Prof. Chhokar: ‘I would say we should be very sorry that we are looking for the cheapest possible democracy’
‘Polls are far too important to be left to politicians.’
Civil Society News, New Delhi
A committee under former President Ram Nath Kovind is setting out to examine the feasibility of holding elections to Parliament and the assemblies simultaneously every five years. It is being said that money and time will be saved if elections are held together, perhaps within a single timeframe if not on one day.
How realistic is this proposition? And even if it were to be possible, what does it do to the functioning of democracy in the country? Does it undermine the very spirit of the Constitution which envisages a federal structure?
This is not the first time that the proposal is being floated. Arguments have gone back and forth. Among those who have made an important contribution to the exchange of views has been Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar, formerly of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). Civil Society spoke to Prof. Chhokar for a better understanding of an issue that has many long-term implications for Indian democracy.
Q: Since you have worked for a long time on electoral reforms, how do you see this demand for one nation, one poll? Is this the most important reform we should be dealing with?
I don’t think this is either the most important reform, or a reform at all that we should be concerned with, at least at this point. You say that the government seems to have indicated that this is something that can’t wait. I am actually surprised at all this brouhaha because this thing was discussed almost to death from 2016 to about 2019.
In 2018, if I remember right, I wrote an issue paper for the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy wherein I dealt with this issue at great length and in great depth. My impression was that this issue was kind of more or less gone, but it has been resurrected and resurrected as if this is the most important and burning issue in our country today, which surprises me at one level and doesn’t surprise me at another level.
Q: How do you see the timing of its resurrection?
Well, it’s the timing. I really don’t know what is behind this timing, but I have said this before and say it again: nothing is going to come out of this. We have wasted two or three years of public time and public resources in discussing this issue, which is not going to see the light of day in the foreseeable future.
I was asked once, if all political parties were agreeable to doing this, what was the problem? My problem is that as a citizen, I have a stake in the electoral process. The electoral process is not the sole property of the political parties in the country. As a citizen, I have a say and I will not let it go by without challenge given the fact that they just require something like five or six Articles in the Constitution to be amended. Even if they were to be amended, I believe this is violative of the principle of federalism, which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution as enunciated in the Kesavananda Bharati judgment.
Of course, it is true that no less than the Vice President and a nominated Member of Parliament (MP) who was the former Chief Justice of India, have both commented that the basic structure doctrine is not legal or tenable. The tenability of the basic structure doctrine was determined by the Supreme Court in a 13-judge bench judgment and a legal luminary, Fali Nariman, has written that it has been tested and debated more than once in the Supreme Court, and it is found to be constitutionally valid.
Now, unless that is actually put aside, one nation, one election cannot happen. Of course, we are in a situation where a leading member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee has written that we need a new Constitution. So, if we are thinking of a new Constitution, so be it. If we are thinking of dispensing with the basic structure doctrine, so be it. But let us first do that. We cannot assume, or, at least in my opinion, I cannot assume that the basic structure doctrine will be set aside and we can do one nation, one election.
Q: What is the process of consultation that needs to happen for a mega reform like this?
Well, number one, the so-called mega reform cannot be against the Constitution. Number two, if we want to talk about amending the Constitution, there is a process that the Constitution provides. It has to be brought into Parliament. Obviously, there are necessities such as pre-legislative consultation, which several members of civil society have been talking about for years on end, but nothing seems to have happened. A draft bill to amend the Constitution should be prepared. It should be put in the public domain for discussion for a reasonable length of time.
Such an important amendment bill should be in the public domain for something like six months for wider public discussion and debate. After that, and considering all the feedback that comes in, then that bill needs to be perhaps recast, perhaps not recast. That only time will tell. And then the bill arrived at should be introduced in Parliament in the normal way.
Members of Parliament must be given the bill several days ahead of time. They must have time to read the bill, to reflect on the bill, to discuss the bill with constituents, and so on. And then the bill should be back in Parliament for discussion. Only then we will see what happens depending on the composition of Parliament and the opinions of various Members of Parliament. I am open to this.
Parliament has the right to amend the Constitution, subject to the limitations placed on it by the basic structure doctrine. And Parliament is free to do that. Of course, the requirements are two-thirds majority ratification by states, etc. All will come into play in the normal course.
Q: In a sense you already have the beginnings of that public discourse. You have a committee which is headed by a former President who himself is a lawyer of some standing. You have a lawyer like Harish Salve on that committee and a whole lot of other people. Do you have problems with this committee?
No, I have no comment on this committee. But let me say that the process of wider discussion and debate has happened over a three-year period, at least from 2016 to 2019. That input should be available. It is in the public domain. NITI Aayog also put out a paper, I believe, to form a committee like this. I don’t readily recall the terms of reference of the committee. But, if I remember right, its terms of reference are something to the effect of, you know, study this issue and make recommendations on how it can be done, which always gives the impression that this will be done.
In my humble or irreverent opinion, the issue has been discussed ad nauseam. There is no need for further discussion. Let the government bring out a bill to amend the Constitution. And let’s discuss that rather than whether one nation, one election is needed or not.
Q: One of the points which are highlighted the most by proponents of this reform is that to save money and time on elections, have them all in one go. You know how expensive elections are?
