Updated: August 16, 2019 7:27:19 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated from the ramparts of the Red Fort Thursday his idea of simultaneous elections in all of India. The Prime Minister has been committed to the idea for several years now, and he had announced soon after being reelected to office that a committee would be formed to discuss the idea with all political parties.
What is the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’, what purpose would simultaneous polls serve, and why are many Opposition parties opposed to the idea?
Arguments for and against
There are arguments for both seeking and opposing simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies across India.
One Nation, One Election would reduce the cost of holding elections, and limit all elections to a single season. At present, elections happen somewhere or the other almost all the time, and it is often argued that the Model Code of Conduct gets in the way of the government announcing projects or policy plans for the benefit of the people.
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On the other hand, critics argue that holding just one mega election would be too complex an exercise to tackle in a country as large and as complex as India. It would be a logistic nightmare — requiring, for example, about twice as many electronic voting machines and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines as are used now.
There is also the view that simultaneous elections would benefit the party that is nationally dominant at the cost of smaller regional players — in other words, the BJP would get an unfair advantage. Also, what happens if any government collapses before completing its term? Several state legislatures have been extremely unstable in recent years, and the BJP has been the primary agent of instability in many cases. Even the central government could fall — in fact, of the 17 Lok Sabhas since 1952, seven were dissolved ahead of schedule (in 1971, 1980, 1984, 1991, 1998, 1999 and 2004).
The beginning was simultaneous
India did start out with simultaneous elections. Lok Sabha and state legislatures went to polls together in 1952 and 1957. The cycle was first broken in Kerala, in July 1959, when the government of Jawaharlal Nehru used Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the government of the Communist E M S Namboodiripad. EMS had become Chief Minister after the elections of April 1957 and, Kerala voted for a new five-year Assembly again in February 1960.
In the 1967 elections, the Congress suffered setbacks in Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Orissa, Madras and Kerala, and governments of the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, comprising the Bharatiya Kranti Dal, Samyukta Socialist Party, Praja Socialist Party, Swatantra Party, Bharatiya Jana Sangh and defectors from the Congress, were formed. The governments were unstable, there were rampant defections, and many of these Assemblies were dissolved before their terms were over, resulting in the separation of the election cycles of many states from that of the Lok Sabha.
At present, Assembly elections in only Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are held together with the Lok Sabha elections.
Early explorations of the idea
More than 35 years ago, in 1983, the Election Commission had suggested simultaneous elections. The Law Commission headed by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy, in its 170th Report in May 1999, had stated: “We must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once”.
In 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took up the matter with Congress president Sonia Gandhi who was receptive to begin with, but the idea could not be ultimately pursued.
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In 2010, L K Advani discussed the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and posted on the Internet: “I found both of them (Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee) receptive to a proposal I have been advocating for quite some time: fixed-term legislatures and simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly poll.” A “mini general election” every alternate year was “not good for the health either of our Central and State governments, or of our polity”, Advani wrote.
Situation after Modi became PM
In 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, headed by E M Sudarsana Natchiappan, prepared a report on the ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’. The report said that simultaneous elections would help to reduce:
(1) the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections,
(2) the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time,
(3) the impact on the delivery of essential services and,
(4) the burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time.
The Congress opposed the idea as “impractical” and “unworkable”. The Trinamool Congress said it was anti-democratic and unconstitutional. The CPI and the NCP said it was “not feasible”. The CPI(M) pointed towards “practical problems”.
In 2017, in his address to the Joint Session of Parliament President Pranab Mukherjee said frequent elections “put on hold development programmes, disrupt normal public life, and impact essential services and burden human resource with prolonged periods of election duty”. The President’s speech to the Joint Session of Parliament is prepared by the government.
That same year, in a discussion paper titled ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The What, Why, and How’, Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai of NITI Aayog pointed out that the general elections of 2009 had cost the exchequer about Rs 1,115 crore, and the 2014 elections about Rs 3,870 crore. The total expenses, including spends by the parties and candidates, would be several times more.
In a draft report on August 30, 2018, the Law Commission headed by Justice B S Chauhan said simultaneous elections could not be held within the existing framework of the Constitution. “…Appropriate amendments to the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act 1951, and the Rules of Procedure of Lok Sabha and state Assemblies” would be required, the report said.
The Commission recommended that all elections due in a calendar year should be conducted together. To preempt the disruption that a no-confidence motion, if carried, may cause, the Commission recommended that the “no-confidence motion” should be replaced with a “constructive vote of no-confidence” through appropriate amendments, and that a government may be replaced only if there is confidence in an alternative government.
In his address to the Joint Session of Parliament this June, President Ram Nath Kovind said: “One Nation, Simultaneous Election is the need of the hour, which would facilitate accelerated development, thereby benefiting our countrymen.”
Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said at a public function that simultaneous elections were “a very desirable goal, but for that, political systems of the country will have to take steps to align the life of a state Assembly with the life of Parliament”.
What happens from here on?
The Opposition is likely to remain wary of an idea that has the potential to take away the regional element of state elections, and allow national leaders to overshadow regional ones. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections demonstrated the unmatched appeal of Prime Minister Modi, and a single campaign and election for all state Assemblies and the Lok Sabha might give the BJP an overwhelming advantage across the country.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s clear commitment to the idea suggests that the BJP will push the envelope as much as it can. It will be waiting for a majority in Rajya Sabha, but as the matter of Article 370 and change of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status showed, crucial policy matters can be pushed through even in the absence of numbers. This, however, will be a more complicated process.
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