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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Keep The Polls Apart

Simultaneous elections go against the character of India’s federal polity

Written by P B Sawant | Published: March 6, 2018 1:26:50 am
India's federal polity Voters vote on local issues while voting for the state assemblies and are motivated by national and international concerns while electing their representatives in the Lok Sabha. (Express Photo by Esha Roy)

India is a federal state with its constituting units, the states, having the autonomy of governance in the subjects specified by the Constitution. Federalism is one of the basic features of the Constitution. The constitution of legislative assemblies and formation of state governments are autonomous functions. The Union government cannot interfere with the governance of a state except when there is a proclamation of Emergency under articles 352, 355 and 356 of the Constitution.

We have to ignore two instances in the past where the legislative assemblies of nine states were dissolved by their governors under Article 174 (2) (b) of the Constitution. In 1977, the Congress party had the majority in these assemblies. When the Janata Party assumed office at the Centre after emerging victorious in the elections held that year, the Union Home Ministry wrote to the chief ministers of these states asking them to request the respective governors to dissolve the assemblies. And, the governors did so.

When the Congress party came to power at the Centre, in 1980, it repeated the exercise in the nine states. The legislative assemblies in these states were dissolved. Notwithstanding the federal Constitution and the fact that the provisions of article 174 (2)(b) are not meant to give the Centre the power of dissolution of state legislatures, the Centre used these provisions in a dubious manner to interfere in the governance of the states. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not rise to the occasion during these two instances. The provisions of Article 174 (2)(b) give power to the governor to dissolve the legislative assembly when either its tenure comes to an end or the political situation in the state compels him to do so. This power is not to be used by the governor at the Centre’s instance. On the two occasions, the Central government wanted to dissolve the legislative assemblies in the state concerned because the ruling party at the Centre had won all or a majority of the seats in the Lok Sabha there. That can hardly be a reason for dissolving the legislative assemblies.

It is common experience that people vote differently for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies — for various reasons. To undo the legislative assembly because the people in the state concerned have voted for a different political party while electing members of the Lok Sabha is to make a mockery of federalism. Legislative assemblies in various states have been dissolved before the end of their tenure on account of internal political developments in the states. As a result, the elections to these assemblies have to be held today at different times which do not coincide with the timings of elections to assemblies in other states or with the elections to the Lok Sabha.

If it is now decided to hold elections to the different state assemblies along with the election to the Lok Sabha, the assemblies whose tenure has not expired and in some cases, which have been constituted a year or few months earlier, will have to be dissolved for no reason other than the will of the Centre to hold elections simultaneously. As mentioned earlier, there is no provision in the Constitution except Articles 352, 355 and 356, which gives power to the Centre, that is the President, to dissolve the legislative assemblies. Those powers are limited and can be exercised only in the circumstances mentioned in the said articles. Any attempt to read such power in article 174 (2)(b) or elsewhere will be clearly unconstitutional. Hence, simultaneous elections are not legally possible.

The next question is whether elections to state assemblies and the Lok Sabha should be held simultaneously even if these are due at the same time. This is not a question of law but of ensuring genuine representation in the Houses at the two levels. Voters vote on local issues while voting for the state assemblies and are motivated by national and international concerns while electing their representatives in the Lok Sabha. But simultaneous elections may steamroll them into voting for the same party for both the Houses, although they do not desire to do so. This may distort the true opinion of the people. The purpose of election itself may thus be defeated.

The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court

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