Polls and politics

No government has the right to take such a decision without consulting all major political parties. Rawat knows they have done nothing of the kind.

A.G. Noorani
Srinagar, Publish Date: Oct 19 2017 10:01PM | Updated Date: Oct 19 2017 10:01PM
Polls and politics

ELECTION commissioner O.P. Rawat is the latest victim of flattery. Recently, he said that the Election Commission of India would be capable of holding Lok Sabha and states assemblies elections simultaneously by September 2018, and that the government had sought the ECI’s views. The government was told that funds would be needed for electronic voting machines and other equipment, but the ECI had already placed orders; machines were already being delivered. “But it is up to the government to take a decision and make necessary legal amendments for it.”

No government has the right to take such a decision without consulting all major political parties. Rawat knows they have done nothing of the kind. He also knows that many are opposed to the decision. Why, then, did he — or perhaps his two other ECI colleagues, assuming they were consulted — do so without the requisite consensus and announce it?

Unsurprisingly, the day after his announcement, most opposition parties responded by rejecting the proposal. They pointed out that there was no political consensus on the matter. Rawat belatedly acknowledged that all parties had to be brought on board. The ECI itself favoured simultaneous polls, he said, to give the government more time to formulate policies.

This absurdity was capped by a damning disclosure. The government had sought the ECI’s views in 2015, which it provided “in March that year”. The exchange was kept secret for two years. The government had floated the proposal in several trial balloons in recent months. Rawat was well aware of these moves — he reads the newspapers. Why he chose to walk into a political minefield so confidently, with his eyes wide open, can only be guessed. On its merits, the proposal violates the country’s federal constitution, parliamentary system and democracy itself.

It is well known that Narendra Modi and his energetic stooge Amit Shah are out to capture total power over the country by targeting non-BJP-ruled states. Two of them, Karnataka and Tripura, will go to the polls next year, along with Gujarat where the ruling BJP faces serious challenge. The next targets are Bengal and Orissa, where the BJP’s ally Naveen Patnaik has discovered that the alliance provides no protection against threats to his rule.

In a parliamentary system, the head of government (prime minister or chief minister) wields a necessary and powerful weapon: dissolution of the legislature. It keeps his unruly followers in check. (After an aborted revolt, prime minister Harold Wilson warned Labour MPs that “every dog is allowed one bite”.) 

He could advise the queen to dissolve the House of Commons and send the MPs packing to their constituencies to fight a mid-term election at great expense and risk to their seats. He also has the right to a dissolution if a major issue crops up on which he is entitled to seek a fresh mandate. To deny him this right by imposing a fixed term is to deny the electorate its democratic right to pronounce its verdict on that issue. This is not all. 

Heads of state also enjoys the power of what jurist Eugene Forsey called a “forced dissolution”: if the head of government chooses to brazen it out, the head of state may step in and ask him to secure a mandate through fresh election. In the last century, Britain had two general elections within a year when the king exercised this power. There is also the anachronism of imposing direct central rule over a state, which denies the people the right to pronounce on the centre’s violation of state autonomy.

In a federal polity, states need not be ruled by the political party that holds sway at the centre. Political diversity infuses life into federalism. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress swept the polls in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde — who belonged to the Janata Party opposed to Congress — advised the governor to dissolve the assembly even though he was not obliged to do so. An impressive majority returned him to power. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and West Bengal all had powerful chief ministers in the 1980s, who opposed Congress and provided an invaluable political check on the centre’s power by forming a group. Simultaneous polls at the centre and in the states are not a matter of administrative convenience; they touch the entire constitutional and political system.

We now have one ECI member pronouncing his opinion and revealing the government’s interaction with the commission. This is not a private affair between them. The people have a right to know. The entire correspondence must be published so that the public knows the terms of the governments’ reference and of the ECI’s response.

 

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.