Prof. V.P. Gupta,Director, Rau’s IAS Study Circle, New Delhi – Jaipur – Bengaluru
The call for holding simultaneous elections has grown recently and the Prime Minister of India has advocated holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies to utilise maximum time for governance which is otherwise lost due to political campaigns and rallies. India got independence on 15th August, 1947, adopted its Constitution on 26th January, 1950 and held its first general election between October 1951 and March 1952 under the guidance of Sukumar Sen who was the first Chief Election Commissioner of India. It was a stupendous and colossal task of gigantic proportion to conduct election for around 4,500 seats including the Parliament and State Assemblies for the first time in India. This process of simultaneous elections continued till the year 1967. One thing to remember here is that Congress governed both at the Centre and in majority of the states and it became easy to conduct such simultaneous elections till Congress enjoyed stupendous majority. However, with time, clout of Congress as a political party reduced giving rise to political instability both at the Centre and in the States. This instability and rising local demands also led to the emergence of many regional parties across India. This led to instability of many state governments and slowly this process of simultaneous elections came to a pause due to the constitutional need of having a majority in the State Assemblies. Even the Lok Sabha got prematurely dissolved in 1970 and this disrupted the chain of holding simultaneous elections completely. Let us understand the feasibility of conducting simultaneous polls in present times where multi-party democracy, centre-state relations and use of technology through social media have assumed greater importance as compared to our distant past.
Understanding Unitary and Federal India
Constitution of India establishes a two-tier government system with the Union Government at the Centre and respective State governments at the provinces. The Constitution has demarcated each level of government by devising an elaborate scheme of distribution of legislative, administrative and financial powers between the Centre and the States. In this respect, Article 246 of the Indian Constitution clearly enumerates the Federal character of the Indian Constitution. It empowers Parliament to make law under Union List, States to make law under State List and both the Parliament and States to make law under Concurrent List. Thus, the Constitution through its Articles has created a separate existence for the state government independent from the existence of the Centre. Thus, elections are conducted every five years in different states as per their constitutional existence. Over the period of years, stability of the various governments at state level has lost their sync of common existence in the same time interval. Coalition politics have emerged slowly over a period of years and now we are witnessing coalition government in various states. Compulsion of coalition politics have often resulted in premature dissolution of both Central and respective state governments. This has led to different election years for different states. Now, the Prime Minister of India is advocating for the need of an idea of “One Nation One Poll” by holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and respective State Assemblies. Let us understand the merits and demerits of conducting simultaneous elections of such gargantuan level in a culturally and topographically diverse country having a population of 125 crores.
Simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies will provide continuity, consistency and stability in governance throughout the country. The entire country after the completion of the election process can focus on governance for an uninterrupted period of five years. It will reduce the massive expenditure spent during elections throughout the year. Every year some states witness assembly elections and even the political party in power at the Union gets involved during the election process. This diverts much of Central Government’s time from important national and domestic concerns and it consumes energy and resources to ensure victory in such state assemblies. Elections in states lead to the imposition of Model Code of Conduct which effectively restricts introduction of new development programmes and schemes in the state. Irregular elections at different time of the year affect productivity and have an adverse impact on the economy of the nation as a whole. If all elections to State Assemblies and Lok Sabha are held at one time, it will give a stable five-year term to the political parties in power to focus towards implementing their political manifestos and government schemes. This will prove beneficial both for the government and the public. Finally simultaneous election would reduce the type of manpower and resource deployment necessary for the conduct of elections. This will also help in controlling corruption to a large extent as use of unaccounted money through illegal sources such as hawala is very common. Even though Election Commission with the help of other administrative and regulatory bodies keeps a tight vigil, yet to do so continuously through the year becomes burdensome. It also deviates much of the resources and manpower into such regulations which in general course of event can be utilised for their regular work.
India has a federal structure and a multi-party democracy where elections are held for State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha separately. The voters are better placed to express their voting choices keeping in mind the two different governments which they would be electing by exercising their franchise. This distinction gets blurred somewhat when voters are made to vote for electing two types of government at the same time, at the same polling booth, and on the same day. When State Assembly elections will be held along with Lok Sabha, then the local issues concerning the state may get swept by emotive issues of national importance. Voters in such a scenario in the past have always went for the same party whenever simultaneous elections were held. Assembly elections are fought on local state issues and, in the true spirit of federalism, parties and leaders are judged in the context of their work done in the state. Clubbing them with the general election could lead to a situation where the national narrative submerges the regional problems and issues. In case of simultaneous polls, bigger political parties who are better funded have advantage over smaller regional parties. Even the corporates would favour a uniform government throughout India for their benefit hence could pour their entire fund in one or two strong national political parties. This may act as a huge disadvantage for the smaller political parties thereby distorting the very idea of federalism in India. There are other situations which may arise and cannot be preempted currently due to lack of practical experience. One such instance that can happen is that due to constitutional failure in a state, the State Assembly has to be dissolved. Then, will the state be allowed to carry on or President’s rule under Article 356 will be imposed? Similarly, if Union government dissolves prematurely due to coalition politics or passing of no-confidence motion or some other reasons, then will this amount to dissolution of all state governments? Thus these are certain practical constraints in having simultaneous elections. There will be other practical difficulties in terms of logistics and movement of personnels involved in the election process.
Recommendations of Various Reports
Law Commission of India in its One Hundred and Seventieth Report has suggested that election of some Legislative Assemblies where term is ending six months after the general election to Lok Sabha can be clubbed with it but election result can be declared at the end of their tenure. This can be possible with the cooperation of political parties.
The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice under the Chairmanship of Dr. E.M. Sugarcane Natchiappan had submitted a report on the “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies” in December 2015. The Committee noted that the Representation of People Act, 1951 permits the Election Commission to notify general election six months prior to the end of the terms of Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. The Committee recommended that elections could be held in two phases. It stated that elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the midterm of Lok Sabha. Elections to the remaining Legislative Assemblies could be held with the end of term of Lok Sabha. The Committee has noted that pre-mature dissolution of State Legislative Assemblies is no more on the whim and fancies of the Union Government or even upon political parties but are regulated largely by Anti-Defection Act, 1985 and as per Supreme Court judgment in S.R. Bommai case.
The NITI Aayog in its Three Years’ Action Agenda has suggested that all elections in India should happen in a free, fair and synchronised manner so as to cause minimum campaign mode disruption to governance. In this direction, NITI Aayog has suggested to move towards switching to a synchronised two-phase election to the Lok Sabha. This would require a maximum one-time curtailment or extension of some State Assemblies. To implement this in the national interest, a focussed group of stakeholders comprising constitution and subject matter experts, think tanks, government officials and representatives of various political parties should be formed to work out appropriate implementation-related details. This may include drafting appropriate constitution and statutory amendments, agreeing on a workable framework to facilitate transition to simultaneous elections, developing a stakeholder communication plan and various operational details.
Way Forward Any proposal to strengthen the roots of democracy is always a welcome step and all stakeholders must be willing and accommodative to explore options for the same. In this respect, the proposal to introduce simultaneous elections in India both to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies is a bold reform and must be carried forward with the consensus of all State Assemblies. Simultaneous elections if at all possible should be complied within the constitutional constraints and without disturbing the federal structure of India as it is also a Basic Structure of the Indian Constitution. However, if any state is unwilling to come to the terms of simultaneous elections then, the Central Government shall patiently listen to their concerns. If the concerns are genuine, then effective steps and alternatives must be suggested so as to bring all stakeholders at one common platform.