14 April, 2024


India’s Election Timetable & Sri Lanka’s Deadlock Elections

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The Election Commission of India has set a staggering 44-day timetable for the country’s 18th Lok Sabha elections, between April 19 and June 1, with the results declared on June 4. There will be seven phases of voting – on April 19, April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25, and June 1. Voting will take place on all seven days in some states – like Bihar, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh; two or more days of voting in states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha;  and single day voting in other sates including Andra Padesh, Gujarat, KeraIa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.

India’s elections are not only the largest in the world, but they have also become the most expensive. A country with 1.4 billion people, it has nearly 970 million registered voters of whom 470 million women, spread across 28 states and eight union territories. Total expenditure by political parties exceeded USD 7 billion in 2019, compared to USD 6.5 billion spent in the US during the 2016 election.

The voter registry has increased by 150 million since the 2019 elections, and that includes 18 million first-time voters. The voter turnout was 67% in India in 2019, compared to 66% in the 2022 US presidential election – that was exceptionally high by American standard. What might be of interest and significance in the Indian election this year is the voter turnout in different states – depending on the relative positions of the contesting parties and alliances.

Unlike Sri Lanka, India has retained since independence in 1947 the parliamentary system of government and the first-past-the post system for elections. The current Lok Sabha has 543 seats and a simple majority of 272 seats is required to form a reasonably stable government. The governing BJP won a staggering 303 seats in the 2019 elections, and a total of 353 seats with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA). That was the second election victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who defied expectations and improved the BJP seat tally from 282 seats (and 336 seats for the NDA) in 2014.

This time the BJP-led NDA alliance is targeting 370 seats that would surpass the two-thirds majority threshold in parliament besides giving Modi a threepeat success in three successive elections. Modi and the BJP are widely expected to win and win big. The opposition is weak and divided across the nation except for the southern states and West Bengal. The economy is strong and that is Modi’s biggest success story. But as I noted recently, in spite of the strong economy the Indian political and social superstructures are quite shaky.

At the national level, the second Modi government has struck huge blows against India’s secular superstructure. The three most significant blows are the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution that ended the autonomous status granted to Jammu and Kashmir; changes to citizenship rules for undocumented migrants that excluded Muslims and included five other religious groups including Hindus; and the recent inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The national response to these changes has been divided. The argument for secularism is now dismissed as intellectual and cultural elitism. Modi’s Hindutva populism has become the political answer to the secular legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.

New North-South Divide

All of this is good enough for Modi to win a majority, even a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. At the same time, however, he is also falling short of his other goals of establishing himself as a national leader accepted across all of India’s states and regions. Modi’s greatest strength, which is also the gravest threat to India’s secular politics and social peace, is his unabashed championing of Hindutva politics that alienates not only India’s Muslims but also the states and regions outside the vote rich Hindi belt states.

If the partition of British India increased the specific weight of the southern states in the new Indian federation, as Hector Abhayavardhana was known to conceptualize. Modi’s Hindutva politics has politically alienated the southern states and created a new north-south division in the Indian polity. Ironically, the southern states despite their political exclusion from central powers are also the main beneficiaries of India’s burgeoning economy.   

The five southern states, comprising Andra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana,  account for 20% of India’s population and 26% of the Lok Sabha seats,  but 31% of India’s GDP. They also boast of better governance, urbanization, education and income levels than other states, and attract 35% foreign investment. Prime Minister Modi’s persistent attempts to make an electoral breakthrough in the southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu, as well as in West Bengal and Odisha, have been quite spectacularly foiled by the strong state parties in the last two elections. Caste politics and alliance machinations are now in full flow in these states, and it will be interesting for political watchers to follow the changing dynamics and the eventual winners and losers.

At the national level, the attempts of the opposition parties comprising the Congress Party, the two Communist Parties and a number of state and regional parties, to form a new alliance have been more successful in formulating catchy abbreviation called INDIA –  Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – but not at all successful in making real progress on the ground and launching a unified national opposition alliance. The alliance apparently works in states where the Congress Party is the junior partner to State parties, but it founders in states where the Congress is stronger than the State parties.

Led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party has been undertaking long marches across India (called Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra – Uniting India for Justice March), first from south to north and last week from east to west, to galvanize political opposition to the Modi government. The marches have enthused the Congress supporters, but they are not going to be enough to rally other parties in the INDIA Alliance, let alone create a national wave that will translate into significant numbers of votes in the election.   

The election is coming at a time when India is experiencing a democratic recession at multiple levels under the Modi regime. Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, has downgraded India’s democratic status from “free” to “partly free” on account of the Modi government’s second-term record of discriminatory policies against Muslims, and its targeting of opposition and media critics. Not to mention the electoral bond scheme initiated by the Modu government in 2018, which has now been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The Court has also ordered the State Bank of India that operated the scheme to reveal the names of all donors and recipients of bonds. Not surprisingly, the BJP has turned out to be the biggest beneficiary at the national level.

