The issue of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies has become hot again with the recent statement of the Election Commission of India stating that there is a practical possibility of implementing the idea once the necessary political convergence takes place. In that context, Bureaucracy Today presents a fresh perspective along with a detailed analysis of the hot topic. In an exclusive interview to BT, Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat speakes in detail about the opportunities and the challenges associated with the Idea. In order to provide a comprehensive character to the cover story, we have also tried to incorporate the views of diverse stakeholders, including leaders of various political parties and two former Chief Election Commissioners.
By Gaurav Agrawal
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested that elections to the national and State legislatures, panchayats and local bodies should be held simultaneously. However, the idea is not new as it was first introduced by the Law Commission headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy in 1999. Later on in 2009, BJP leader LK Advani aired similar views. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law and Justice under the Chairmanship of EM Sudarshana Natchiappan (Congress), in its 79th Report in 2015 also concluded that simultaneous elections were required for long-term governance. In fact, the practice was already under effect, though unconsciously, from 1952 to 1967. However, it got disrupted in 1969 due to the premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat while speaking in length to Bureaucracy Today provides useful insight on the envisaged benefits and challenges associated with the idea. “Under the current system of elections, India is under a constant phase of polling with this and that State going to the polls. It hampers governance as political leaders find themselves busy in a consistent mode of political campaigns. For example, we have just witnessed the UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa Assembly elections and the election dates for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assemblies have now been announced. It creates an unintentional environment of policy paralysis”, Rawat says when BT asks him about the fundamental reason behind the genesis of the idea.
The line of reasoning stands justified as every time a State heads for the polls, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) gets enforced by the Election Commission. The enforcement of the MCC limits the powers of the Government as new projects, policies and major announcements can’t be made by it. The MCC has critical importance in ensuring free and fair elections across the country which is a constitutional mandate imposed on the Election Commission of India. It prevents the ruling party from exerting undue influence on voters and thereby provides an unbiased playground to all the contestants and political parties.
THE Hobbling Experience
However, the MCC makes the Central Government walk with a limp for nearly 30 months out of its 60-month tenure. It puts the top line leadership to an endless political campaign mode, brings administrative machinery to the halt, results in utter wastage of human resources and involves huge economic cost to the national exchequer.
Confirming the views of O.P Rawat, former Chief Election Commissioner H.S Brahma states that “the whole exercise results in an unproductive expenditure to the tune of thousands of crores of rupees whose brunt is ultimately beard by the ordinary taxpayer”.
All goes well with the theoretical disposition of the proposal of holding simultaneous elections but the real challenge is faced on the implementation ground. Synchronization of elections to the Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies remains the foremost challenge. For example, if the Modi Government wants to implement the idea from the 2019 general election, how would it ensure the concordance of State Assembly elections? Will the Punjab Assembly which recently secured a full five-year term surrender its remaining period? This remains a big question.
The Indian Constitution has provisions for the early dissolution of national and State legislatures as per the wishes of the Government concerned with the mandate of holding fresh elections within a period of six months. Further, Article 356 of the Constitution empowers the Centre to dissolve any State Government on various grounds as per the recommendation of the Governor of the State.
Observers say the Indian political system has witnessed instability and volatility of tenure with the emergence of coalition Governments at the national level as a single party majority has became the rarest of a rare case. The scene gets more complicated at the State levels with the emergence of regional parties which mobilize votes on regional issues and aspirations. There are more and more cases of hung legislatures where no party gets a majority, withdrawal of support of coalition partners, large-scale horse trading and no-confidence motions making the completion of tenure unrealistic and unviable. According to observers, these multiple scenarios which occur regularly in the political corridors of India raise numerous questions on the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections.
When asked about these cases, Rawat tells Bureaucracy Today: “The Election Commission of India has already submitted a detailed proposal explaining the practical modalities of holding simultaneous elections. The Commission has suggested appropriate amendments to the Constitution, including Articles 81, 82, 83, 85 and 356 to make the proposal practically feasible. The Commission has also given the recommendation of introducing a confidence motion rather than a no-confidence motion or holding both the motions simultaneously in the case of early dissolution of a House. Suppose a Government faces a no-confidence motion and loses the confidence of the House at a certain stage of its tenure, rather than calling for fresh elections, a confidence motion needs to be presented by the challenging political party. If it wins the confidence motion, it would immediately replace and succeed the present dispensation for the rest of its tenure. If it loses, then the present Government would be continuing to rule the State”.