I don’t know. Ask people who fight elections. All I will say is that, in the 2019 election, there was an estimate by the Centre for Media Studies that the expenses were about `60,000 crore. If one looks at the details of the report, it leaves out a whole lot of things. The accuracy and veracity of those estimates are open to interpretation.
The basic issue in election expenditure is not the money that is spent by the Election Commission or the Government of India to conduct the elections, including the cost of all the security forces that move around the country. The bulk of the expenditure in an election is done by political parties and candidates. And that is an amount which, at least to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the country knows. Because no political party and no candidate has ever given the true explanation of how much they have spent, and I say this with all responsibility.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, we analyzed the election expenditure affidavits of 6,753 candidates, and only four said they had exceeded the limit and 30 said that they had spent about 90 percent of the limit. The rest said they spent only about 45 to 55 percent of the money. But this flies in the face of the fact that every political party and candidate, with some very minor exceptions, keeps demanding an increase in the expenditure limit. A former chief election commissioner had said at that time that if they are spending only 50 percent, then the limit should be reduced and not increased.
Number one: The expenditure on elections is done mostly by politicians and political parties and they have never complained about the election expenditure. Number two: Even if the cost of conducting elections is very high, the question that arises is, are we looking for the cheapest possible democracy? Or are we looking for an effective and working democracy? Are elections considered to be a necessary evil that they have to be done with the least possible cost and as infrequently as possible? Well, then, why have elections at all?
I find this argument that having one nation, one election, whatever that means, will save money which can be used for development, extremely distasteful and hurtful. Is democracy something that has to be traded off against so-called development? And I’m deliberately saying so-called development because development has various definitions. What I consider development somebody may not consider development. And we may or may not have a national consensus on development, but do we want a functioning and effective democracy or not? If we do, then I would say we should be very sorry that we are looking for the cheapest possible democracy.
And on the question of time, how long do elections take? Fifteen days, three weeks, one month, two months? I mean, are elections some kind of monster which is preventing the country from developing? For heaven’s sake, the country has gone to the moon despite elections.
Q: Do you think it is, if at all, feasible in a country as diverse and as large as ours?
Well, look, nothing is not feasible. Today, if we want to do something, we can do it. Technology exists and every wherewithal exists. But the question is, is it desirable?
When we say one nation, one election, what exactly does it mean? The nation has a national legislature called the Lok Sabha. And there is one election for that in five years. Yes, there is one election. One nation, one election.
There are 29 state legislatures and so there are 29 elections every five years. Twenty-nine elections don’t happen every year. Every five years there is one. A Lok Sabha election and one state assembly election in every state is what we have. How does this translate into an election happening every day?
Democracy has a cost. Democracy is about people’s participation, people’s commitment to the nation, people having a sense of ownership of the nation. It requires some investment. And that investment is the electoral process.
If we treat it as something which is a ritual, then it’s alright. Let us be clear then that we are going through the ritual and let’s not worry about it. We are used to it. We as a society, believe in a whole lot of rituals which have no meaning. If the intention is to reduce 29 elections, I just have to disagree, that’s all.
Q: So, effectively, a measure like this strikes at the very spirit of democracy in a country like ours.
In my opinion, yes.
Q: We’ve seen in recent times laws being pushed through with almost no discussion. Even if the opposition were to be present, it might not have made a difference. Is a brutally strong majority a liability?
A brutally strong majority in and of itself is no problem. The problem arises when the brute majority is used to negate democratic functioning. Democratic functioning and the rules of business of our parliament require that bills ought to be given to members a certain number of days ahead of the time they are going to be presented in public. We don’t do that. It is not a brute majority, it is the negation of democracy. Brute majority does not mean that you give a copy of the bill to members as they enter the Lok Sabha.
The minister then places it on the table, the Speaker introduces it and it is voted on in the next 20 to 25 minutes and then the copies are taken back. I mean, it has nothing to do with a brute majority. It has to do with the negation of democracy and I’m saying the words negation of democracy for the third time. Yes, in an effective functioning democracy, a strong opposition is extremely advisable and even necessary.
A strong opposition, irrespective of the numbers because a few effective opposition members may be more useful than a large number of ineffective members. But numbers do play a role.
A strong opposition is necessary, but it does not mean that a weak opposition means democratic norms and ethos should be given the go-by. Democratic norms and ethos have to be observed by the ruling party.
Q: But brute majorities tend to get carried away.
Well, all I’m saying is brute majorities are not advisable, but they are not a disease in itself if democratic ethos is practised.
Q: Where do you see this leading to and to what end?
I can’t predict what will happen in the future, but my hunch is that this will be discussed at great length and it will come to nothing. The other thing I can say is that it depends on what the intention behind it is. It is not something that can be rammed through Parliament. If it is, it will be challenged in court.
But let me also go back to the brute majority question. Every time we have a rather strong government with a strong party, there is a tendency to be attracted by the possibility of perpetuating one’s rule. That one may not necessarily be an individual desire, because individuals are finite. That one may well be a party.
Now, if you remember right, when Indira Gandhi was in a strong position, there was talk of similar — not necessarily one nation, one election — but a presidential form of government when Dev Kanta Barooah said Indira is India and India is Indira!
I feel very strongly that if this is a backdoor attempt or if it is an attempt to bring in a presidential system of government through the backdoor, it ain’t going to fly.