In the Indian Union, elections to Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha do not happen simultaneously now. The Assembly and Parliamentary elections started simultaneously in 1951-52, the first elections with universal adult franchise in the subcontinent. In 1950, state governments and the Union government with separation of powers was conceived. That is the core of federalism. Thus, the elections to Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha are essentially elections to representative bodies that would represent the people’s views on the specific and separate powers vested in the Union and state governments. In time, Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas in various states developed a natural course of their own, responding to the specific realities and contexts. Thus, mid-term elections for Vidhan Sabha as well as Lok Sabha, various periods of President’s Rule and other political contexts decoupled the Vidhan Sabha elections from the Lok Sabha and the many Vidhan Sabha elections from each other. And that continues.
Recently, Narendra Modi floated the plan of simultaneous Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections. It is not a new idea. Earlier, the erstwhile BJP-stalwart Lal Krishna Advani had also argued for this, during the earlier NDA regime. That call had few takers. This time around, Narendra Modi seems not to want to leave it simply as a random declaration of intent but has followed it up in various ways. He has raised this demand in at least two interviews, which in itself is a testament to the importance of this issue to the ruling party. His government set up a committee in the law ministry to study the feasibility of simultaneous elections.
The Law Ministry sought the Election Commission of India’s comments on the “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies”. The ECI in response stated, “In so far as the Election Commission is concerned, the issues involved in holding simultaneous elections are not insurmountable for it. If there is political consensus and will across the board, needless to say, that the Commission supports the idea of considering simultaneous elections”.
Narendra Modi has also sought “people’s opinion” on the issue in the mygov.in portal till 15th October. In his recent “class” as a teacher on Teacher’s Day, President Pranab Mukherjee endorsed the idea and had said, “The Election Commission can also put in their idea and efforts on holding the polls together and that will be highly beneficial”. What he did not mention was for whom would it be beneficial and how. There are strong reasons why few except pan-Indian parties are enthusiastic about this plan. As far as the sanctity of electoral democracy and federalism are concerned, it is a dangerous idea, at many levels.
For this, slowly all state Assembly elections have to be brought in sync from their present temporal offsets. Individual state Assemblies will have to be elected way before their normal term ends while other state Assembly elections would have to be held much after their term. A cursory look at the indicative schedule of such a plan: if it were to be instituted in 2 phases as envisaged by the parliamentary panel, would have had Phase 1 elections of state Assemblies around November 15, 2016. This would have meant, at least six states would have Assembly elections in more than 400 days before their term ends, making a farce of the mandate by which they were elected in the first place. Phase 1 is out of the question.
Phase 2, which was proposed to be held on June 3, 2019, would have at least 15 states have their elections more than 120 days before or after Assembly term, with some states going to polls more than one and half years after their constitutional term! And all this for cost cutting and vaguely expressed sentiments about governance efficiency. What is lost in the process is that elections are first and foremost about democratic representation. Everything else is secondary. If expenses were a paramount consideration, then why even have law courts or any other institution that is supposed to uphold rights of a citizen? Are those rights negotiable due to expenses? While the Congress has called such a plan as impractical, Trinamool has explicitly termed it as anti-democratic and unconstitutional.
Even if one were able to sync all Assembly and parliamentary elections at some time in the future, how does one stop the decoupling cycle to start once again, as it did earlier after the initial start in 1952? Here, the solution proposed is called the Shekhawat plan, as mooted by the deceased BJP leader and former Vice-President Bhairosingh Shekhawat. A government falls when a no-confidence motion wins in the house. If no alternative government can be formed, that necessitates new elections. According to the Shekhawat plan, an alternative government formation plan or a confidence motion in a new government must necessarily accompany a no-confidence motion. This plan is an attack on people’s sovereign right to choose how they want, when they want and whom they want.
Under this absurd anti-democracy idea, the people’s representatives and hence, the people have no right to pull down a government if there is no alternative at hand, even if the incumbent government has lost the confidence of the majority in the house! Thus people’s representatives cannot express a lack of confidence in a government in isolation. However, lack of confidence in a government by itself is a phenomenon, and this plan wants to ride roughshod over the sovereign right of the people to express a lack of confidence in a government. Putting a rider on no-confidence motion is same as censoring the opinion of people’s representatives in the house meant to represent the view of individuals through representatives.
Not yearning for stability can override the representative character of a government and hence, public opinion. Prioritising stability over democracy is not only anti-people but also deeply authoritarian. The Anti-Defection law that puts parties before people’s representatives has hugely compromised the representative character of elected officials. Simultaneous elections and Shekhawat plan will erode representativeness even further.
The simultaneous election policy is a direct blow to democracy and separation of sovereign powers between state Assemblies and Union Parliament, where people will be deliberately made to vote simultaneously to elect Assemblies that are autonomous and different, in the same campaign cycle. This is a very dangerous idea, against federalism and in support of “pan-Indian” parties whose agendas would typically dominate in an election cycle. The inevitable dominance of “national” issues, due to the greater amount of media focus and money power in play, would adversely hurt the breadth of debates on people’s issues that happen around an election.
Syncing all elections to the parliamentary election stems from a serious misunderstanding about the nature of the Indian Union. Even the term centre is a misnomer. India is a Union. The Union and the states don’t have a spoke and wheel relationship. There is no Centre. The Union is a round-table with certain powers. The Lok Sabha (which represents the Union government and manages subjects under Union’s control) and the Vidhan Sabhas (which represents the state governments of the various constituent states of the Union and manages items under state control) do not share any hierarchical relationship – both are equal and sovereign with respect to the subjects under their exclusive jurisdiction. They represent different concerns and more importantly, different distances from the lived reality of the people.
Thus, the relegation of state issues to the background would make elections more about distant issues and less about everyday realities that are typically addressed in state Assembly elections. It will selectively hurt state-based pro-federalism parties who fight “pan-Indian” parties in their states. Empirical evidence shows that in states where simultaneous assembly and parliamentary elections have been held since 1999, voters opted for the same party in both elections in 77 percent of constituencies. The hugely different results in Bihar for the non-simultaneous elections to Assembly and parliamentary elections show why the non-simultaneity is important. Very different issues held sway during the two elections in Bihar. Simultaneous elections would reduce the complex realities of a billion plus people into a referendum on the incumbent Union government—precisely why very few pro-federalism parties are enthusiastic about the plan. A comparable large, multi-state entity, like the USA, which has a strong federal structure, has no concept of simultaneous elections.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)