Anticipating the Unintended #90: “Politics is the Art of the Possible”

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

PolicyWTF: One Nation, One Election

This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?

— Pranay Kotasthane

The series “One Nation, One X”, like another sitcom Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, doesn’t seem to end. The latest season of the series is titled One nation, One election (ONOE).

PM Narendra Modi has batted for this idea on many occasions before. In his latest pitch, he said:

Elections are held at different places every few months, the impact it has on development works is known to all. Therefore, it is a must to have deep study and deliberation on ‘One Nation, One Election’.

This speech apart, the most robust defence of ONOE comes from a NITI Aayog discussion paper by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. They cite four reasons. Let us investigate the top two.

Reason #1: Imposition of Model Code of Conduct by the Election Commission derails development programs and governance

According to this view, political parties, once in power, are brimming with development ideas but are not able to do so, that too for considerable periods, because of repeated elections. This view is shared by many people outside the government as well.

The discussion paper tries to estimate the development time lost because of elections. Based on a projection that at least two states go to elections in India every year the authors conclude:

“Assuming the average period of operation of Model Code of Conduct as 2 months during election to a State Assembly, development projects and programs (that of State Governments going to polls and of Union Government in those states) may potentially get hit every year and that too for about one-third (four months) of the entire time available for implementing such projects and programs. Such a situation is completely undesirable and needs serious deliberations and appropriate corrective measures.”

Sounds quite serious. But hang on. There are several problems with this assessment.

One, if the Model Code of Conduct is the problem, it can be changed either by shortening the length of the moratorium or by relaxing the kinds of developmental activities permitted during the election season. Even in its current form, the government can consult the Election Commission about the developmental works it plans to undertake and if they are deemed to not have electoral implications, they are allowed to continue. I’m in favour of removing these restrictions altogether. If a government wants to use developmental activities to lure its voters, it’s more than welcome to do so. If the government is promising freebies to distort voter choices, it can do so even today, just before the Model Code of Conduct comes into place.

Two, the claim that developmental activities get stalled for four months a year is misleading. That’s because the code of conduct applies only to the state where elections are to be held. There’s no reason why developmental activities need to stall in all other states. Moreover, it’s useful to see the development period lost over a five year period. Assuming that one Lok Sabha election gets held between two state assembly elections over five years, the total “developmental time lost” in the state is six months. That’s an average one-tenth of a year, not one-third.

Three, this “developmental time lost” argument sounds a lot like the dog ate my homework excuse. For one, governments know when the next elections are due and can reasonably plan their developmental works taking this ex-ante information into consideration. Secondly, and this is the bigger issue, this view relegates elections to a begrudgingly necessary event; a mere obstacle blocking the grand developmental vision of the party or the leader in power.

Reason #2: Frequent elections lead to massive expenditures by governments and other stakeholders

The NITI Aayog paper claims:

Elections lead to huge expenditures by various stakeholders. Every year, the Government of India and/or respective State Governments bear expenditures on account of conduct, control and supervision of elections. Besides the Government, candidates contesting elections and political parties also incur huge expenditures. The candidates normally incur expenditures on account of various necessary aspects such as travel to constituencies, general publicity, organizing outreach events for electorates etc. while the political parties incur expenditures to run the party’s electoral machinery during elections, campaigning by star leaders and so on.

While this is true, “massive” expenditures need to be unpacked. The first component is the government expenditure in conducting elections. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections cost 3870 crores i.e. an expense of 0.03 per cent of India’s 2014 GDP once every five years. State elections for a large state like Bihar cost a tenth of this amount i.e. 0.003 per cent of India’s 2014 GDP every five years. Even if we assume all states require the same amount as Bihar did, India would be spending 0.12 per cent of India’s 2014 GDP over a period of five years, all state assemblies and Lok Sabha elections combined. Clearly, this number is not unaffordable. It can’t be the primary motivation for undertaking a constitutional amendment exercise fraught with unintended consequences.

The other component of the cost is spending by political parties and candidates. While the latter is capped to laughably low numbers (Rs 70 lakh for Lok Sabha and Rs 28 lakhs for state assembly elections), there’s no cap on the former. The paper claims that taken together, this component amounted to Rs 30,000 crores for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This is indeed a worrying number, more so because the expenditure is often in the form of freebies and vote for cash exchanges. But, arguing that conducting simultaneous elections will fix this problem is an admission by political parties that they will not change their ways; it’s just that they will engage in this simultaneous corruption once every five years. Fixing election expenditure requires many urgent solutions but a simultaneous election is not one of them.

Besides these two reasons, there are other counterarguments that I haven’t considered at all. For example, there is a correlation between a higher percentage of electoral wins for national parties as against regional parties when Lok Sabha and state assembly elections are held together. There are also severe repercussions on India’s federal structures as state governments falling before completion of the five year period might have to be placed under the charge of caretaker governments or state governors.

Regardless, what this limited analysis shows is that even the two reasons given in favour of simultaneous elections don’t hold water. We don’t need One Nation, One Election.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.