Further, in a highhanded action on Friday, the governments Enforcement Directorate arrested Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who is also one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most vigorous critics in the country. He was arrested on seemingly spurious charges alleging malpractices in alcohol licensing. This certainly does not augur well for a free and fair election that is unfolding from now till June 1.    

Deadlock Elections in Sri Lanka

In contrast to India, there is no timetable yet for the presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka, which are due later this year and sometime next year. In fact, parliament can be dissolved at any time of the President’s choosing. And there cannot be any timetable until President Wickremesinghe decides which election will go first and when. Although Mr. Wickremesinghe has now repeatedly said that the presidential election would be held between September 18 and October 18, no one seems to take him at his word.

In any event there is nothing to stop him from dissolving parliament any time now. Basil Rajapaksa’s case for having the parliamentary election before the presidential election is quite an example of special pleading for a self-serving purpose. But even those who have adamantly opposed this sequence, now seem to be warming up to the prospect of an early parliamentary election if only because they are fed up with current parliament that voted down the no confidence motion against the Speaker by quite a margin. Who is worse, the parliament or the president, and who should go first? That seems to be the question weighing on pundits’ minds.

On Friday Mahinda Rajapaksa added his vote of wisdom in favour of having parliamentary elections first. The same day the once beleaguered Presidential Adviser Ashu Marasinghe gave another twist to the likely sequencing of elections, stating that “a General Election could be held if the MPs adopt a resolution calling for the dissolution of Parliament.”

This was apparently in response to journalists’ question whether Basil Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe have come to an agreement on elections. No one thinks Mr. Marasinghe is really in the business of giving advice to President Wickremesinghe. Rather the President would be advising Mr. Marasinghe on statements he should be making. What all this means is that a parliamentary election before the presidential election is still a possibility.   

Another possibility is that whichever election may go first, either one of them could end up in a deadlock result. Pundits and people are familiar with the hung parliament in which no party secures the requisite simple majority. But a deadlock presidential election is a different matter. If there are two leading candidates, a conclusive result can be expected on the first vote count. However, if there are three or more candidates each with a reasonable following, and if there is no mutuality in the preferences between candidates, a deadlock situation may very well be the outcome.

There is only one person who would benefit most from maximum uncertainty. That is President Wickremesinghe. So, nothing will be certain until the beginning of September. Until then the President has all the cards to play at the time and manner of his choosing. He could form a grand alliance and declare himself as its presidential candidate. He could dissolve parliament and spring a parliamentary election before the presidential election. He could also decide not to dissolve parliament or to contest the presidential election. Everyone else will have to respond to whatever Mr. Wickremesinghe chooses to do. Quite a short but very convoluted timetable in contrast to the long but straightforward one that India is going through.      

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Latest comments

  • 16

    Yes. We need to fix election dates like in the US and not let the governing bodies, whether it is the Executive or the legislature, or some such other body like the election commission, to decide on these dates at their discretion, leaving room for various manipulations including postponing of elections with the view of taking political advantage.

  • 22

    Sri Lanka is now looking for a leadership who can lead the country free from corruption, free from family domination, free from racism, free from religious fundamentalism, free from greedy of power etc. but you cannot achieve all these with the current president or current parliament. Unfortunately, the existing president and his parliament are the great barriers and it is a himalayan challenge to the people of this country to get rid of them.

  • 19

    In Lanka, the Police and Judiciary (due to non-impartiality) are corrupt, and to this end, no election can be held justly. In addition, the President, the Speaker and the Cabinet are also corrupt (not only in terms of money but in their morals as well). On the other side, the voters are also stupid as they vote crooks, criminals, rapists, bribe takers, chain snatchers, murderers, thugs, drug lords, and kappa guys to the Parliament as their representatives. I do not have any confidence in any political party.

    Maybe the solution would be to change the constitution and the election laws regarding the Parliamentary System so that no one can contest under a political party, but all should contest as individuals. Based on who gets elected, they can work under a President who would be the only person who can decide on forming a cabinet.

  • 0

    In Sri Lanka, the entire election process is nothing but a JOKE.

    Why on earth is the decision to hold elections left in the hands of politicians? These days, there has sprung a debate as to what election viz. whether a Parliamentary or a Presidential election should be held. Who on that responsibility is given? Those are only TWO – the President and the SLPP Head Basil Rajapakse. Who is Basil Rajapakse – a USA citizen and a “Convict” by the Supreme Courts for bungling the economy of the country?

    Where is the Independent Commission set up for this purpose? Have they expressed, to be the least, an OPINION on the election schedule for the information of the citizens? Shouldn’t the EC take responsibility for this ongoing drama of “Ranil/Basil” staging a mockery of elections?

    If there are Legislative problems in fixing the election schedule, what is the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs doing? He does EVERYTHING to legalize political dramas except to bring sanity to the proper conduct of Governing.

    The entire Governing function has been brought to a grinding halt by this “Ranil/Rajapaks & Co.” and its cohorts. Let us chase all of them away and bring a CHANGE.

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