An idea whose time hasn’t come
For some time now, the print and the electronic media have been reporting that the central government is thinking of conducting simultaneous elections...
For some time now, the print and the electronic media have been reporting that the central government is thinking of conducting simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Legislatures. Last month, Prime Minister Modi came up with the slogan of ‘One nation one election,’ thus, more or less, confirming the veracity of these reports.
While details of the proposal are not available yet, the time has certainly come for examining the pros and cons of it. To begin with, it should not be forgotten that our Constitution-makers strongly favoured a federal system of governance for the country, and moulded the provisions of the Constitution accordingly.
It needs also to be remembered that the Constitution of India conceives a federal form of governance with three distinct levels, namely the Union and the State and the Local (Panchayati Raj Institutions or Urban Local Bodies). The powers and functions of the bodies at different levels are independent of each other. Though all of them have the same duration – namely five years – there is no certainty that they will all continue till the end of their tenure. In other words, simultaneous elections are not really woven into the philosophy of the provisions that inform the Constitution.
There is also the argument, which is put forth in certain quarters, that the idea of simultaneous elections runs contrary to the spirit of the Preamble of the Constitution – that the country has a federal system and is a Union of States.
Essentially, the matter can be looked at from three points of view, namely – legal, administrative and financial, with a view to examining what is possible and what is not. The legal point is whether the Constitution needs to be amended, or a mere amendment to the electoral statute – the Representative of Peoples Act – will do.
Insofar as the financial aspect is concerned it is easy to see that simultaneous elections are obviously the more economically sensible alternative. From the strictly administrative point of view, it is clearly an excellent proposition. After all, frequent elections bring a lot of pressure on the administration, what with having to prepare and revise voters’ lists, arrange bando bust for the movement of election personnel and equipment, watching adherence to various rules of conduct, supervise the conduct of the polls and the counting etc. Enforcing the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct also takes away the time of the administration.
Simultaneous elections can create huge logistics problems for the Election Commission. For instance, even for the election to be held in 2019, 4 million EVMs have yet to be procured. Simultaneous elections no doubt save money, but need to be conducted over an extended period and pose problems of logistics which, though not insurmountable, are substantial.
Now let us see what is possible and what is not. Various factors often cause premature elections, including hung Parliaments or legislatures, parties not coming forward to form governments, Members of Parliament and Legislatures crossing the floor and changing loyalties thus creating an unstable political atmosphere, political conspiracies by dissident members of various parties, the central government dismissing governments headed by rival political parties, Governors and Chief Ministers toeing different lines and creating situations leading to recommendations for dissolution of the assemblies etc.
The problem is, even assuming that the proposal goes through, where is the guarantee that there will be no political uncertainty in the country, at the national and the state levels? Or that, at both levels, one single party will gain a clear majority and form a stable government?
Even if such a guarantee is obtaining who can be sure that such governments will complete their course and last for the full term of 5 years?
Experience has shown that, if only one can manage the Speaker of a House then the MLAs can be moved around from party to party, avoiding the pitfalls of disqualification.
And then there are occasions (I was witness to one when, during my tenure as the Chief Sectary of the Andhra Pradesh state government, the Chief Minister took such a decision) when, with a view to encashing on a particular political development, governments decide to dissolve Assemblies well in advance and go for mid-term polls. NT Rama Rao for instance, after being unseated and returning to power, chose to go in for poll as many as 3 years in advance.
In 1991 elections were held in the composite Andhra Pradesh State in two stages. In the first round, NTR’s charisma dominated the ambience and the consequent swing helped the TDP which won the majority of those seats. Even before the second round could be held, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, and the consequent sympathy wave helped that national party. Therefore, in simultaneous elections the regional parties fear that national issues might dominate the voter’s mind while the national party wants precisely that to happen.
And then there are those who believe that the entire proposal is politically motivated. After all, the BJP is seeing favourable winds blowing and is in power at the Centre and in as many as 19 states. The opposition is in disarray, rudderless and confused. Thus, it is felt that the entire proposal is really meant for the ruling party to exploit the situation, and get all States under its control.
It is worth recalling that the Jana Sangh, which was the earlier avatar of the BJP, used to favour a unitary form of government for the country. Some people, therefore, suspect that the present ruling party is persisting in its erstwhile preference.
Frequent elections, while undoubtedly a burden on the exchequer, however have the advantage of acting as a check on the ruling party. Take for instanc, the issue of GST. The Central government remained unmoved by representations by different States for a long time.
But once the Gujarat elections were round the corner, and the leaders of the BJP gauged the mood of the business community and other voters during their canvassing, corrective steps followed automatically! In a way, it can be said that it was the Gujarat election that caused the welcome changes in the GST dispensation.
Similarly, the results of the by-election in Rajasthan clearly established the fact that the fundamental issue is one of development, and peripheral matters, such as the screening or otherwise of films (like “Padmaavat”) do not really count in the ultimate analysis. Thus, that bypoll can be said to have served the purpose of clarifying certain issues from the political angle. In other words, it can perhaps be argued, albeit somewhat cynically, that elections keep political parties on their toes, and prevent them from becoming complacent.
Given the fact that voters have need to assess the suitability of candidates, individually and separately, for each level and choose from the various contesting candidates, there is the chance that, in simultaneous elections, they would get confused about the roles of individual seats candidates. As a result, there is the pitfall that such an election may tend to be generate up to a referendum, rather than a serious selection to choose a representative for a five-year term.
Normally, national issues figure in discussion and debate during an election campaign at the national level (that is to Parliament), and local and regional issues come to the fore when elections are being conducted to state or local levels. And it is not uncommon to find that a person with an all India reputation enjoys popularity as a national leader while other persons impress the electorates at the state level. Thus simultaneous elections bring their own political complications.
Having regard to all these factors many political leaders feel that Parliament and State Legislatures elections should be separated. Any attempt to formalise simultaneous elections in the future will also have to be go hand-in-hand with a provision that prevents political parties, and governments led by them, from going in for elections which are not due, for one reason or other.
Any further steps will, therefore, have to be such as to allay apprehensions of political motivations and reassure the country that purely administrative, financial and legal compulsions have caused the decision to be taken.
We have already seen that the best motives can lead to disastrous results if not implemented in a planned an orderly manner – witness demonetisation and the Goods and Service Tax (GST) introduction.
If everything is done properly and leads to the highly desirable objective of simultaneous elections being achieved, no one will be happier than this columnist.