By Nantoo Banerjee
It all started in the 1990s, under a tough new chief election commissioner, T N Seshan. He was the first to seek and deploy central paramilitary forces to keep violence in check during an election and, in the process, try seriously to clean up the electoral system. Seshan was credited with effectively implementing the Model Code of Conduct for the first time, trying to rein in muscle and money power in elections, filing cases and arresting candidates for not abiding by polling rules, and suspending officials for aligning with candidates. Later, the Supreme Court also asked the government to ensure the availability of security forces during elections. The legacy continues though the election process has become more expensive, complex and controversial over the years. Some 1,20,000 paramilitary forces were deployed during the 2014 parliamentary election. The movement of such a large number of uniformed personnel through various parts of the country is quite time consuming. The same is in the case of polling staff and machines.
The so-called cleaning up of the electoral system may have partly succeeded, but the cases of election violence, booth jamming, booth capturing, covert money spending and ‘scientific’ vote rigging have vastly increased despite the presence of electronic voting machines. Political hooligans are finding now more time to move from one place to another to create more mischiefs. Campaigns have become bitter and more acrimonious. If vast and populous countries like Indonesia and Brazil can complete their elections in a single day why can’t India with its formidable election machinery make the process shorter? Digital India’s digital voting system is getting into the nerves of political parties, their candidates, poll personnel, central security contingents — often without the knowledge of local language and culture — political workers and their hit squads as the election process goes on and on. Free and fair elections remain on paper, for a good part.
Despite a massive increase in the overall election expenditure over the years, the general economy seems to benefit little from a sudden supply rush of money in the market. Many temporary jobs, connected with campaigns, get created. The demand for certain consumer goods does go up, so are their short term prices. The availability of public transports becomes fewer and public movements become more expensive and painful. The prolonged election process affects industrial production, construction and infrastructure and certainly hampers school and college education. Also, all new development works are put on hold following the application of the Model Code of Conduct for candidates and political parties, heading governments in the centre and states.
The 36-day, nine-phase parliamentary election, between April 7 and May 12, 2014, to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha was quite long. Now comes the 39-day, seven-phase parliamentary election for the 17th Lok Sabha between April 11 and May19. Conducting election is becoming tougher and longer by term. Most political parties and general public are not sure if the world’s largest democracy deserves such a protracted voting exercise for only 543 parliamentary seats. The five-phase 2009 parliamentary election took about a month. Although India’s historic first general election in 1951-52 took almost four months to complete, from October 25, 1951 to February 21, 1952, and the first Lok Sabha could be constituted only on April 17, 1952, the subsequent general elections were, however, much shorter. Between 1962 and 1989, general elections were completed in between four and 10 days. The four-day Lok Sabha election in 1980 were the country’s shortest ever.
Few are benefited by such a staggered election process as it has been the practice these days. Phased elections are putting parties and candidates whose fates are decided in the earlier stages at a disadvantage over others having more time to campaign. At the same time, parties and candidates contesting during later rounds are forced to spend more money and energy to run a longer campaign in the country’s scorching summer heat turning many foot soldiers sick. Thus, a longer election campaign probably favours none. In fact, turnouts in many centres are down due to heat. The highest turnout in Lok Sabha elections witnessed so far is 66.38 percent. In 543-member Lok Sabha, 272 seats are needed by a political party or a political combine to register a simple majority. This has nothing to do with the percentage of votes the winning political party or its combine collect. The massive NDA victory, led by BJP, with 336 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha election accounted for only 38.5 percent votes cast.
In terms of election schedule, West Bengal, with 42 seats, has been the worst treated to vote in all the seven phases over the 39-day period. Only two other states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, each with much bigger geographical area and population, will poll in all the phases. Significantly, in the last five years, the country’s eligible voting population increased from 83.4 crore in 2014 to 90 crore. The growth of the first-time voters in the 18-19 age group is surprisingly fewer at 1.7 percent at 1.5 crore in 2019. The expanding number of electorates should be a major concern. The number should reflect on the Lok Sabha strength to ensure proper representation of the people.
With the eligible number of voters at only 17.3 crore, India’s first Lok Sabha had as many as 489 seats. Ten more MPs were nominated by the President. Today’s 543-seat Lok Sabha highly underrepresent the country’s population. Population-wise comparable China’s national legislature (NPC) had 2,980 members in 2018, making it the world’s largest parliamentary body. The US House of Representatives, representing 32 crore citizens, has 435 seats. Russia’s Duma (Lower House) has 450 seats representing its 14.45 crore population. The UK’s House of Commons, representing only 6.5 crore citizens, has 650 seats. India deserves a bigger Lok Sabha. (IPA Service)