken by both the Union and state governments. Many ministers have even stopped visiting the Secretariat, with the Model Code of Conduct to be lifted only on May 27. Some of them are worried that any step taken, even in an innocent manner, would invite strictures from the EC.

Even relief steps on humanitarian grounds are held up. The Tamil Nadu government expressed helplessness that bereaved families following an accident had to wait for relief until after the elections. The story is similar when it comes to drought and flood relief in some areas, where officials have approached the Election Commission to carry out urgent work.

The Tamil Nadu government expressed helplessness that bereaved families following an accident had to wait for relief until after the elections

There is absolutely no need for seven phase or eight phase polls. The excuse given by the EC is that manpower, particularly of paramilitary personnel, is being moved from one state to another. Plenty of paramilitary forces are available in every state to be on guard at booths already identified by the EC as sensitive. The state police force can be easily supplemented by special armed reserve and CRPF battalions available in every state.

Day-to-day life under pressure

Enormous pressure is brought to bear on the lives of common people for over a month, merely to allow a few political leaders to have lengthy sermons from platforms erected at a huge cost, with mike and audio systems, not to mention the costs involved in transporting hired volunteers to cheer leaders, raise slogans or fill up empty chairs. Thousands of crores are being spent on catering to the egoistic tendencies of these leaders who think every word of theirs is being lapped up by cheering crowds. They may or may not know they have been hired to cheer them.

There is enormous disturbance to students and teachers who are preparing for examinations of various kinds. Even if these meetings have to conclude by 10pm, senior citizens who go to bed by 9pm are disturbed. Noise and traffic post meetings continue for well over an hour after the scheduled close of the meetings.

The noise pollution, traffic jams or snarls across every town and city in the country, the disruption to normal life, the over-crowding of hotels, hospitals, bus stands, railway stations – all these can be avoided with a three-day election across the country.

Bureaucrats cannot get the attention of the powers that be and many proposals are kept pending. It is a nightmare for officials as they have no clue about the fate of the proposals, when the fate of the government is itself put on hold for over a month. It is not as if once elections are over, normalcy will return. The formation of a government can take two to three weeks, especially in the case of a hung Parliament. The people will be denied a government for another month, while all the shenanigans go on over horse-trading.

Officers shifted to key posts during the elections are well aware that they would be shifted once the elections are over, and the old faces will be back. Therefore, decision-making even for routine matters, is put on hold.

This situation could unwittingly end up with the Army playing a major role like in neighbouring Pakistan. Photo: PTI

When civilian duty is dangerous

The excessive use of the Army and paramilitary forces for excessive periods on civilian duty is a dangerous exercise, which can be avoided. Already, there are ominous signs of the defence forces being forced to support political decisions. An image that the country cannot be run without excessive use of the defence forces can have a deleterious and debilitating impact on the ecosystem of governance. An overzealous Army officer may begin to think that civilians are incapable of running the governmental machinery, even if it is seemingly an autonomous body like the Election Commission. This situation could unwittingly end up with the Army playing a major role like in neighbouring Pakistan. We already have a situation where excessive reliance on the police to carry out administrative duties and provide political support in the states had led to politicization of the police departments, with utter disregard to norms of governance.

 

Rising expenditure

Huge costs of transportation of paramilitary forces, both men and material, has led to a sharp increase in election expenditure. The total expenditure for the first three general elections from 1951-52 was not more than ₹10 crore each. The expenditure was less than ₹100 crore until the 8th general election in 1984-85. The expenses rose to over ₹1,000 crore during the 14th general election in 2004. In 2014, the amount spent was a whopping ₹3,870 crore), a three-fold increase compared to 2009. This would have gone up further during the current elections.

Once campaigning comes to close two days before the first phase of polling, further campaigns should be prohibited. Currently, we have a ludicrous situation of campaigning set to end two days before polling in some states, while the same set of leaders campaign in another state, which is telecast live by national TV channels, besides online and social media. The purpose of providing a gap between campaigning and polling is thus totally lost. In effect, there is no end to the campaign.

The exercise of asking parties and candidates to end their campaigning is thus meaningless. Even print media can publish the reports which can be read by voters in constituencies where officially campaigning has ended. The EC must amend the provision to bring campaigning for all phases to end when campaigning ends for the first phase. Such a move would greatly bring down the expenditure on polls.

It appears that the EC allows campaigning to go on for seven or eight phases merely to satisfy the whims and fancies of the national parties like the BJP and the Congress

It appears that the EC allows campaigning to go on for seven or eight phases merely to satisfy the whims and fancies of the national parties like the BJP and the Congress. Its leaders are allowed to go from one State to another for 45 days. There is merit in the argument of a party that states where a ruling party has to deal with a tougher Opposition have polling in the last phase, so that more time is provided to campaign and try and alter the political equations.

What stops these parties to have their campaigns in various states two months earlier? After all, it is well known when general elections are due. Therefore, it is well possible for these parties to campaign well ahead. There is no need to allow them to campaign after the first phase of poll ends. It is natural that the quality of campaigning could decline after the first week. Leaders soon run out of ideas, and move to personal, below-the-belt attacks to counter the opposition. Soon, campaigns become vitriolic and enter the gutter.

In the end, one is left wondering if the EC has any consideration for the voter who has to wait for 45 days for the results to be out, and for a new government to be ushered in. If the voter wants to send a ruling party packing, they have to put up with such governance or misgovernance for another 45 days? Why should they put up with this delay?

In the past, the same EC, with even less facilities and without the use of computers and communication tools, and modern forms of transportation, could conduct elections across the country in just three days. Let us revert to this sane practice, and put an end to endless campaigns which bring all-round increase in poll costs, besides affecting governance.