A senior Government officer on condition of anonymity revealed to Bureaucracy Today that the Centre was exploring the possibility of holding simultaneous elections in a two-phased cycle to tackle the problem of convergence of various elections. “Basically the idea is to hold two elections in a five-year period. At first all the elections would be conducted simultaneously in a concordant manner, but then there would also be a provision of holding mid-term elections to resynchronize the States, if any, which have fallen apart from the cycle for any of the stated reasons,” the officer says.
When BT tried to confirm whether the idea was presented by the Election Commission, Rawat denied. He states that the idea may be under the consideration of the Government but was not originally presented by the Commission.
Apart from large ground level difficulties, the proposal also faces ideological battle from Opposition political parties with some alleging to the extent that the whole idea was a covert attempt to stall the parliamentary form of Government in the country and replace it with the Presidential order.
Manish Tiwari, former Union Minister and Congress spokesman, while speaking to Bureaucracy Today says that “not only is the idea impractical but it is also against the spirit of federalism which is a basic feature of the Constitution. All these fervent propositions proposed by the Prime Minister find their genesis in the 2014 general election successfully fought riding on a single personality by the BJP. The idea of holding simultaneous elections is just another attempt to recreate an election wave and sweep national and State elections. It would ultimately translate into the destruction of democratic values and the spirit of co-operative federalism of India.”
Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), while expressing his views to Bureaucracy Today categorically denies any possibility of holding simultaneous elections to the national and State Assemblies. He says, “Unless Article 356 gets deleted from the Indian Constitution, the holding of simultaneous elections will remain a bogus idea.”
The former Chief Election Commissioner, SY Quraishi, in a telephonic conversation with Bureaucracy Today expresses the similar thoughts raising various questions on the practical modalities. He says “The feasibility of the idea remains quite unclear. How you are going to ensure synchronism of the elections when the Constitution itself provides provisions of early dissolution or imposition of Presidents rule. How the aspirations of assertive regional parties are going to find their legitimate expression? How can you muffle up a single set of election and create a single set of national priorities? How you are going to acknowledge the presence of regional diversity and differences? The Election Commission must first come clear on these questions, only then a meaningful deliberation on the issue is possible.”
Indian Voters’ Wisdom
However, when these questions are put to the Election Commissioner Rawat, he expresses his confidence in the institutional set-up of Indian democracy and the wisdom of Indian voters. “ You see, Indian democracy has matured and so Indian voters. While raising these questions you are undermining the wisdom of the voter. It is not so the case. The Indian voter is very much informed now and can very well discriminate between different types of elections, political parties, candidates and national or regional aspirations. You must place your trust in the hands of our voters. After all this is all about democracy. Also you should not forget that the ultimate focus should be on better serving of the people of this country. Everything else should be subsumed to the best interest of the population.” Rawat tells Bureaucracy Today.
Sambit Patra, BJP spokesman in a conversation with Bureaucracy Today however says “The BJP welcomes the idea. We believe in a consensus-based approach keeping the spirit of co-operative federalism. I think the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear by stating that there will not be any imposition of the idea on other political parties.”
When asked about the infrastructural preparedness of the Election Commission in case the idea gets flagged off by the Government, Rawat quickly responds that “Infrastructure is not the issue. The commission has an adequate number of voting machines and required man power. Though we would need capacity addition to conduct simultaneous elections, the new Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)-enabled voting method but that could be arranged easily. I do not see any challenge in it. The main challenge lies in evolving a broad-based political consensus as the implementation of the proposal would require a number of constitutional amendments.”
The idea of holding simultaneous elections to the national and state legislatures has its own merits, still it appears to be in a nascent stage. There is no doubt that the country needs to save itself from constant electoral campaigns, huge economic costs and poor political governance involved with the current system of elections but the various challenges associated with its implementation like ensuring constant synchronization, protecting the federal structure and giving space to various regional aspirations must first be acknowledged and then be discussed with all the political parties. The detailed proposal of the Election Commission discussing practical modalities which include multiple constitutional amendments should come in the public domain so that other stakeholders like political parties, civil societies and experts can express their opinion on it. If all the challenges are handled with a consensus-based approach, there is the least doubt that the idea could turn as a masterstroke by Indian democracy.