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To hold or not to hold polls

To hold or not to hold polls

Author: T.V.R. Shenoy
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: September 12, 2002

Will all of Gujarat become a Mangaldoi?

When I read the phrase 'bye-election', I am never sure whether it is a Freudian slip or a pun. Whichever, the misspelling is applicable given that everyone seems hellbent on finding reasons to bid farewell to timely polls. And so it is that I ask: was Mangaldoi an aberration or a portent?

Most readers have probably never heard of Mangaldoi. For their benefit, this is a Lok Sabha constituency in Assam which has entered the records for all the wrong reasons - namely, the dubious distinction of going without a representative to the Lok Sabha for the longest time. Mangaldoi was denied a by-election for almost two years at a stretch; then no polls were held in this constituency even when a general election was held. The reason was that the conditions were not conducive for elections.

I shall not waste time and paper trying to draw parallels between Gujarat and Mangaldoi. But Mangaldoi's unhappy history made me wonder how other nations tackle the vexed question of by-elections and the timing of polls. Specifically, I draw your attention to the two other great English-speaking democracies, the ones that inspired much of our Constitution, the United States and Britain. Let us begin with the United Kingdom.

In Britain, a by-election becomes necessary almost as soon as a member of the House of Commons dies or resigns. (Strictly speaking, he does not quit; instead, he 'appeals to the Chiltern Hundreds' - a nominal post but one defined as an 'office of profit under the Crown' which makes the holder ineligible for a seat in the Commons. The request, and the subsequent writ for a by-poll, are granted automatically and simultaneously.) Thus, no citizen of Britain goes unrepresented for a period of more than four months.

How about the timing of general elections? This falls within the ambit of Parliament which can postpone polls just as long as it feels necessary. (For instance, the House of Commons elected in 1935 was not dissolved until 1945 because of the exigencies of World War II.) The other side of the coin is that a prime minister in command of the Commons can force a dissolution even if the standard five-year term has not yet expired. In either case, once the royal warrant is issued, elections are normally held within six weeks.

What is the situation in the US? The American Constitution steps past both issues - by-elections and timing. There is no such thing as a by-election in the US. If the president dies, the law provides a long list of successors - the vice-president, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and so on. If a senator dies, his successor is nominated by the governor of the state which elected him. And whether in the executive or the legislative branch, this successor serves the remainder of his predecessor's term, whether that is six months or six years. American lawmakers also removed the issue of mid-term polls from the agenda.

The date can neither be postponed nor brought forward. Elections must be held on the first Tuesday in November - unless Tuesday falls on the first of November, in which case it is on the second Tuesday - in every fourth year starting from 1788. The law also states that there shall then be a two-month hiatus before the new incumbents step into office in January. There is, unlike the British model, absolutely no room for flexibility.

Elections have been held on schedule in the US even in 1864 (in the middle of the US Civil War) and in 1944 (while World War II still raged). Take a look at the calendar, and you can figure out the exact date of the next American polls. There is something to be said for this stiffness. If nothing else, it removes uncertainty - the bane of India when it comes to holding polls at the Assembly level. (At the Union level, we follow the British model, complete with Parliament holding the power to extend its life, as Indira Gandhi did in 1976.) Thanks to the provision for President's rule, a state can be governed without an Assembly for years on end.

The classic case came in Kerala in the 1960s. Governor Jain decided that no party or combination would win a majority even if elections were held. Kerala went without an Assembly for almost three years until polls were held simultaneously along with the general election in 1967. The governor's analysis fell flat on its face; in a House of 133, the Congress could win just nine seats with the Left getting a whopping 117! But the episode proved how easily democracy could be subverted given a helpful man in the right place.

Today, the norm is that a state cannot be ruled for more than six months without the will of its people finding expression through polls. Parliament, itself the supreme elected body, has the right to extend this period. But can either the judiciary or the Election Commission do so? This raises the core question: what are the rights of the voter? Does the citizen not have the right to choose his own government, or is he condemned to be governed by someone appointed by Delhi?

In a parallel case, what happens if the prime minister recommends a dissolution of the Lok Sabha only to find that the Election Commission refuses to hold polls for ten months because conditions are not conducive? And if this is unacceptable, then on what grounds shall you oppose it?

A vile cocktail of politics, fanaticism and violence has vitiated the atmosphere in Gujarat. (But more so than in Jammu & Kashmir?) Yet if all Gujarat becomes a Mangaldoi, it might become a test case for India itself someday.

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