As one of the longest electoral processes to choose India’s next Lok Sabha comes to an end, it is worth asking how the elections affect governance. How much can the administration do while the elections are underway, and how much work does it actually end up doing? Is it fair to say that the elections — both Lok Sabha and assembly — lead to paralysis in governance? Do the impending results of the election and the possibility of post-election transfer weigh on in the minds of the IAS officers?
Let me try and answer some of these questions based on our more than 6 years of experience of working with state governments across the country, including Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh, in addition to the central government.
What can be done during elections?
During the elections, governance is regulated by the Model Code of Conduct, which comes into effect from the day the election schedule is announced by the Election Commission, and remains in effect until the results are officially declared. Contrary to popular perception, the model code of conduct is a fairly liberal set of guidelines to minimise any adverse impact on governance during the elections, while ensuring that there is nothing that incumbent governments decide, announce, or do that could unduly influence the voters.
This means that routine administration work can continue unhindered. For instance, budget discussions with states by the central government under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), something that can be considered routine administration work, continue while the model code is in place.
Furthermore, all welfare projects for which beneficiaries have been identified before the model code comes into force can continue uninterrupted. This is the reason even recently launched schemes of the Modi government like PM-KISAN and PM-JAY (under Ayushman Bharat), both of which provide targeted benefits to the citizens, continued while the election was on.
Even if new initiatives have to be undertaken, they are allowed through waivers if they can be justified as urgent. The Election Commission considers these cases on merit, and is fairly liberal in its waivers unless it finds the proposition to be mala fide. The preparation and relief work in Odisha during cyclone Fani is one such example. Another example is the issuance of appointment letters to new government employees in Haryana, which was allowed since the results were announced much before the model code of conduct came into force.
What gets done during elections?
While a lot can be done, governance suffers for reasons beyond just the technicalities of the model code. The three big reasons are: curtailed administrative bandwidth, weakened accountability for ministries / departments, and insufficient incentives for the bureaucracy.
Let’s first look at bandwidth. The face of the government at the district level — the collector or deputy commissioner or district magistrate (different nomenclatures in different states) — is also often the Electoral Officer of the corresponding constituency. With him/her pre-occupied with the elections, there is little time left for governance matters. Moreover, several senior IAS officers are posted as election observers by the Election Commission to other states, further reducing the administrative bandwidth. The Chief Minister’s Office, another nerve centre of administration in a state, remains significantly restricted lest it’s seen to be acting on behalf of the ‘political’ chief minister.
While the mainstream administration is pre-occupied with the elections, the ministries and government departments can continue in a manner that is business as usual, except when their senior officials are away on duty as election observers. The only other limitation for them is that their frontline staff (like teachers of government schools or employees of public sector banks) may also have been sent on election duty. But since this is only for a very limited period, ordinarily it should not affect governance.
A weakened system?
What eventually happens though is that because of the absence of some senior officials and the mainstream administrative machinery, accountability mechanisms within the system are weakened. If fewer reviews take place, fewer questions get asked, and less work gets done. This also becomes a period when the bureaucracy becomes extremely risk-averse and the model code of conduct becomes a reason to not do even those things that are technically allowed. The absence of the political executive (since they are busy with the campaigning) and their curtailed powers only adds to weakened accountability on governance.
A third factor at play is the lack of incentives for the bureaucracy during the elections. There is always a chance of a major rejig of administration through bulk transfers immediately after the elections are over and a new party has come into power. This reduces the incentive for the officers to continue to remain invested in their current postings. Even if only a small part of the administration is transferred after the elections (largely in scenarios where the incumbent political dispensation has returned to power), the general attitude during the elections is one of ‘wait and watch’.
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What should be done during elections?
If an IAS officer wants, (s)he can leverage the election period to push the envelope on governance. Since firefighting (which is mostly what keeps our IAS officers pre-occupied) as well as the pressure to show results is limited during the elections, the period can be productively utilised to step back, reflect on the achievements and failures of their governance strategies, and re-strategise or plan the roadmap for the coming months and years. This downtime can be the much-needed design phase for programmes for which IAS officers always struggle to find time. For instance, the Modi government ministries have been occupied with creating 100-day plans and identifying big ticket ideas for the new dispensation. But this is more of an exception rather than a norm across the country.
One can safely say that while the system largely ‘allows’ an IAS officer to perform on the governance front during the elections, it does not ‘demand’ it. As a result, it all boils down to the personal will of the IAS officers. If they want, there is a lot they can do during the time the model code is in place. But based on observations, on the whole, governance takes a setback during the elections.
Gaurav Goel is the Founder & CEO of ‘Samagra | Transforming Governance’, a mission driven governance consulting firm, working with government leaders across states on large scale systemic transformations. Views are personal.