The following chronological sequence of events deserves attention.
21 January, 2015: The Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice identifies “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies” as a “Subject for examination and report.”
28 January, 2015: The then Chief Election Commissioner, HS Brahma records a note stating “Shri Nripendra Misra, Pr (Principal) Secretary to Prime Minister, informed me that there is a strong feeling of having simultaneous elections for both Parliament and the state assemblies. He mentioned that the repetitive state elections of all the 36 states and UTs causes lots of disruption, both in terms of implementation of various schemes as well as socio-economic scenario. There are states, for example erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, where between 2008-2013, there were 60 bye-elections held on flimsy grounds, where same candidate resigns and is re-elected after few months. This causes loss of public confidence besides tremendous financial cost to the state. After all, elections cost money,” as reported in The Indian Express on 25 July, 2016.
5 March, 2015: Election Commission of India (ECI) sends its comment to the Parliamentary Committee on simultaneous holding of elections.
10 March, 2015: First meeting of the Parliamentary Committee.
21 March, 2015: Parliamentary Committee issues a Press Communique.
17 December, 2015: Parliamentary Committee submits its report.
3 February, 2016: Law Ministry seeks ECI’s comments on the Parliamentary Committee report.
2 March, 2016: Law Ministry sends reminder to ECI for comments on the Parliamentary Committee report.
19 March, 2016: PM speaks “At a ‘closed door’ meeting of the BJP’s national office bearers … just before the party’s national executive meet was kicked off, … in laudatory terms for simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.” Despite the meeting being ‘closed door’, the content was reported in The Hindu on 31 March, 2016.
5 May, 2016: ECI responds to Law Ministry 16, sending a copy of its letter of 5 March, 2015.
The substantive issue is whether it is feasibility, and advisable, to hold elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies simultaneously. While the merits and demerits of holding simultaneous elections can, and should, be discussed, what the above sequence of events highlights is the process that seems to be being followed.
A Parliamentary Standing Committee is perfectly within its rights to examine and report on any issue it likes. The Committee is also within its rights to seek views of all those who it thinks may be able to contribute to the examination and understanding of the issue. And since the ECI is the institution entrusted with the task of conducting elections by the Constitution of India, it is absolutely correct for the Committee to seek views of the ECI.
It is generally understood that though Election Commissioners are appointed by the President, obviously based on the advice of the Cabinet, the ECI, as a constitutional institution, is meant to function under the provisions of the Constitution and is not a department of the government, it is not meant to function “under” the government, and is therefore not answerable to the government of the day. Its accountability and allegiance is to the Constitution of India, as interpreted by the higher judiciary.
Based on this the event of 28 January, 2015, as recorded by the then Chief Election Commissioner seems very curious. With the Parliamentary Committee having taken up the issue for examination, why should the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister take it upon himself to inform the CEC of “a strong feeling of having simultaneous elections for both Parliament and the state assemblies”? It is even stranger to note that the senior functionary of the PMO considers “60 bye-elections (to be) held on flimsy grounds.”
It is actually disturbing to note that elections are considered to be “caus(ing) lots of disruption, both in terms of implementation of various schemes as well as socio-economic scenario.” One wonders what might happen to democracy if elections are considered to ‘disruptive’ elements!
Then there is a startling statement “This causes … tremendous financial cost to the state. After all, elections cost money.” Are elections an unnecessary expense in a democracy? And what exactly is meant by “financial cost to the state”? Where do the funds for the state come from? Usually they come from the people and elections are one and the only way for people to have a say in who should govern them and how. If the state finds elections to be unnecessary, it is frightening to think of what might happen to the people.
Yes, elections cost money but is there any greater priority in a democracy than to hold elections?
There is no doubt that the communication recorded by the then CEC has not broken any law but it does seem to raise the question of crossing the line of propriety.
‘Propriety’ is described by a dictionary as “conformity to established standards of good or proper behaviour or manners,” “appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances; suitability,” and “rightness or justness.”
One is left to wonder if such concepts have any place in India today!
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean and Director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.