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Towards a political tsunami?

As 2019 nears, the sword of simultaneous polls dangles dangerously near our necks. Its benefits in reducing costs are apparent – but are simultaneous elections desirable for the Indian polity today?

Election Commission chief O P Rawat ruled out simultaneous polls just the other day. Interestingly, in its draft report, the same Law Commission backed 'one nation, one poll' as an antidote to keeping the country perennially in election mode. Such an exercise would, the panel said, save public money, help reduce the burden on administration and security forces and ensure better implementation of government policies.

The Commission's analysis of financial implications, logistical issues, effect of Model Code of Conduct along with constitutional and legal provisions, in regard to holding simultaneous elections in the country, points to the feasibility in restoring simultaneous elections as it existed during the first two decades of India's independence. This practice was disrupted due to the premature dissolution of some State Legislative Assemblies in 1968. The Lok Sabha itself dissolved prematurely in 1970.

Article 172 of the Indian Constitution in regard to the duration of state legislatures reads, "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 for these assemblies along with the Lok Sabha election, amendment of Article 172 as well as Section 14 of the Representation of People Act (1951) shall become necessary. Under the 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 polls would be possible only after these constitutional provisions are amended.

Now, amending Article 172 in light of the latest recommendations of the Law Commission, by passing a requisite bill in the Parliament, followed by the same bill passed in more than half of the states and finally ratified by the President of India: is a possibility, though with efforts. The other easier possibility is that at least these 19 state assemblies (under BJP) or most of them are dissolved by their respective state governments and the Election Commission is duty bound to hold their fresh elections within six months, by the time we have a due date for the Lok Sabha polls, and hence, we have simultaneous polls to this extent.

The BJP then could go for simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and 20 odd states together within the current constitutional scope and, this, within 120 days from now. Or else, with an amendment, the entire nation could witness simultaneous polls. This is bound to lead to a political tsunami of sorts.

Rationale for Simultaneous Polls

Three concurrent moves by the BJP have revived the debate over simultaneous elections. BJP president Amit Shah has written to the Law Commission seeking to check expenditure and pull India out of a perpetual election cycle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has again raised his voice, arguing that "frequent elections impede governance and development" resulting in a drag on public exchequer and "election fatigue". Meanwhile, media reports have indicated that the party is "exploring" the feasibility of holding 'unofficial' simultaneous polls next year.

It makes good sense for the BJP to get all Indian states or at least 18 to 20 of them along with the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP then can catch the cash-starved, demoralised and disunited opposition with no common minimum agenda on the wrong foot. It can quell the local discontent, especially in Rajasthan and MP, with Modi as the polarising figure and none against. The monsoon has been good, the agrarian crisis can be quelled to an extent, more so with partial Minimum Support Price (MSP) being promised.

But going beyond the ruling party's political expediency, free and fair elections are imperative. To achieve consistency in governance, elections are held. But the means (elections) becoming the goal will not serve the democracy well. Holding simultaneous elections will ensure consistency, continuity and governance; and elections then will only be the means to achieve this without being an end in themselves.

A perpetual electoral season has made it impossible for leaders to pursue economic policies that bring long-term rewards. Political discourse around reforms has become restrictive, prohibitive and inconducive. A lesser focus on winning elections redirects focus on the redistribution of wealth through welfare schemes.

Electoral compulsions have led leaders to implement reforms either by stealth or compulsion. 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 the ease of doing business and tried to reform labour laws as soon as it was elected in 2014, but its pace halted when it realised that discontent of workers could work against it in elections.

During elections, political convenience takes precedence over public interest. To lure voters, political parties concede to popular demands without any consideration of the public interest. Simultaneous elections reduce such opportunity for political parties.

Against Simultaneous Polls

At the end of the two-day consultation on simultaneous polls recently conducted by the Law Commission, besides the NDA ally Shiromani Akali Dal, the AIADMK, Samajwadi Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti supported the idea. Initially, both the Congress and the BJP remained silent, though the latter extended support later. And nine other parties, including the TMC, the Left Parties, NCP, AAP, DMK, TDP, and JD(S) opposed the concept.

DMK working president MK Stalin has opposed the move and his objections were two-fold. One, various aspects of this proposal tampered with the basic structure of the Constitution. Two, such a move would threaten federalism in addressing the dissolution of Parliament or the various state Legislative Assembles.

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 corresponding parliamentary and state elections. JD-S representative Danish Ali told the law panel that the idea is against federal democracy. CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury had written listing the party's objections to the proposal stating that it goes beyond the ambit of law reform entailing major amendments to the Constitution.

The Centre and state are equal and sovereign within their jurisdiction. Simultaneous elections may reduce the importance of state elections – thereby impinging upon federalism. Simultaneous elections will relegate local concerns to the background. This completely ignores the diversity of the country. Frequent elections enhance political accountability, keeping politicians on their toes.

Studies show that simultaneous elections will have a significant impact on voters' behaviour. An analysis by IDFC institute shows that, on average, there is a 77 per cent chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the state and Centre when elections are held simultaneously. In such cases, the national issues and national parties take precedence over issues of regional importance.

A government can be in power as long as it enjoys the confidence of the Parliament. Simultaneous elections can work only if governments last for a fixed tenure of five years regardless of the 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 we then hold a 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 say that conducting national and state elections together could help one political party create a 'wave' by an aggressive, well-organised campaign and capture power at the states and the Centre.

Between Two Odds

For it to be feasible, we need a political consensus, which is not easy to achieve. There has to be a political willingness to discuss this issue before we talk of a consensus. And, parties need to understand the benefits of restricting huge expenses behind elections. The way out is to cut the role played by money in elections, and this can be done only through a ceiling on political party expenditure. The other aspect is the state funding of elections. Besides, elections have become too divisive – communal riots and caste disturbances are deliberately created to ensure polarisation of communities for electoral gains.

The most critical factor to be considered is, whether simultaneous elections impact voter behaviour in a way that influences electoral outcomes at the Union and at the state? The available evidence is indicative of a possible advantage for national parties over regional parties in simultaneous polls. If that be the case, the federal democratic structure of the Indian polity could be harmed.

Without answering these concerns, simultaneous polls may not be an easy game. However, all signs today are hinting at the possibility of simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and up to 20 states together, or through an amendment affecting all states of the Union of India.

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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