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One is not enough

To have a would-be prime minister choose your home town as his constituency can be exhilarating. Anand Mishra, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker in Varanasi, is over the moon because Narendra Modi is fighting from the Uttar Pradesh (UP) city. If Modi wins from Varanasi — as well as from Vadodara in Gujarat, from where he is also contesting — he will have to withdraw from one of the seats. Mishra holds he will continue to support Modi — but many of those who will vote for him Varanasi are no doubt going to be disappointed.

But that’s the law. A candidate who wins from two constituencies has to give one up. “If a person is elected to more than one seat in either House of Parliament or in the House or either House of the Legislature of a State, then, unless within the prescribed time he resigns all but one of the seats, all the seats shall become vacant,” says Section 70 of the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951. The candidate has to vacate the seat in 10 days, following which by-election will be held from the constituency.

Fighting from two seats is not uncommon in India. In the 2014 polls, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh will contest from Mainpuri and Azamgarh, both in UP, in his bid to enter Parliament. Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal has his eyes on Varanasi, but if he wins from there, he will have to give up his New Delhi Assembly seat, which he won last December.

A debate on the extra expenditure caused by such by-elections is gaining ground. Has the time come to scrap the law that allows a candidate to fight from more than one seat?

A public interest litigation (PIL) has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of certain sub-sections of Sections 33 and 70 of the RPA. Section 33(7) states that a person can contest a general election or a group of by-elections or biennial elections from a maximum of two constituencies.

According to the PIL, by-elections as a result of vacation of a seat would be a financial burden on the public exchequer and “the public would be forced to participate in an unwarranted and forced by-election” within a few months.

“One candidate and one constituency should be the rule. The framers of our Constitution probably didn’t know that future politicians would manipulate the system to their advantage. I hope the Supreme Court takes a close look at the law and strikes it down,” the petitioner, D.K. Giri, says.

The trend has been carrying on for decades. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had contested from two constituencies — Medak in Andhra Pradesh and Rae Bareli in UP — in 1980. In 1999, Congress president Sonia Gandhi contested from Amethi in UP and Bellary in Karnataka. She won from both, and surrendered Bellary.

The reasons for contesting from two seats vary. Sometimes it’s because the contestant is not confident of victory from one seat. Sometimes — as in the case of Modi — the idea is to spread the ambit of one’s influence.

But Giri believes that a person who vacates a seat acts against the “fundamental principles” of democracy. “We choose a candidate from a constituency so that he or she can nurse their constituency during the term. We cannot allow a candidate to abandon it soon after winning the seat,” Giri says.

He adds that till 1996, when the RPA was amended, there was no limit on the number of constituencies a candidate could fight from. “Now the time has come to amend it further.”

In 2010, in a background paper prepared by the Core Committee on Electoral Reforms — a part of the legislative department of the ministry of law and justice in consultation with the Election Commission (EC) — the EC had recommended that the number of seats be restricted to one. In 2004, the EC had again suggested an amendment to the law barring a person from contesting from more than one constituency at a time.

The proposal, however, was quietly buried. “Political parties lack the will and the enlightenment to bring in crucial reforms. There’s no rational explanation for allowing one candidate to contest from two constituencies,” former chief election commissioner T.R. Krishnamurthy says.

Under Krishnamurthy, the EC had also said that if Parliament did not approve the recommendation (of one person, one seat), the candidate winning from two seats should deposit in a government account “an appropriate amount of money being the expenditure for holding the by-election.”

There were few takers for this. “The government held an all-party meeting and said that there was no consensus on the issue,” Krishnamurthy says.

Depositing money may anyway not be the way out, some argue. “Money is not an issue for a candidate fighting from two constituencies. He or she will have no problems in paying for the expenditure of the Election Commission,” Giri says. “It’s not just the EC that has to spend money in a by-election. Every candidate has to spend money which runs into crores of rupees,” points out Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, an organisation which works on democracy and governance.

Not everybody, however, is convinced that that there should be a law barring people from fighting from two seats. “A person should be allowed to contest from as many constituencies as he or she desires,” stresses Baijayant “Jay” Panda, member of Parliament from the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha.

But Panda has a solution. “In case a candidate wins from more than one constituency, instead of organising a by-election, the candidate who secured the second highest votes should be automatically declared the winner. This will save public resources and reduce the strain on the election machinery,” he suggests.

Krishnamurthy says that since the government has failed to come up with a solution, it will be “great” if the Supreme Court can force it to amend the laws. “We have waited for long and governments have not moved an inch on the issue saying that there is lack of consensus. I think it’s time the Supreme Court stepped in and brought some sense,” he says.

Chhokar is a bit more colourful in his argument. “When bigamy is illegal in India, how can we allow a candidate promising to marry two constituencies when we know that he will divorce one,” he asks. But Mishra is not convinced. For him, Modi fighting from his city in itself is a reason for celebration.