Reelected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has renewed the idea of “One Country, One Election”, announcing last week that a committee will be formed to examine the issue, and holding a meeting with leaders of political parties. Many Opposition parties are, however, against the idea of simultaneous polls to Lok Sabha and all Assemblies.
What purpose would simultaneous polls serve, if held?
There are arguments on both sides. Making polls simultaneous would address various concerns, such as reducing the cost of holding elections, and limiting all elections to a single season. At present, there is an election in one state or the other at almost any given time, and those who favour simultaneous polls argue that the Model Code of Conduct gets in the way of the government announcing projects or policy plans.
Against the idea, the arguments include the complexity of such an exercise, the widely held view that simultaneous polls would benefit the nationally dominant party at the cost of regional players, and the complications that would arise if any of the governments were to collapse before completing its term. Leave alone state legislatures, even the central government could fall. Of 17 Lok Sabhas since 1952, seven were dissolved ahead of schedule — in 1971, 1980, 1984, 1991, 1998, 1999 and 2004. There would also be logistical issues, requiring about twice as many electronic voting machines and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines.
When elections were first held in independent India, were they not simultaneous to begin with?
Lok Sabha and state legislatures went to polls together in 1952 and 1957, with the Congress initially comfortably placed all over the country. The synchronised cycle was first broken in Kerala, in July 1959, when the Centre invoked Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the ministry headed by E M S Namboodiripad of the Communist Party, which had assumed power after elections in April 1957. This was followed by state elections in February 1960.
As the Congress’s popularity declined, it suffered major setbacks in several states —Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Orissa, Madras and Kerala — in the 1967 elections. Consequently, Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments, comprising Bharatiya Kranti Dal, SSP, PSP, Swatantra Party, Jana Sangh and Congress defectors, came to power. Defections and counter-defections ultimately led to the dissolution of Assemblies, which separated the poll cycles of many states from the central one.
At present, Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are held together with Lok Sabha polls.
In recent years, Assemblies have been completing their tenures, mainly because of the anti-defection law of 1985 and Supreme Court judgments on invoking Article 356. The Supreme Court had held that the President can put a state Assembly in suspended animation, but cannot dissolve it without concurrence of Parliament. Further, the validity of the proclamation of President’s rule may be examined by the judiciary.
Has the idea of simultaneous polls been explored before?
The Election Commission had suggested back in 1983 that such a system be worked out. The Law Commission headed by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy, in its 170th Report in May 1999, 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, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took up the issue with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. She appeared initially receptive, but the idea did not take off from there. In 2010, BJP leader L K Advani met with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then wrote in his blog: “I found both of them (PM 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 polls.” He noted that the country witnessed a “mini-general election” every alternate year, and wrote, “This is not good for the health either of our Central and State governments, or of our polity.”
How have matters moved after the NDA came to power?
In 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, headed by E M Sudarsana Natchiappan, compiled a report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’. “The holding of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies would reduce: (i) the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections; (ii) the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; (iii) impact on delivery of essential services and (iv) burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time,” the report observed.
However, the Congress told the committee it was “impractical” and “unworkable”. The Trinamool Congress said it was anti-democratic and unconstitutional, while the CPI and the NCP said it was “not feasible”. The CPI(M) too pointed at “practical problems”.
In 2017, in his address to the joint session of Parliament (prepared by the government), then President Pranab Mukherjee 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, pleading for a constructive debate.
Also in 2017, in a discussion paper, ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The “What”, “Why”, and “How” ’, Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai of NITI Aayog wrote that the elections of 2009 had cost the exchequer about Rs 1,115 crore, and the 2014 elections about Rs 3,870 crore. The total spent on the elections, including the expense incurred by parties and candidates, was several times more.
Has there been an effort to address the concerns that would arise?
In a draft report on August 30, 2018, the Law Commission headed by Justice B S Chauhan held that simultaneous elections could not be held within the existing framework of the Constitution. These could be held together “through appropriate amendments to the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act 1951, and the Rules of Procedure of Lok Sabha and state Assemblies”. At least 50% of the states may ratify the constitutional amendments. The Commission recommended that all elections due in a calendar year be conducted together. Since a no-confidence motion, if passed, may curtail the term of Lok Sabha or an Assembly, the Law Commission recommended replacing the “no-confidence motion” with a “constructive vote of no-confidence” through appropriate amendments — a government may only be removed if there is confidence in an alternative government.
Last week, in his address to the joint session of Parliament, 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 stated at a public function that simultaneous elections are “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”.
Is there a meeting point in sight?
The Opposition is wary of a concept that would take away the regional element of state polls, and leave regional personalities overshadowed by national leaders. The hugely expanding BJP, on the other hand, included the idea in its poll manifesto. With Prime Minister Modi as its face, a single campaign and election would take care of all Assemblies and Lok Sabha. Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav has said the idea amounts to “One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader”.
The Opposition is likely to remain hostile to the proposal. The government will have to wait until it has the numbers in Rajya Sabha to carry through the requisite amendments.