India has been battling a deadly second wave for the last couple of months. With lockdowns in almost every part of India, daily new cases have declined steeply with some glimpses of a respite amidst the carnage that was seen in April. However, the nature of the virus and its mutations is such that one cannot say that India or the world for that matter is completely out of the woods unless a significant proportion of the citizens are vaccinated or have developed natural immunity to the virus.
Image Management & Controlling the Narrative
While I have earlier stated that We all (Government & Citizens) are to blame for our acts of commission & omission for the mess we are in, I can’t help but notice that the Government and the opposition are fighting an all out war not just against COVID but also against each other. They are busy in trading blows with each other on social media and television channels on various issues be it the toolkit controversy or India’s vaccination program. At the heart of this battle lies the need to control the narrative and manage an image.
In fact managing the narrative and image has become so dear to the Government that almost everyday either in print or through television debates or through social media we are witnessing the Government issue rejoinders or fact-checks to improve the optics. To be fair, in an era where we as a society are extremely polarised and social media platforms can be weaponised to foment trouble in society it becomes inevitable for both the Government and the Opposition to manage the narrative. Considering that some part of India or whole of India goes to the polls almost every year both the ruling party and the opposition have a constant incentive to place high premiums on their image and want to control the narrative. The Government would always like to portray that it has done best and is in control while the opposition will always try to expose the Government for its governance deficit and would like to portray that it is not in control. It would be reasonable to assume that Political parties agree about the fact that voters decide not just on the basis of rational calculations but are also influenced by what others around them think about a particular party or an electoral issue (Bandwagon effect).
Frequent elections in some or other part of the country makes its inevitable for the ruling party to maintain a good image and this sometimes instead of being a side product of effective and efficient governance becomes the ultimate goal with disastrous consequences as has been witnessed recently.
Thus there is a lot of merit in what our Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the 80th All India Presiding Officers Conference in last year where he batted for simultaneous (State and National) Elections. The idea is definitely not a new one and it has been recommended by the Law Commissions and Parliamentary Committees in the past. Just as we would need a New Deal or a Marshall Plan for the economy to recover from COVID-19, we need to examine and urgently reform our electoral system to improve it so that our political and economic systems work together with optimum synergy.
Why simultaneous elections?
Frequent elections in a diverse complex democratic federal set-up like ours effectively ensures that all political parties are in permanent campaign mode which hampers governance outcomes and also generates polarising conversations and rhetoric which have the potential to de-stabilize a pluralistic society. A stable social fabric is a necessary pre-condition if India wants to achieve a $5 Trillion economy in the coming years.
With fewer elections, the ruling political party as well as the bureaucracy can possibly afford to focus more on durable governance outcomes, long term reform measures and the delivery of citizen empowering measures instead of focussing on how to market existing quick fixes. In the current scheme of things with frequent elections parties find it easier to just come up with ‘jugaad’ type populist measures to win elections without enough focus on building and strengthening the foundations of governance systems. After the catastrophic loss of lives last month everyone suddenly is speaking about the deficiencies in our public health care system. Our healthcare system just got exposed and its not easy to build a durable system in a few days, rather it requires clear vision, long term planning, robust execution and an honest monitoring and evaluation system. Can all this be done with frequent electioneering ?
Fewer elections may also mean that voters are more possibly careful about their options and may possibly give more weightage to issues that actually impact their everyday lives. It may force political parties to actually talk more about systemic reforms such as civil service, police and judicial reforms in their manifestos.
Critics would point out immediately that this proposal may ensure too much concentration of power in the winning party . But this assumes that voters won’t make distinguish between regional and national issues. In addition, they would say constant elections would keep parties more accountable as they are constantly held to account by “public opinion”.
I do understand there may be certain challenges with respect to implementation of this proposal but let us not forget that we did have simultaneous elections from 1952 till 1967 after which disruptions due to the usage of Article 356, and the dissolution of Parliaments disturbed the synchronisation. We must also remember that with the Anti-Defection Law and the Bommai Judgement (1994) it has become quite challenging to dismiss State Governments and disrupt the cycle if we were to go for simultaneous elections. There are several reports and suggestions on the potential amendments in the laws and constitutions that may be needed. Once the COVID-19 crisis stabilises reasonably well, the Government should seriously consider taking steps how how best to implement this reform.
In many ways COVID-19 and the devastation that it has brought has given a time for us to introspect and challenge our assumptions, ways of working and examine if our system is geared to meet such challenges in the future. Considering the level of polarisation in our society driven by various factors but not limited to constant electioneering, it is high time that this proposal of simultaneous elections be seriously considered by all stakeholders and not be confined to just academic debates. We need to seriously introspect and improve upon our electoral and governance mechanisms if we want to progress economically and truly become a Vishwaguru, otherwise we will continue to remain an “emerging power” for decades from now. If we don’t have durable systems in place we won’t progress at the pace we should and we will continue with our jugaad approach and would most likely be winging it from one crisis to another.