8 poll reforms a must before 'one nation, one poll'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for an all-party meeting to discuss ‘one nation, one poll’ last week. Of the 40 parties invited, only 21 attended.

The principal opposition party, the Congress, too boycotted the meeting.

At the meeting it was decided to form a committee to look into the matter and present a report in a time-bound manner.

Simultaneous elections also featured prominently in the President’s joint address to Parliament signaling this is one of the priority legislations for the Modi 2.0 government.

All the 29 states and 2 Union Territories which have chief ministers will go to polls in the next five years. This results in India being in election mode throughout the 5-year term of any Lok Sabha.

Since Narendra Modi is the star campaigner of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he is expected to seek votes for his party in all these state elections. For example, Modi held 34 rallies in Gujarat in 2017, 21 in Karnataka, 10 in Madhya Pradesh and 3 in Telangana in 2018. All this sucks out a lot of precious time of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Not only him, but many Cabinet ministers also have to campaign for the elections. For example, former current Working President of the BJP and former Heath Minister J P Nadda was stationed in Uttar Pradesh for 4 months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as he was the state in-charge for the BJP.

Fifty ministers were sent to Gujarat to propagate the work done by the BJP government at the Centre. All this impacts the functioning of the government. As per a Niti Aayog report, simultaneous elections can save the government exchequer about Rs 4,800 crore.

While this is not such a big amount, (less than 1% of government’s budgeted expenditure), what appeals to me most is that it will significantly enhance our governance infrastructure.

The prime minister, the state chief ministers, other ministers, bureaucrats, et cetera will all save precious time. Yet, despite the advantages, simultaneous polls is not the most burning issue in the country at the moment.

Nor it is the most significant electoral reform pending: many basic issues need to be sorted out first.

1. Change in the definition of national/state party

Currently there are 8 national parties in India – BJP, INC, NCP, TMC, BSP, CPM, CPI and NPP. TMC, NCP and CPM have no significant presence outside their home states of West Bengal, Maharashtra and Kerala.

Truly speaking apart from the BJP and the Congress no other party qualifies to be a national party. Parties that secure minimum 5% vote share in national/state elections should be declared as national/state party.

2. State funding of elections: Aam Aadmi can’t contest

Currently the expenditure limit for state assembly elections is Rs 28 lakh and for the Lok Sabha polls is Rs 70 lakh. Additionally, the party can spend huge sums on star campaigners. As per CMS, Rs 60,000 crore were spent on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, implying that more than Rs 100 crore were spent one very single constituency.

How can an aam aadmi (common man) who doesn’t get a ticket from an established party contest elections? It has become a game for the rich and the famous.

State-funding of elections will reduce the use of black money in elections and bring in a transparent funding mechanism.

3. Fixed tenure of MLA/MP

A Member of Parliament or a Member of the Legislative Assembly must have a fixed tenure of 5 years. He/she should not be allowed to resign in between the term or change his/her party. In case of resignation, the runner up should be given a chance to represent the constituency. This is necessary to prevent jumping from one party to another and then contesting for a different party in by-elections.

Many MLAs contest as candidates for Lok Sabha elections and if they go on to win, elections are forced upon us and the taxpayer has to bear the expenses of repoll.

For example, in Uttar Pradesh, by-polls to 12 seats are likely to be held this year due to this reason. An MLA/MLC/Rajya Sabha MP who wishes to contest Lok Sabha elections should first resign from the current seat before filing nominations.

4. Fixed tenure of assembly/Parliament

For the simultaneous polls idea to be successful, state assemblies and Parliament should have a fixed tenure. Otherwise the chain of one nation, one poll can be broken if a state assembly or Lok Sabha is dissolved in between. Two things can derail this process.

  • What happens in case of a hung house: if none of the parties is able to form a government? - A government then should be formed with prime minister/chief minister of the single largest party and Cabinet berths allotted in the proportion of seats won by various parties.

  • What happens if an elected government loses majority in the House? - Any no-confidence motion should be accompanied with an alternative government formation arrangement with signatures of MPs/MLAs in advance.

5. Change in NOTA rules

Currently, NOTA (None Of The Above) is just a tool for registering a protest. Even if NOTA gets the highest number of votes, the runner-up candidate is declared the winner. However, such a situation has not occurred till date. If NOTA gets the highest number of votes, re-elections should take place.

Candidates and parties who secure less votes than NOTA shouldn’t be allowed to contest the next elections. Both the BJP and the Congress recorded lesser vote share than NOTA in Andhra assembly polls held recently.

6. Provision of e-voting

Despite the Election Commission’s efforts and various awareness campaigns, the turnout in India for Lok Sabha elections was below 70%. Many people who have migrated to other cities for work hold voter IDs in their birthplace and are not able to vote. The Election Commission should have an option of Aadhar enabled e-voting which is likely to give a boost to overall turnout, especially in metros and cities. With everything moving to the Internet, people should be allowed online voting. This will also save time and costs.

7. Bar candidates to contest from 2 seats

People should not be allowed to contest from 2 seats. They, in the end, retain only one and this leads to re-election and additional cost. If this is to be allowed, the party which vacates the seat should not be allowed to contest in the by-elections or should bear the expenses of re-election. Alternatively, the candidate who was second should be declared the winner.

8. Right to recall

Voters should have the right to recall. Should it be exercised every year? It is perhaps not practical. I suggest it should be done after 2.5 years of MP/MLA tenure. Should this be done on the basis of full-fledged voting or a survey or an opinion poll is something that can be worked out. This will act as a deterrence for non-performing MPs.

While ‘one nation, one poll’ is a good idea, there are more urgent electoral reforms required before we take up this contentious issue.