When the Election Commission of India first announced dates for elections to four major state assemblies in February 2021, the announcement caused quite the stir. While every other state went for a single-phase polling, West Bengal’s electoral contest was staggered into 8 phases, spanning 23 days. Moreover, several districts have been split into blocks, with voting occurring over multiple phases in the same district.
Several political leaders decried this decision. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee immediately came out to say that the ECI is trying to convert the state of West Bengal into a football ground, and it is a deliberate attempt to “upset communal harmony” and polarise the electorate.
Yet sidestepping the allegations of overt politicisation, there lies the question of what this means from the perspective of organising elections. For many years, the ECI has been heralded for its adeptness in the swift conduct of arguably the largest democratic exercise in the world. They have definitely come a long way – from the several months it took to conduct the first general election in 1951-52, to wrapping them up in a month. The 2019 general elections with more than 900 million voters, for instance, were held in 7 phases and took roughly close to a month. Moreover, even the 2017 state elections in much larger Uttar Pradesh were wrapped up in 7 phases.
What is also interesting is not just that larger and equally sensitive states wrapped up elections quicker, but also that the previous election in West Bengal itself needed only 6 phases. Therefore, the fact that the state of West Bengal requires 8 phases in the ongoing election begs the question: did the ECI not have the capability to complete the West Bengal elections in a shorter time frame?
Organisational Capabilities and Ambition
Several efforts are required to be undertaken to ensure the smooth conduct of the democratic process. From security deployments to requiring officers for managing booths in remote areas, the task is quite uphill. As Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora pointed out in his press conference, they had to accommodate not just for adequate force deployments, but also had to take into account the festival season and the COVID-19 pandemic, while scheduling the electoral calendar.
While these extra efforts do highlight the ECI’s commitment to peaceful and stable polls, there are questions to be raised. For one, as Indian Express points out, several districts, especially in South Bengal, have been split across phases – something that has never happened before. This implies that the sealing of inter-district borders (to prevent miscreants from other districts to disturb poll-bound districts) will be tough to execute. Even the fact that the polling dates in several Muslim-dominated districts coincide with Ramzan will prove to be a challenge for voters and polling officials in these areas. Moreover, parties are effectively required to campaign for longer because of the electoral schedule. Given the en-masse flouting of any sense of social distancing in political rallies, the increasing exposure of such a large congregation can be a genuine health hazard for the entire populace.
Even beyond the larger logistical challenges of this election alone, there is a larger principled challenge – that of the current government’s ambition to realise a vision of simultaneous elections in states and the centre (titled “one-nation, one-election”). Fundamentally, if the aim of the one-nation, one-election, as Prime Minister Modi says, is to reduce the amount of monetary and human resources spent on holding several elections, then such a prolonged contest goes precisely against the idea. Moreover, if one agrees to the logic that such a large election would need security force deployment to shift regions quickly with phases, then the staggered nature of the electoral contest as demonstrated by West Bengal (with the same district split across phases in some cases) is incompatible with realising this vision.
It is paradoxical to, therefore, try and advocate for “one-nation, one-election,” but at the same time consider the constraints of resource deployment as an explanation for prolonging elections. The fact that the ECI has conducted swifter elections in much larger states with equally (if not more) complicated situations, should refute any claims that they are not capable enough or do not possess the required resources. The fundamental question then is not that of the ECI’s capability, but of its prerogative.
Ultimately, it is the political parties, who are the main players spending their energy on the campaign trail. For some, this issue of electoral dates may just be parties crying foul when they are disadvantaged. There are, for instance, certain democracies such as the United Kingdom that formally gave the Prime Minister some form of power over calling for elections, until the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011. On the other end of the spectrum is the United States, where general election dates are constitutionally pre-determined. India however, has always sought a balance by reposing its faith in its Election Commission to conduct elections in consultation with all key political players.
It is in this light that accountability becomes necessary, and it is worth asking that despite its capability to conduct these elections swiftly, why would the Election Commission choose to have a prolonged election in West Bengal? Even if the answer is ensuring security and stability, the fact that several major parties, especially Trinamool, decried the ECI’s decisions so vociferously, makes one wonder whether a neutral body such as the ECI perceives a tradeoff between achieving security and stability and having a multi-party consensus? One wonders what that would mean for democracy.
Picture Credits: scroll.in
Vaibhav Parik is a fourth-year student at Ashoka University, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Economics. His interests range from electoral politics and foreign affairs to tennis and aviation.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).