When and how did the idea of simultaneous Lok Sabha, Assembly and local body polls come up?
The Election Commission had suggested as early as in 1983 that a system should be evolved so that elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies could be held simultaneously. The Justice B P Jeevan Reddy-headed Law Commission said in its 170th Report in May 1999 that “we must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once”.
Official discussions among lawmakers began much later. In its December 2015 report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People and State Legislative Assemblies’, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice recommended “an alternative and practicable method of holding simultaneous elections which involves holding of elections in two phases” — halfway into the term of the current Lok Sabha, i.e., in November 2016, for some Assemblies, and at the end, i.e., in June 2019, for the rest. The Committee suggested that “elections to all state Assemblies whose terms end prior to or after a time period of six months to one year from the appointed election date can be clubbed together”. It proposed that terms of current Assemblies be curtailed or extended to align with the new simultaneous elections cycle, and presented the proposal as a “representative table” in its report.
In his address to the joint session of Parliament last year, then President Pranab Mukherjee, too, expressed concern over frequent elections. They “put on hold development programmes, disrupt normal public life, and impact essential services and burden human resource with prolonged periods of election duty”, Mukherjee said, and called for a constructive debate on the issue.
How exactly will holding Lok Sabha and Assembly polls together help?
In a discussion paper titled Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The ‘What’, ‘Why’, and ‘How’, Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai of the NITI Aayog defined simultaneous elections as “structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronised together”.
Simultaneous elections were held in 1951-52, 1957, 1962 and 1967. The cycle was disrupted due to premature dissolution of Assemblies and, in 1970, Lok Sabha, too, was dissolved early. The Standing Committee made the point that not having to hold frequent elections was “important for India… to compete with other nations in developmental agenda”.
Those who are for the idea, say it will cut costs. The NITI Aayog paper said the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 had cost the exchequer about Rs 1,115 crore, and the 2014 elections, about Rs 3,870 crore. The total money spent on the elections, including spends by parties and candidates, was several times more; the Centre for Media Studies estimated that an undeclared Rs 30,000 crore was spent on the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The Election Commission of India, on its part, has estimated the cost of holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies at Rs 4,500 crore.
There are other kinds of costs that elections impose. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently spoke about how frequent elections and campaigns hurt the federal structure as leaders were “forced to talk politically”. Many have argued that election campaigns end up sharpening faultlines of caste, religion and community across the country.
Also, the Model Code of Conduct puts on hold all development programmes. Elections are huge disruptors of normal life — simultaneous elections would reduce disturbance from political rallies, etc., the parliamentary panel argued. It would free up large numbers of security personnel and other staff. The NITI Aayog discussion paper listed the issues: “Suspension of development programmes, welfare activities due to frequent imposition of Model Code of Conduct, massive expenditures by government and various stakeholders on frequent elections, black money, engagement of government personnel and security forces for a prolonged period of time, perpetuation of caste, religion and communal issues etc.”
What have political parties said? What is the system in other countries?
The BJP has always been keen on simultaneous elections. The BJP manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls had said: “Evolve method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously.” The Congress told the House panel that it was “impractical” and “unworkable”; the Trinamool said it was anti-democratic and unconstitutional; the CPI and NCP said it was “not feasible”; the CPM pointed to “practical problems”. The AGP and AIADMK backed the idea.
In 2011, the UK fixed May 7, 2015 as election day, and voting on the first Thursday of May every fifth year. South Africa and Sweden hold national and provisional elections simultaneously every five years. But many other large democracies do not have such a system.
So, what will happen if India does decide on simultaneous elections?
To begin with, a constitutional amendment will be needed. The Election Commission has suggested that the term of Lok Sabha could commence and end on predetermined dates and, to avoid premature dissolution, no-confidence motions should be moved simultaneously with a confidence motion for the individual hoping to be the next PM. If the House is still dissolved, the President can run the government for the rest of the term — or, if that period is long, fresh elections can be held for a House that would last only for the remaining length of time. Assemblies can, as a one-time measure, be extended or curtailed to align their elections with the Lok Sabha cycle.
Chief Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat, who has just taken charge, has said the legal framework needed to hold Lok Sabha and Assembly elections together will take a “lot of time” to be readied. “It is possible only when you make all the necessary amendments to the Constitution, Representation of the People Act, and other relevant laws. Those amendments have not yet been made, because you will have to take all political parties on board,” Rawat said in an interview recently. It would be “very difficult” to hold simultaneous polls in the near future, he said.
What do critics of the idea argue?
Critics say amending the Constitution to effect simultaneous elections would fundamentally alter its democratic and federal character. India is a “Union of States”, states have their own directly elected governments, and fixing a term adversely affects this right, they say.
Then, there are the logistics. The deployment of security forces and officials in 700,000 polling stations located in widely varying geographic and climatic conditions all at the same time will be extremely difficult. It is precisely these problems that now cause elections to be held in multiple phases and on different dates even in the same state.
Buying Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines would cost Rs 9,284.15 crore, the EC told the House panel.
Again, critics say state and national elections are often fought on different sets of issues — and in simultaneous elections, voters may end up privileging one set over the other in ways they might not have done otherwise. This could lead to national issues being ignored, or, conversely, local issues being swept away by a national ‘wave’. Such a wave could be created by parties (such as the BJP in India currently) that have the capacity to launch an aggressive, expensive, and well-organised campaign, the critics say.
What are the immediate political ramifications of the idea?
Commentators have noted in recent weeks that the escalating clamour for “One Nation, One Poll” has coincided with speculation about a snap Lok Sabha election. Several BJP leaders concede that the party leadership is giving thought to the option of advancing the 2019 election. Hypothetically, if Lok Sabha elections are held within a year, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya would simultaneously have new Assemblies, while Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh too will have relatively new Houses. If elections in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh,Telangana, Maharashtra and Haryana are brought forward, they too, will be added to the list. And in five years, if elections could be delayed in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur (or polls to Lok Sabha and the above Assemblies could be advanced), a major part of the country would be having elections at the same time.