The prime minister has suggested that elections to the national and state legislatures, panchayats and urban local bodies should be held simultaneously. This is not the first time this idea has been mooted. This practice was in effect broadly from 1952 to 1967, and then fell by the wayside as state assemblies and Parliament were dissolved before completing their constitutional terms of five years.
From a governance perspective, this proposal may make eminent sense. Between May 2014 and now, there has been the general election followed by elections to the assemblies of Haryana and Maharashtra in October 2014, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand in December 2014, Delhi in February 2015, Bihar in November 2015, and now four states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam — and Union territory Puducherry are in election mode. A few months later, elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Goa will follow, and the pattern will keep repeating till the 2019 general election.
Every time a state heads for polls, the model code of conduct is enforced by the Election Commission. This impacts administrative processes at the national level, as decisions have to be kept in abeyance, for even if they do not directly impact a state going to polls, they could have the collateral effect of influencing voters. For nearly 30 months out of the 60-month term of the Central government, the model code of conduct hobbles governance, which in turn impacts development.
However, does this plan square with the Indian federal construct? Federalism, after all, is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Article 83(2) of the Constitution requires that the Lok Sabha be in existence for five years from the date of its first meeting, unless dissolved earlier, and, thereafter, a fresh election would have to be conducted. Similarly, Article 172 of the Constitution requires that the state legislatures continue for five years, unless dissolved earlier. The design for simultaneous elections seems to be in utter ignorance of the phrase, “unless dissolved earlier”, found in the text of these two articles as they stand today.
The PM has clearly overlooked the most palpable practical difficulty: What, pray, would happen if the national or state government loses legislative majority midterm, that is, before the expiry of five years? Would the legislature then be constitutionally duty-bound to explore an alternative government within the framework of the same Parliament or assembly for the remaining period of time? Would that be constitutionally viable, let alone politically moral? Would that reflect the will of the sovereign? Would the mish-mash of an ideologically disparate arrangement be able to deliver governance? Would this not lead to further misuse of the whip-driven tyranny of the Tenth Schedule that has stifled democracy in the legislatures by not allowing an individual member to vote according to her commonsense, constituency or conscience on issues that may be germane to the interests of the people who elected her or even her personal convictions? For if even two-thirds of the legislators splitting or expressing no confidence in their political party is no guarantee of a reference back to the people, then how ethical or even democratic would such an arrangement be?
Moreover, federalism as a concept rests on the principle of uniting separate states into a union without sacrificing the fundamental political integrity of the states. Although our Constitution gives wider power to the Union over the states, the states are supreme within the spheres allotted to them. The federal state is a political compact that weaves different regions, religions, languages and impulses into a nation-state.
A staggered electoral cycle also acts as a check against demagoguery, fascism and oligarchy, in that order. It ensures that the mood of the nation at a particular moment does not hand over political power across a three-tiered democratic structure to one dispensation or individual. It gives people a chance to distinguish between the national, state and local interests, rather than being swept away in a “wave”, often manufactured by corporate media and the economic muscle of commercial carpetbaggers.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election was in many senses the Rockefeller moment of Indian politics. Influential sections of Corporate India backed an individual — as opposed to even a party — for they thought that that individual would best serve their interests. Imagine the fate of democracy if these oligarchs were able to seize political power across every level of government in one three-month season of hype and hoopla. A varied cycle is an active deterrent against economic tsars becoming political feudals.
Interestingly, this proposition has been made by the PM against the backdrop of coups orchestrated by the BJP in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand against opposition governments. It is almost déjà vu. On April 18, 1977, then Home Minister Charan Singh wrote a letter to the chief ministers of nine Congress-ruled states to dissolve their governments, since the electorate in those states had lost confidence in the ruling party, and seek a fresh mandate.
When the action of the Janata government was challenged before a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in State of Rajasthan vs Union of India, it dealt with the “political question” conservatively. This is best evidenced by these words of Chief Justice M.H. Beg: “This court has never abandoned its constitutional function as the final judge of constitutionality of all acts purported to be done under the authority of the Constitution… But, it cannot assume unto itself powers the Constitution lodges elsewhere or undertake tasks entrusted by the Constitution to other departments of state which may be better equipped to perform them.”
However, a bench of nine judges in S.R. Bommai vs Union of India took a diametrically different view. While deciding the validity of the proclamation of president’s rule under Article 356, the court overruled the dicta of Rajasthan and held that the “political question” was not out of bounds for the court to examine. It was also categorically held that a different government being elected at the Centre was no justification for the dissolution of a state government.
There are some states that have had elections at the same time as the general election over the past three decades and it cannot be said that the fate of either election is dependent on the other. For example, both in 1984-85 and then again in 2004, Karnataka voted differently at the national and state levels. Though the BJP won 18 out of the 28 seats, it could only win 79 out of the 224 assembly constituencies in 2004. Clearly, the PM has not even politically thought it through.