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Same time, same place

For the first time now, the Election Commission, responding to a report of the department-related parliamentary committee, has supported the idea of holding simultaneous elections.

Written by Pawan Kumar Bansal |
Updated: December 19, 2016 12:13:03 am

Holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies has been debated at different forums. Some time ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at an all-party meeting, advocated concurrent polls for the Lok Sabha, state assemblies, urban local bodies and panchayats. Taking a cue, the Niti Aayog prepared a discussion paper; it suggests that for such a system, the tenures of half the state assemblies would need to be curtailed by three to 15 months while those of some others, by upto a year. The tenures of some other assemblies will require extensions to synchronise the election schedule. Niti Aayog also argues that frequent polls impact policymaking as “short-sighted populist measures” are given higher priority before elections.

For the first time now, the Election Commission, responding to a report of the department-related parliamentary committee, has supported the idea of holding simultaneous elections. The committee opined there would be a huge reduction in expenditure incurred conducting separate elections. Currently, the country always seems in election mode in one part or another, entailing deploying officers as observers and requiring paramilitary forces to be moved about. In the process, political parties focus all attention on elections; their normal work suffers. Further, the frequent enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct affects many development works.

Independent India saw its first general election in 1951-52, when the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies went to the polls simultaneously — separate ballot boxes for the Lok Sabha and concerned state assembly were placed in each polling station. This practice continued for the next three elections. Things changed when some state assemblies underwent dissolution before completing their five-year term. This disrupted the five-year cycle. In 1970, the Lok Sabha also was dissolved early, calling for fresh elections in early 1971, instead of the scheduled 1972.

The Constitutional position should be recalled here. Article 83(2) of the Constitution of India lays down that the House of the People, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting. The expiration of the said five years shall operate as a dissolution of the House. The proviso to the article permits extension when a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation; Article 172 mandates a similar course for state assemblies.

However, the emergence of regional parties, the weakening of conventionally strong political bonds and the phenomenon of “Aaya Ram, gaya Ram” (uncompunctious party-hopping by MLAs) led to the fall of incumbent governments in states. Coalition governments lacked cohesion and suffered falls, leading to fresh elections before stipulated dates.

Alongside this though, the Election Commission has identified certain challenges in holding simultaneous elections. These include acquiring many Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) Machines. The purchase of these alone is likely to entail an initial expenditure of around Rs 10,000 crore. Another question is whether to locate the EVMs and VVATs in the same polling station or separate ones; given the space shortage in most government schools primarily used for polling, logistics pose a problem. Including local body elections in the same schedule, as suggested by the prime minister, will be a tall order.

The Constitutional aspect also needs greater thought. Hypothetically, if we propose effecting an amendment to Articles 83 and 172 to curtail or extend the tenures of Lok Sabha and state assemblies, aiming for the first simultaneous elections in 2019 or 2024, states going to the polls in 2017 will have only a two-year term or an extended seven-year term. But what happens if any state government loses majority midway? There must a government in place that enjoys majority support in the House, except during president’s rule. Will the resultant fresh election be only for the remaining term? If so, the period could be as short as one year — this would lead to a waste of money, time and effort. If mid-term elections are for a normal term of five years, we may begin another phase of separate elections — which nullifies the entire exercise.

There is a suggestion that the Lok Sabha and state assemblies should have a fixed five-year term, not subject to early dissolution, irrespective of the government losing majority midstream. This stipulates that every “no-confidence” motion be accompanied by a “confidence motion” in another member to form the government, but this has the potential of splitting the ruling party in the House and compounding instability. Governance too will take a hit.

Given our polity’s vastness, the present Constitutional mandate on Lok Sabha and state assembly tenures calls for no tweaking. But there is a need to restore the biennial nature of Rajya Sabha polls, distorted with state assemblies being under dissolution when Rajya Sabha seats from that state fell vacant — one-third of members no longer retire every second year, as stipulated by the Constitution. An election to fill an Upper House seat, after it remained vacant in the absence of a state assembly, can easily be prescribed to be only for the remaining term. Such an exercise saves hassles.

Meanwhile, with India progressively going digital, eVoting (or remote voting on mobile phones), linked to Aadhar numbers, can also be gradually introduced. Cheaper and quicker eVotes will attract even larger participation than conventional voting at polling booths.

The writer is a former union minister

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