One candidate, two seats: Why should politicians get away with it?

In the excitement about the drama of a possible Modi-Kerjiwal fight in Varanasi, we are forgetting to question the basic idea at the root of it. Why should any candidate be contesting from multiple seats in the first place?

Sandip Roy March 18, 2014 16:31:19 IST
One candidate, two seats: Why should politicians get away with it?

Finally the great suspense is over.

"Grateful to the party for giving me opportunity to contest the election from the holy city of Benares!” tweeted Narendra Modi. Now the attention shifts to Arvind Kejriwal. Will he? Won’t he?

One candidate two seats Why should politicians get away with it

Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi.

Whatever he decides, the politicians will be following a time-tested and peculiar quirk of our electoral laws that allows a politician to contest from multiple seats.

If Narendra Modi runs and wins from Varanasi, he will probably need to relinquish his seat from Gujarat. If Kejriwal were to win from Varanasi, he would have to decide whether he’d rather be the MP from Varanasi or once again try to become the chief minister from New Delhi.
Either way a by-election looms even before the actual election happens.

This is a “drain on the exchequer” Sanjay Kumar at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi tells the blog India Real Time.

He is right. The provision exists not to a create a more robust and diverse democracy but for the convenience of the politicians. It is their back-up strategy at the expense of the people. It hardly displays any commitment of the candidate towards the electorate he is claiming to so want to serve.

In 2011 when Trinamool swept to power in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee was still an MP in the Lok Sabha. So a Trinamool MLA stepped aside so she could run for that seat. By-election 1. Then her Lok Sabha seat was vacated by her stepping down. By-election 2. In the space of a few months, Kolkata saw three elections happen in rapid succession.

This provision doesn’t serve “any useful purpose” says Subhas C. Kashyap, the former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha. At best a candidate can pretend to be trying to bridge some North-South divide by competing from a seat in North India and one in South India. Or it gives them bragging rights that they can win outside their home turf as well. But mostly it’s just an insurance policy whose premium is paid by the citizens of India. “What it does is it allows candidates to cover political risks by falling back upon a constituency if they are to lose the election to a seat,” says Kashyap to India Real Time.

That is hardly the case with Modi. He’s not opting for Varanasi because he is nervous about his prospects in Gujarat. And he’s not keeping Gujarat on the burner because he’s unsure about Varanasi. Modi would not contest from anywhere if he was not fairly confident about his prospects. He has picked Varanasi, and the party has ousted Murli Manohar Joshi from it, because they hope it will give the BJP a big boost in UP, a boost it desperately wants. Modi, could of course have chosen to go “national” by forsaking Gujarat and only contesting from Varanasi to make a statement.

But he didn’t because he doesn’t have to. If Indira Gandhi could run from Medak and Rae Bareli and Sonia Gandhi could run from Bellary and Amethi and Lalu Prasad Yadav can run from Chapra and Madhepura, why should Modi not spread his affections between two seats as well? Apparently Mulayam Singh Yadav is pondering the same strategy for this election.

It’s all perfectly legal. In fact, before the Representation of People Act, 1951, candidates could run from as many places as they wanted.
Now it’s down to two. But that’s still one too many. Section 33 of the Act allows people to contest from more than one seat. Section 70 of the Act prevents them from holding on to more than one seat.

The Election Commission in 2004 wanted to bring it down to one as it should be. The EC had an eminently sensible suggestion. “The Commission is of the view that the law should be amended to provide that a person cannot contest from more than one constituency at a time,” the EC proposed in a Background Paper on Electoral Reforms.

If that didn’t happen and the candidate was allowed to contest from two seats and won both, he or she would have to cough up the money for the by-election caused by vacating one seat. The price tag? Rs 5 lakh for an Assembly seat. Rs 10 lakh for a Lok Sabha seat.

But according to The Daily Mail, an RTI query filed by Subhash Chandra Agarwal revealed that the Congress-led UPA government refused to accept either of the proposals.

That’s not surprising. Any reform would have to be done by the elected representatives themselves who are hardly likely to act against their own interests. Mr. D. K. Giri of the Voters Party has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court on February 26th through his advocate Usha Nandini V. challenging this electoral perk our politicians enjoy and asking for the Supreme Court to intervene since the government clearly has no interest in doing anything.

The petitioners contends the politician is clearly seeking to maximise his bargaining power or further career prospects, and the people should not be made to pay for the caprice or political insurance or greed of politicians and that the state should be spared the expense.

It's like openly running for two jobs knowing full well you cannot do both.

In our breathless excitement about the drama of a Modi candidature from Varanasi, or a Modi-Kejriwal fight there, we are forgetting to question the basic idea at the root of it. Why should any candidate be contesting from multiple seats in the first place?

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