The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, on being elected a second time with thumping majority, has identified One Nation One Poll or simultaneous elections for the nation and the states as his first priority and has called for an all party meeting. As earlier, PM Narendra Modi has again raised his voice, arguing that frequent elections “impede governance and development”, result in a drag on public exchequer and gives rise to “election fatigue” that is harmful for democracy.
Law Commission's Recommendations
The Law Commission before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in its draft report, had backed 'one nation, one poll' as an antidote to keeping the country perennially in election mode. Such an exercise would, it said, save public money, help reduce the burden on the administrative setup and security forces and ensure better implementation of government policies. It also noted that to legitimise the switch-back to the 1952 conduct of simultaneous polls, Article 172 of the Constitution needs to be amended.
The Commission's analysis points to the fact that there is a feasibility to restore simultaneous elections as it existed during the first two decades of India's independence. This practice got disrupted due to the premature dissolution of some State Legislative Assemblies in 1968. Lok Sabha itself dissolved prematurely in 1970.
Article 172 in the Indian Constitution about the duration of State Legislatures states, "Every Legislative Assembly of every State, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting...." However, to hold elections to these Assemblies along with the Lok Sabha election, amendment of Article 172 of the Constitution as well as of Section 14 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, will become necessary. Under the proviso to Section 14 of the RP Act, 1951, the process of election should be completed before the expiry of the term of the Assembly. Only in case of premature dissolution of the House, a window of six months is available for the Election Commission to conduct the elections. Simultaneous poll would be possible only after these constitutional provisions are amended.
Also read: Law Commission in Favour of Simultaneous Elections
Now, amending Article 172 in the light of the latest recommendations of the Law Commission is a possibility, however, it is a long drawn process which will require efforts. The amendment will require the passing of a requisite bill in the Parliament, by the ruling party, followed by the same bill (paving way for simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and all state Assemblies) passed in more than half of the states (as BJP controls directly or with partners as many as 18 states today out of 30 State and Union Territory Assemblies), and finally ratified by the President of India.
Rationale for Simultaneous Central and State Polls
Going beyond the ruling party's political expediency, free and fair elections are integral to democracy. Continuity, consistency and governance are also integral to democracy. And democracy also implies good governance. To achieve these, elections are held. But if the means (elections) become the goal, this will not serve democracy well. Holding simultaneous elections will ensure consistency, continuity and governance, and elections then will only be the means to achieve this and not an end in themselves.
Advocates of simultaneous polls say that the perpetual electoral season has made it impossible for leaders to pursue economic policies that bring long-term rewards when an anti-reform posture appears electorally more beneficial. A laser focus on winning elections means that leaders take shortcuts, and the focus lies on redistribution of wealth through welfare schemes (or even bribery).
One nation, one poll supporters believe that electoral compulsions have led leaders to implement reforms either by stealth or compulsion. For instance, former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao tried his best to hide his reform credentials throughout the tenure of his premiership. This paradox can be fixed if elections are spaced out. Leaders will find it relatively easier to take seemingly unpopular decisions if no electoral test lies on the horizon.
For instance, the Modi government took a bunch of measures to aid ease of doing business and tried to reform labour laws as soon as it was elected in 2014, but its pace slowed down to a halt two years later when it realised that worker discontent and anger could work against it in elections. Though such reforms are not in popular interest, the current Modi government, empowered with a dominant mandate, would want such reforms to go through in its class interests. Hence, there is a renewed quest for simultaneous polls immediately on getting elected a second time.
Further, the cost of an election has two components – one, expenditure incurred by the Election Commission of India and two, expenditure incurred by the political parties. A large number of government employees and public buildings are diverted from their regular responsibilities for election duties. There are undoubted benefits in conducting national and state elections together. It would reduce the significant amount of time conducting elections in terms of the use of paramilitary forces, government staff on election duty, organising booths, EC staff, voter slips, and electronic voting machines. The imposition of the Model Code of Conduct every time an election is scheduled delays the implementation of central and state government welfare schemes and infrastructure projects and takes away time and effort from governance issues.
During elections, political convenience takes precedence over public interest. To lure voters, political parties concede to popular demands without any consideration to public interest. Simultaneous elections reduce such opportunity for political parties.
The Other Side: Arguments Against Simultaneous Polls
At the end of the last two-day consultation on simultaneous polls conducted by the Law Commission, before the general elections, besides the NDA ally Shiromani Akali Dal, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti supported the idea. Initially, Congress and BJP both remained silent, later BJP supported. And nine other parties, including Trinamool Congress, the Left Parties, Nationalist Congress Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telugu Desam Party, and Janata Dal (Secular) opposed the concept.
DMK working president MK Salin has opposed the move and his objections were two-fold. One, various aspects of this proposal tampered with the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, which the Supreme Court in previous governments has strictly forbidden. Two, such a move would threaten federalism in addressing the question of when and how the Parliament or the various state Legislative Assembles would be dissolved.
AAP also dubbed the idea as a move to impose "managed democracy" in the country. Simultaneous polls are taking away the people's right to self-correction because often we have seen in this country that people vote differently in Parliament elections and six months down the line, people vote differently in a state election. JD(S) representative told the law panel that the idea is against federal democracy. Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury had written to the panel, listing the party's objections to the proposal stating that it goes beyond the ambit of law reform entailing major amendments to Constitution, and would run against both the "letter and spirit of our Constitution".
Also read: Why EC Owes an Answer to the Country Over ‘Phantom Votes’
Centre and states are equal and sovereign within their jurisdiction. Simultaneous elections may reduce the importance of state elections. Thus, it affects the concept of federalism. Simultaneous elections will relegate local issues or issues of state importance to the background. This completely ignores the diversity of the country. Frequent elections enhance political accountability. It keeps politicians on their toe. Local issues, state issues, and national issues do not get mixed up.
Studies show that simultaneous elections will have a significant impact on voter’s behaviour. An analysis by IDFC Institute shows that on average, there is a 77% chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the states and Centre when elections are held simultaneously. In such cases, the national issues and national parties take precedence over issues of state importance and small regional parties.
A government can be in power as long as it enjoys the confidence of Parliament. Simultaneous elections can work only if governments last for a fixed tenure of five years regardless of confidence of Parliament. It negates the concept of ‘no confidence motion’ – an important tool for legislative control over the executive.
Besides, there is a practical difficulty. Suppose simultaneous elections are held but the government loses its majority in the Lok Sabha, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did within 13 days in power, will there be new set of elections in all the 29 States too, even if they have an absolute majority? Why should the states suffer for the electoral decisions taken at the Centre?
Many critics of simultaneous elections say that conducting national and state elections together could help one political party create a ‘wave’ by an aggressive and well-organised campaign to persuade the electorate to vote for the same party, and capture power at the states and the Centre. Also the use of social media today may make it possible for parties to reach out to voters in remote areas without holding rallies.
Holding Simultaneous Elections Not Feasible
For it to be feasible, a political consensus is required, which is not easy to achieve. There has to be a political willingness to discuss this issue before a consensus. And parties need to understand the benefits of restricting huge expenses behind elections. The most critical factor to be considered is, whether simultaneous elections impact the voter behaviour in a way that influences electoral outcomes at the Union and at the state levels? The available evidence is indicative of possible advantage for national parties over regional parties in simultaneous polls. If that is the case, the federal democratic structure of the Indian polity could be harmed.
The author is a media academic and columnist. The views are personal.
Also read: ‘One Nation, One Election’: Holding Elections Simultaneously not Feasible at All