It will not be possible for the Election Commission of India to conduct the 2019 general elections, if they are advanced, ahead of September 2018, for logistical reasons. Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat, in an exclusive interview to this correspondent said that “The electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trails (VVPATs) needed to conduct the Lok Sabha elections will be available to us only around September 2018.”
There has been speculation about the Narendra Modi government planning to go for snap polls, but the slow supply of VVPATs seems to have nixed the idea in the bud.
Rawat, who came to occupy the top constitutional post in the EC on 23 January, said that in one of the meetings with all political parties, the EC made the commitment that by the next Lok Sabha elections, all the EVMs will be connected to VVPAT. The then Chief Election Commissioner, Nasim Zaidi had told representatives of different political parties that in all future elections EVMs would leave a paper trail of every vote cast. As the Opposition made a lot of hue and cry after their washout in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, blaming the defeat on EVMs, Zaidi told the parties that the machines were not vulnerable to tampering. In the seven-hour-long meeting the EC had committed that all the EVMs would have VVPATs.
Rawat said that in the country’s 687,402 polling booths, EVMs and VVPATs can be arranged earliest by September 2018. He said that the EC would need a further three-four months to make arrangements to conduct simultaneous polls if it is asked to do so.
When asked about his view on holding simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and Assembly, Rawat said that once the legal procedures were completed it was mandatory for the EC to conduct simultaneous polls. “We require the legal framework to think about it seriously,” he added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan of holding simultaneous elections may be difficult to implement in a hurry as the EC will require almost a year to meet the logistical demands arising out of such a situation.
Recently, both President Ramnath Kovind and PM Modi pushed the idea of holding simultaneous elections. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, chief of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Rajya Sabha member of BJP arranged on 20-21 January a national level conference near Mumbai to discuss the idea. While addressing the media he said, “Simultaneous elections are a major democratic reform that the nation is awaiting for decades. Hence, a nationwide discourse to build a consensus on the issue is the need of the hour. Once the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’ is approved after discussion with people and political parties, it will prove to be the mother of all reforms.”
CEC Rawat agreed with the backers of the idea that government officers’ and security personnel’s time would be saved if the polls were held simultaneously. He said that EC had not studied how much cost would be saved if all elections were held once in five years.
The critics of the idea argue that even if necessary constitutional amendments were made and changes made into the People’s Representatives Act, simultaneous polls would throttle the spirit of Indian democracy as it would turn into a “managed democracy”.
However, now it seems that the earliest the Lok Sabha elections can be held is after September 2018, as the supply of VVPAT will take time. Simultaneous polls will take longer even if the necessary legalities are completed. The EC will be in a position to start working on the idea only early next year, as the supply of EVMs and VVPATs is expected to be completed in December 2018. However, in view of the chasm between the BJP and the Opposition parties and due to a lack of political consensus over the idea it seems most unlikely that before May 2019 the idea of simultaneous polls will fructify. The EC is mandated to conduct elections on time in May 2019 to deliver the 17th Lok Sabha.