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Saturday, September 11, 2004

In India, we have three seasons:  the festival season, cricket and then the election season.  Of these, the schedule for festivals and cricket tourneys appears to have at least some regularity and order.  After all, it is not too difficult to figure out on which date the Ganesh Puja falls or when an India vs. Pakistan match is, in a given year.  But speaking of the Indian election season, it could be upon us like a bin bulaye mehmaan.

This summer India went through a protracted electoral battle for the Parliament and a few state Assemblies, including ours.   It was a democratic exercise of such huge proportions (cost: 1100 crore rupees; electorate:  67 crore Indians), that it was equivalent to conducting polls in the USA, Europe, Australia and Canada – all at once!  But the next round of assembly elections and Lok Sabha by-elections is already knocking on the door.

Why do we have by-elections, in the first place?  In many instances, a candidate contests from more than one constituency and/or for two different legislative houses – the State Assembly and Lok Sabha. Under the current law a candidate has to vacate one of the seats within 10 days, necessitating a bye-election.  Occasionally, a sitting legislator may resign with an intention to either to establish her/his hold over the electorate or to change party affiliation.  Shri VP Singh did just that when he resigned as the Finance Minister and MP during the 8th Lok Sabha and later, contested as opposition candidate from Allahabad and won. Some times, by-elections become inevitable following the death or incapacitation of a sitting legislator.

Each bye-election leads to heightened tensions, political populism, increasing polarization and diversion of attention away from the broader issues of governance. In this light, the Election Commission’s recent proposal to bar a candidate from contesting in more than one constituency, or to seek reimbursement of the expenditure (from the candidate) for holding this bye-election appears perfectly reasonable and fair.  The taxpayers’ money should be better utilized than for satisfying the whims of ambitious politicians seeking to maximize their bargaining power.

There is also a deeper, structural issue here: our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system sometimes throws up unexpected and embarrassing results when even bada netas of parties lose elections based on local convergence of factors like caste, money and muscle power.  That is why they attempt to dilute their risk via multiple candidacies.  Legitimate answer to this real problem lies in adopting an alternative and better electoral system based on the principle of proportional representation. Once parties get legislators in proportion to their voting percentage, there will be no need for multiple candidacies and by-elections.

India also witnesses frequent mid-term elections to its state and national legislatures.  Such elections, conducted almost every year, vitiate the political climate and disrupt the rhythm of the administration. Can we prevent the atrophy of administration and paralysis of governance that invariably accompany unscheduled dissolution of our legislatures?

The answer lies in the clear separation of legislative and executive powers at the state level.  Under such an arrangement, the head of government is elected directly for a fixed term (of five years, say) and her/his government coexists with a legislature elected for the same term (five years).  The legislature cannot bring down the elected executive, and conversely, the executive cannot shorten the term of legislature. Therefore, the governments survive for a definite period, the administrative process is not interrupted and unnecessary mid-term elections are avoided.

For instance, in the USA, such an arrangement has made their elections extremely well ordered.  Their president is elected once in four years in the month of November, on the Tuesday following the first Monday. Even the national legislators (for the House of Representatives and Senate), half the governors, state legislatures and local governments are all elected on fixed dates. Unscheduled vacancies to legislative or executive offices are filled by means other than by-elections or by a clearly specified line of succession inbuilt in the political process.

Elections are and should be only a means for democratic governance, not an end in themselves. We do require to adopt alternatives to the present system to avoid by-polls.

Until then, let the candidates or political parties pay for the cost of by-elections brought about by their own volition!