Simultaneous elections must for India: Perpetual electoral season dilutes govt policies with political gains

Three concurrent moves by the BJP have revived the debate over simultaneous elections. BJP president Amit Shah has written to the Law Commission seeking its implementation to check expenditure and pull India out of a perpetual election cycle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has again raised his voice, arguing that “frequent elections impede governance and development,” results in a drag on public exchequer and gives rise to “election fatigue” that is harmful for democracy.

Meanwhile, media reports have indicated that the party is “exploring” the feasibility of holding ‘unofficial’ simultaneous polls next year by clubbing voting in some state Assemblies with the general elections.

The moves have also released the red herrings associated with the debate and caused political charges to be traded anew. While these are inevitable, the revival of the debate is important, necessary and topical. Simply put, simultaneous elections in India are inevitable. It is good for economy and even better for the health of India’s political system. It is an idea whose time has come. Its implementation, however, must be preceded by a patient and robust debate.

If India is to pull its billions out of poverty, reduce inequality and ensure the well-being of its citizens in line with developed nations, it needs to show greater political will. Unfortunately, there is simply no incentive for parties in the current electoral framework to show the political will necessary to undertake tough reforms that bear short-term pain but is vital for improving the economy’s efficiency.

A perpetual electoral season has made it impossible for leaders to pursue economic policies that bring long-term rewards when an anti-reform posture appears electorally more beneficial. Political discourse around reforms has become restrictive, prohibitive and inconducive. The space for even a debate lies squeezed. A laser focus on winning elections means that leaders take shortcuts, and the focus lies on redistribution of wealth through welfare schemes (or even bribery). While income inequality is a reality in India, for wealth to be redistributed, there needs to be greater focus on its generation.

A perpetual electoral season has made it impossible for leaders to pursue economic policies that bring long-term rewards when an anti-reform posture appears electorally more beneficial. PTI

A perpetual electoral season has made it impossible for leaders to pursue economic policies that bring long-term rewards. PTI

This is where the never-ending election cycle has dealt the biggest blow. The political discourse has created a perverse risk-and-reward system where those who are seen to be in favour of reforms are voted out, and those who promise pain alleviation through anti-market measures (keeping India’s growth story stunted) are rewarded.

As Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science at Brown University, writes in Foreign Affairs (India’s Democratic Challenge): "In India's highly adversarial democracy, political leaders will continue to find it extremely difficult to stake their political fortunes on economic reforms that are expected to cause substantial short-term dislocations and are likely to produce rewards only in the long term… As a result, what is of great consequence to mainstream economists is of secondary importance to politicians, who prefer predictability in and control over their political universe."

The situation is paradoxical. Unless the economy is truly liberalised through pro-market reforms, its benefits will not reach the poor. But to liberalise the economy, steps that bear short-term dislocation must be taken that is difficult amid a never-ending election cycle. No political leader will take the suicidal step of creating resentment among the most influential bloc of voters.

What we see in the case of India, therefore, is a conflict between radical reforms and electoral democracy. There is little political sanction among the poor for a robust reforms process. Unless we understand this paradox, the logic behind simultaneous election will elude us.

Among other reasons, the tension between electoral democracy and pro-market reforms has to do with the timing of universal adult suffrage in India, which came at the onset of Independence. This happened before the country could develop stable and mature institutions of governance, unlike in the West where Industrial Revolution preceded democracy. Countries such as South Korea or Taiwan that developed their economies faster than India adopted democracy “only in the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, two decades after their economic upturn began,” as Professor Varshney points out in his column.

In India, the polity has gained political power before the state could ripen its institutions for delivery of governance and meet their basic needs. As the state was frequently been found wanting in its responsibilities, the electorate developed a resentment towards the government.

In an interview with Reuters on his book When Crime Pays — that focuses on the role of criminals in Indian politics — author Milan Vaishnav (senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington) explains the situation in India where “governance has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of rapid economic, political, and social change. This has opened up a gap between what citizens demand of the state and what the state is able to deliver. Whereas the West built institutions before democratizing, India embarked on both journeys simultaneously.”

As the state has tried to develop its institutions along the way through administering reforms, the transitory costs have generated among the masses an antipathy towards pro-market reforms. Political power has enabled them to express that antipathy through ballot boxes, with the ultimate result that the trajectory of economic reforms in India since Independence has been episodic and cautious.

Electoral compulsions have led leaders to implement reforms either by stealth or compulsion. For instance, former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao tried his best to hide his reform credentials throughout the tenure of his premiership. Even though the steps taken by him in 1991 unshackled the Indian economy and set it on a path of sustained growth, Rao never took credit for these reforms, and in fact tried to “erase his fingerprints”, as political scientist Vinay Sitapati has written in book Half Lion.

In an interview with The Business Standard, the author says: “Rao realised early on that while liberalisation was important, it did not have a political constituency. It had a lot of political opponents. In my judgment, Rao did not sell reforms. In the 1996 elections, he campaigned on the plank of welfare schemes because the beneficiaries of liberalisation only come in later.”

This paradox can be fixed if elections spaced out. Leaders will find it relatively easier to take seemingly unpopular decisions if no electoral test lies on the horizon. For instance, the Modi government took a bunch of measures to aid ease of doing business and tried to reform labor laws as soon as it was elected in 2014, but its pace slowed down to a halt two years later when it realized that worker discontent and anger could work against it in elections.

Consequently, though the NDA government “partially removed the arbitrary inspection system, allowed firms to file one self-certified return for a clutch of laws, implemented EPF number portability, and initiated moves to make EPF and NPS alternative social security schemes for organised sector employees”, the consolidation of 44 labour laws into four codes remained a promise.

In 2017, the government dropped its plan to allow companies with up to 300 staff to lay off workers due to “stiff opposition from trade unions, including the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has slowed the reforms’ pace.”

These withdrawals come with costs. Avoiding major reforms to alleviate short-term pain result in long-term dislocations that hit the poor the hardest. If the practice of holding elections every year is discontinued, it will create space for these steps to be taken that may subsequently reverse the adverse effects of policy myopia.

Happily, the space for debate in increasing. In his address on the eve of Republic Day in 2017, former president Pranab Mukherjee had come out in favour of concurrent polls. In his words: “The time is also ripe for a constructive debate on electoral reforms and a return to the practice of the early decades after independence when elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies were held simultaneously. It is for the Election Commission to take this exercise forward in consultation with political parties.”

Since this move will include Constitutional amendment, it cannot be (and should not be) done without consensus. But the time for discussion on it is now.


Updated Date: Aug 14, 2018 20:36 PM

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