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Elections 2017: Staggered schedule will inflict two-month-long polling fever on India

From 4 January till 11 March, over a period of two months and four days, India will officially be in election mode, as five states — Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — have Assembly elections.

Though it has become a norm to hold multiple phase elections, going up to seven or eight phases for big states, it's time the Election Commission and the government review whether it is a good thing to have the country in poll mode for such a prolonged period of time, especially as governance and related official machinery go for a toss when this happens. Why should the nation be in election mode for 64 days is a question that needs to be answered.

Moreover, while elections in Punjab and Goa will be held on 4 February, the results will be announced after a full month of waiting. Uttarakhand has a single phase election on 15 February, while Manipur will see two rounds of voting, on 4 March and 8 March. The incumbent chief ministers for all these states will be in office but not in power; he will act as a mere caretaker until the results are announced and a new chief minister assumes office.

Chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi. PTI

Chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi. PTI

In all of these cases, the situation begs for a simple answer: Don't the people of the state deserve a better deal?

The Election Commission's logic is that since five states are going to polls simultaneously, results of one or two of them cannot be announced before polling takes place in all five — it may unduly influence voting patterns in the states where polling is due. The EC's rationale of holding such a two-month-long election was understandable back in the pre-TN Seshan manual ballot days, when booth capturing and rampant poll violence was the norm. But thanks to various measures taken by Seshan and successive election commissioners, and thanks to rising consciousness, the poll process has by and large become a fair and transparent process.

Official agencies say that a staggered poll schedule helps with the logistics; security forces are better equipped to move from one area to another, helping out wherever polling is taking place on a particular day. They say they need a four-five day gap between each phase. Even in situations when only one state goes to the polls at a time, like it happened with Bihar in October 2015, there were five phases.

But what kind of a superpower can India claim to be, if it can't provide adequate security at polling booths to ensure bigger states wrap up their elections in two or three phases? More than logistics, it's about the confidence of wrapping up clean and fair elections in under a month. Staggered polling that stretch over a month invariably ends up favouring candidates whose constituencies vote in the first or last phase.

Incidentally, the Budget Session of Parliament will be held from 31 January, and a combined Railway and Union Budget will be presented on 1 February, at a time when the heat and dust of electioneering and campaigning will be at its peak in five states. Sixteen opposition parties led by the Congress have petitioned the Election Commission and the president, urging that the Budget date not be advanced from 28 February to 1 February, lest it influences popular vote in the poll-bound states.

But there couldn't be a more frivolous argument put forth by the Opposition. Consider this: The Budget-making procedure and proposing dates to convene Parliament are the Centre's prerogative. Secondly, regular governance and legislative processes can't be halted just because elections are being held in some states. Thirdly, besides laying annual accounts, budgetary provisions are also meant to boost the economy of the country and ensure delivery of popular goods. This too can't be halted because elections are taking place in some states. Fourth, advancing the Budget date from 28 February to 1 February is a reformist measure, announced much in advance and shouldn't be stopped because the Opposition thinks this would be advantageous to the ruling party.

But these Assembly elections will be a critical popularity test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As such, he is already on campaign mode, and has addressed a series of rallies in poll-bound states. For the next two months, he as the prime campaigner of the BJP, will be criss-crossing the nation. Since the latter part of 2013, BJP has emerged as a resurgent national political force and it will be important for it to win Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and to retain Goa to keep this momentum going.

The same is also true for Rahul Gandhi. The Congress is losing its support and its power base has shrunk. The party will want to retain Uttarakhand, and to make a comeback in Punjab and Goa.

These elections also mean a lot for the Aam Aadmi Party. Its chief, Arvind Kejriwal, is trying hard to find a base outside Delhi, and has looked to Goa and Punjab to do so. His future prospects depend hugely on the outcome of these polls.

Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav didn't fare well in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and would hope their political comeback can start with these Assembly polls. Especially so for the latter, for whom time is running out to bring about a truce with son, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

Prolonged elections are a boon for leaders who can travel to different regions and different constituencies. But it increases the cost of election, for Election Commission, for security agencies, for parties and for all other concerned with it, directly or indirectly.

Updated Date: Jan 04, 2017 17:37 PM

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