On October 6, the Hindustan Times reported the observations of election commissioner O.P. Rawat in Bhopal in response to questions on the possibility of holding simultaneous elections to parliament and state assemblies. While reporting Rawat’s views, the story headlined ‘Political consensus a must for simultaneous polls: EC‘ also contained the following sentence:
“Logistical challenges can be addressed but what the EC [Election Commission] needs to move forward is political parties being on the same page and it is the Centre’s responsibility to build consensus,” the EC official said. (emphasis added)
What has caused confusion in some quarters is the emphasised part of the comment. In particular, the phrase “what the EC needs to move forward” has been interpreted by some observers to imply that it is the need of the EC to “move forward” on holding simultaneous elections. And that has been seen as a subtle attempt to change the narrative on holding simultaneous elections from something that the government of the day wants to do, to something that the EC needs to do.
To appreciate the implications of this possible attempt to shift the narrative there is a need to look at the recent history of the issue. And for that, the following sequence of events is worth recalling.
January 21, 2015: The department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice identifies “Feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and state legislative assemblies” as a “Subject for examination and report.”
January 28, 2015: The then chief election commissioner H.S. Brahma records a note stating “Shri Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to prime minister, informed me that there is a strong feeling of having simultaneous elections for both parliament and the state assemblies. He mentioned that the repetitive state elections of all the 36 states and UTs causes lots of disruption, both in terms of implementation of various schemes as well as socio-economic scenario. There are states, for example erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, where between 2008-2013, there were 60 by-elections held on flimsy grounds, where same candidate resigns and is re-elected after few months. This causes loss of public confidence besides tremendous financial cost to the state. After all, elections cost money,” The Indian Express reported on July 25, 2016.
March 5, 2015: The EC sends its comment to the parliamentary committee on simultaneous holding of elections.
March 10, 2015: First meeting of the parliamentary committee is held.
March 21, 2015: Parliamentary committee issues a press communique.
December 17, 2015: Parliamentary Committee submits its report.
February 3, 2016: Law ministry seeks EC’s comments on the parliamentary committee report.
March 2, 2016: Law ministry sends reminder to EC for comments on the parliamentary committee report.
March 19, 2016: Prime minister speaks “At a ‘closed door’ meeting of the BJP’s national office bearers … just before the party’s national executive meet was kicked off … in laudatory terms for simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and state assemblies.” Despite the meeting being ‘closed door’, the content was reported by The Hindu on March 31, 2016.
May 5, 2016: EC responds to law ministry, sends a copy of its letter of March 5, 2015.
This sequence of events shows that no sooner than the parliamentary committee took up this issue, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) got into high gear. While it is certainly not illegal for the special secretary in the PMO to speak to the chief election commissioner (CEC), for him to tell the CEC about “strong feeling” (without saying where exactly the “strong feeling” is), that “repetitive” elections cause disruptions, that by-elections are held on “flimsy grounds”, that “elections cost money” and most importantly and disturbingly, that holding elections “causes loss of public confidence,” is another matter. Why should the PMO feel the need of informing the CEC about what elections do?
Two possibilities come to mind. One, that the underlying assumption could be that the PMO thinks the EC, the body, which has a constitutional mandate for the “superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to parliament and to the legislature of every state and of elections to the offices of president and vice-president”, is ignorant of what is happening on the ground. Given that the EC appears to have a reasonably good reputation, not only in India but also in several other countries including the developed ones, this seems unlikely.
The other possibility could be that the PMO was trying to communicate its preference to the EC. While there may not be anything written prohibiting the PMO making its preferences known to the EC, it could be questioned on the basis of propriety, because the highest executive office in a parliamentary democracy – the PMO – telling an independent constitutional authority what it would like done is against the principle of separation of powers.
Even if the PMO decided that it did want to influence the EC, the most appropriate method of doing it would have been for the PMO to write a letter to it. The fact that it was communicated through a phone call has the potential of creating doubts about the PMO’s intentions. A disconcerting inference that seems to follow is that the PMO wanted to influence the EC but did not want it known that it tried to do so. The nation has to be grateful to the Brahma for recording the note dated January 28, 2015, reproduced above.
The discussion on simultaneous elections has been revived again. The fact that the PMO may have been involved in a not-too-subtle attempt to possibly influence the EC gives rise to the possibility that the seemingly stray sentence in the Hindustan Times report of October 6 may not be all that innocuous or innocent. It could well be the beginnings of an attempt to put the EC in the driver’s seat as the main proponent of simultaneous elections with the government appearing to be a mere cheerleader.
The EC’s credibility was untarnished on October 6 when the news report surfaced. The controversial announcement of state elections in Himachal Pradesh and what might be termed as non-announcement of Gujarat elections on October 12 seems to have raised some misgivings. It is important that the EC moves with the greatest of caution in this minefield because its credibility, built over an extended period of time and which is critical in the fiercely contested electoral battlefield that India has become, must be preserved at all costs to maintain a modicum of respectability for Indian democracy.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, dean, and director-in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.