Candidates contesting elections from more than one constituency may win a seat, but the voters lose.
Lalu Prasad Yadav did it. Rahul Gandhi did it. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi did it twice. In Karnataka, both H. D. Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah had this in common. Contesting elections from more than one seat can be seen in politicians across party lines.
In the ongoing 2022 state elections, Punjab’s chief minister Charanjeet Singh Channi had contested from two seats—Chamkaur Sahib and Bahadur. He lost both of them.
According to the Representation of People Act, a candidate can only retain one seat in either the state or the central legislature. When a candidate wins both seats, they have to vacate one, forcing a by-election in the constituency. “This adds more expenses to elections that are already very expensive,” said Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Anil Verma, Head of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
“When a candidate fields two constituencies, it means they are jittery and unsure about their chances. The taxpayer is paying the price of their uncertainty,” he said.
While the practice of fielding candidates from two seats is not widespread, political parties use this provision to ensure that important leaders get elected. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi contested from Vadodara and Varanasi. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi contested from Amethi and Wayanad.
In the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections, H. D. Kumaraswamy contested from Channapatna and Ramanagara, winning both. He chose to retain Channapatna. Siddharamiah contested from Badami and Chamundeshwari. He won in Badami.
The law and its challenges:
Sec 33(7) of the Representation of people act allows a candidate to contest any election from up to two constituencies. Before a 1996 amendment, there was no limit on the maximum number of constituencies a candidate could contest.
In 2017, social-political activist Ashwini Upadhyay filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, stating that one candidate should be allowed to contest from just one constituency. The Election Commission supported the petition, stating that conducting a re-election after the winning candidate vacates the seat is an unnecessary expenditure. It had proposed that the candidate giving up the seat should finance the cost of the re-election.
The costs and efforts:
Elections in India begin with the preparation of electoral rolls for a constituency when the Election Commission of India (ECI) issues a public notice of an election. Then the political parties register themselves and the candidates file their nominations with the Returning officer (RO). The process ends when the votes are counted and the results are declared.
In 2018, the state legislative elections in Karnataka cost the Election Commission Rs. 400 crore. With 224 constituencies, the average expenditure was around Rs 1.78 crores in every constituency, said Vastrad, advisor to the Electoral office in Karnataka.
“When a candidate has to vacate a constituency, we try and conduct the by-election before the next government begins its session. Conducting these elections usually takes about a month, and the model code of conduct has to be extended until then,” he said.
While the cost is not a very large sum, it is still a problem, said Verma. “Indian elections are among the most expensive ones in the world. Consider that the last Lok Sabha elections cost as much as the Presidential election in the United States. If you look at the matter in this context, for a country like India, this is wasteful,” he added.
The other side:
For political parties, it is not just about one candidate, especially if a significant region could politically tilt either way, said BJP leader R. Ashoka. “When we field a powerful candidate from a seat, we consolidate the sentiment of that region in our favour,” he said.
They legally have the right to contest from two seats, and to make the winning candidate pay for people having voted for them is undemocratic, he added. “If a leader wants to contest from two seats and create a sub-regional wave, as a party, we encourage it,” he said.
Rahul Rao, media chairperson of the Congress, said that only a few candidates get to contest from two seats—and that too when they need to unify a region. “We have no concrete candidates yet for the 2023 state elections, but if it turns public sentiment in our favour, we will surely field important leaders from strategically crucial constituencies,” he added.
The multiple constituency situation affects the core values of democracy, said Hippu Nathan, researcher and associate professor at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. “It is about ignoring the people’s mandate. When a candidate contests from a constituency, and they win, the people have chosen them as a representative. It is a waste of time for them,” he said.
Democracy is built on the principle of equality. Fielding the same candidate from two seats is also unfair to upcoming leaders, as they have to vacate seats for the seniors, he added. “The solution is not to ask the winning candidate to compensate, because this isn’t about money. Contesting from more than one seat should be an automatic disqualifier,” he said.
In 2023, Karnataka will witness state legislative elections again. The petition for ‘one candidate one constituency’ still waits in Supreme Court.