Simultaneous Polls: India Going Towards a Political Tsunami

A 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. The Political discourse around reforms has become restrictive, prohibitive and inconducive.

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Law Commission’s Recommendations:

Election Commission chief OP Rawat ruled out simultaneous polls just the other day. Before that BJP President, Amit Shah’s letter to the Law Commission stressing on clubbing national and state polls failed to elicit a favorable response. Thereafter, PM Modi has spoken about simultaneous polls in India in his latest Mann Ki Baat over a radio in the last of August.

Interestingly late last week, 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 the administrative setup and security forces and ensure better implementation of government policies. It also noted that to legitimize the switch-back to the 1952 conduct of simultaneous polls, Article 172 of the Constitution needs to be amended.

The Commission’s analysis of financial implications, logistical issues, the effect of Model Code of Conduct and constitutional and legal provisions, with regard to holding of simultaneous elections in the country 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 premature dissolution of some State Legislative Assemblies in 1968. Lok Sabha itself dissolved prematurely in 1970.

Earlier this year, seeking to give shape to the government’s concept of “one nation, one election”, the Law Commission’s internal working paper has recommended holding the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls simultaneously but in two phases beginning 2019.

Amendments Needed:

Article 172 in The Indian Constitution about the Duration of State Legislatures state, “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. The simultaneous poll would be possible only after these constitutional provisions are amended.

Now, amending Art 172 in the light of the latest recommendations of the Law Commission by passing 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 19 states today out of 30 State and Union Territory assemblies), and finally ratified by the President of India: is a possibility, though with efforts. In this way, there is a possibility that with some jugglery of numbers (as seen during No Confidence motion in Lok Sabha and RS Vice Chairman polls in Rajya Sabha), a bill to amend Article 172 can be passed, followed by at least 19 state assemblies.

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The other easier possibility is that at least these 19 state assemblies or most of them are dissolved by their respective state governments soon enough, and the Election Commission then is duty bound to hold their fresh elections within six months, by the time we have due date for Lok Sabha polls, and hence, we have simultaneous polls to this extent. If with these, shaky Karnataka government and impasse struck Delhi semi-government can also be managed to be dissolved, it is almost the entire nation except a very few (only Punjab being notable among them).

So, the considered opinion is that BJP will go for simultaneous polls of Lok Sabha and 20 odd states together within the scope of the current Constitutional provisions, and this within 120 days from now. Or else, if the amendment is done, then the entire nation will have simultaneous state and national polls. This is bound to lead to a political tsunami of sorts.

The rationale for Simultaneous Polls from BJP’s end:

Three concurrent moves by the BJP have revived the debate over simultaneous elections. BJP president Amit Shah has written to the Law Commission seeking its implementation 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,” results in a drag on public exchequer and gives rise to “election fatigue” that is harmful to democracy. Meanwhile, media reports have indicated that the party is “exploring” the feasibility of holding ‘unofficial’ simultaneous polls next year by clubbing voting in some state Assemblies with the general elections.

It makes good sense for BJP to get all Indian states or at least 18 to 20 of them go along with the Lok Sabha polls and have simultaneous elections. BJP then can catch the cash-starved demoralized and disunited Opposition with no Common Minimum Agenda of governance, in the wrong foot. It can quell the local discontent, especially in Rajasthan and MP, and Presidential the entire election process of states and Centre with Modi as the central polarizing figure with none against. The monsoon has been good, an agrarian crisis can be quelled to an extent, more so with partial Minimum Support Price being promised. There is a favorable verdict expect on Ramjanmabhoomi issue any time now, there is a loud anti-terror action being taken and talked about, and there can be a few more regional parties joining the pre-poll alliance (AIADMK, TRS, BJD) or at least kept ready for the post-poll alliance if needed.

The rationale for Simultaneous Central and State Polls:

But 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.

A 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. The political discourse around reforms has become restrictive, prohibitive and inconducive. The space for even a debate lies squeezed. 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). While income inequality is a reality in India, for wealth to be redistributed there needs to be a greater focus on its generation.

Historically, in India, the polity has gained political power before the state could ripen its institutions for delivery of governance and meet their basic needs. As the state was frequently been found wanting in its responsibilities, the electorate developed a resentment towards the government. Political power has enabled them to express that antipathy through ballot boxes, with the ultimate result that the trajectory of economic reforms in India since Independence has been episodic and cautious. 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. Even though the steps were taken by him in 1991 unshackled the Indian economy and set it on a path of sustained growth, Rao never took credit for these reforms.

This paradox can be fixed if elections 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 labor laws as soon as it was elected in 2014, but its pace slowed down to a halt two years later when it realized that worker discontent and anger could work against it in elections.

In his address on the eve of Republic Day in 2017, former president Pranab Mukherjee had come out in favor of concurrent polls. In his words: “The time is also ripe for a constructive debate on electoral reforms and a return to the practice of the early decades after independence when elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies were held simultaneously. It is for the Election Commission to take this exercise forward in consultation with political parties.”

The cost of an election has two components – one, expenditure incurred by the Election Commission 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, organizing 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.

In India, there is a legal limit on how much money a candidate can spend on his campaign from his own sources but most spend as much as they can in the belief that this would help them reach out to a larger number of voters and also increase their chances of winning. The simultaneous elections would reduce the amount of money spent in the election. And Election commission’s money which comes from the public exchequer would also be significantly reduced because it will have to do fewer arrangements for less time to conduct the elections.

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

Simultaneous election promotes national perspective over the regional perspective. This is important for the unity of the country.

Simultaneous elections bring States on par with the Center. If the elections are to be held simultaneously once in five years, the elected state governments cannot be dismissed easily. This reduces the anomalies created by the Article 356 (President’s Rule) of the Indian constitution and hence, it strengthens federalism.

Simultaneous elections can also be a means to curb corruption and build a more conducive socio-economic ecosystem. While the Election Commission’s efforts to curb illicit finances are laudable, elections continue to be a conduit for black money and corruption. Frequent electoral cycles disrupt normal public life by impacting the delivery of essential services. They also provide opportunities to unscrupulous elements to create tears in the social fabric of society.

In India, if the elections to the local bodies are considered there is no year without some elections taking place.  Now this vicious circle of continuous elections is required to be broken. It can be said that effective governance is the first casualty when winning elections is the first priority of all politicians and understandably so.

The Other Side: Arguments 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, 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 TMC, the Left Parties, NCP, AAP, DMK, TDP, and JD(S) 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 Constitution of India, 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 Danish Ali told the law panel that the idea is against federal democracy. CPI(M) 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”.

Simultaneous elections may reduce the expenditure incurred by the Election Commission. But there is no guarantee that expenditure of the political parties will reduce. Political parties may spend the entire fund at once rather than in phases.

Center 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. Staggered election cycle gives people an opportunity to distinguish between these issues. Elections create a large number of work opportunity for the people.

Studies show that simultaneous elections will have a significant impact on voter’s bbehavior An analysis by IDFC institute shows that on average, there is a 77 percent 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 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.

Elections are an important part of representative democracy. Simultaneous elections with a fixed tenure of five years curtail people’s right to express their confidence or displeasure on the government.

To implement the idea, the tenure of some of the State Assemblies needs to be curtailed. How to do it, when the government enjoys the confidence of the legislature? How to preserve simultaneity in the event of a vote of no confidence or President’s rule?

The so-called simultaneous elections to Parliament and State legislatures till 1967 were less by design and more due to the stable majorities threw up by the electorate then. When that neatness was lost in the 1960s and later in the 1990s, it owed much to the dismantling of the dominant party system. Since then, coalition politics has brought stability, added to the vibrancy of democracy, and ensured an active role for State parties and greater power-sharing among parties.

Some experts feel that both the purpose and the procedure of simultaneous polls imply a disdain for the parliamentary system and the federal arrangement. Because, as is currently proposed, when everything else fails, democratic government would be sacrificed at the altar of simultaneous elections, and at the State level at least, the President would carry on the government for the remainder of the period or the new legislature shall have only a truncated term instead of the full five-year term. So, States would be penalised if the legislature is unable to produce a majority government.

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 from the electoral decisions taken at the Centre?

Many critics of simultaneous say that conducting national and state elections together could help the one political party create a ‘wave’ by an aggressive, well-organized, 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 is certainly desirable but not feasible

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 come about 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 around election time to ensure polarisation of communities for electoral gains.

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? Data indicate that the turnout for parliamentary elections is generally higher when simultaneous elections are held. It is hard to imagine that the relative positions of the contesting parties will remain unaffected when turnout is more in one system.

The available evidence is indicative of 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.

Hence, without answering these concerns, simultaneous polls may not be an easy game ahead. However, all signs today are about simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and upto 20 states together ahead, or through amendment all states of the Union of India.

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Simultaneous Polls: India Going Towards a Political Tsunami
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Simultaneous Polls: India Going Towards a Political Tsunami
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A 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. The political discourse around reforms has become restrictive, prohibitive and inconducive.
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The Policy Times
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