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Simultaneous elections: Reform or an attack on Constitution?

In India separate elections happen for center and state Photograph: (Others)

United States Oct 06, 2017, 01.34 PM (IST) Ravikiran Shinde

BJP’s incessant attempts to check the feasibility to hold simultaneous state and general elections are worrisome. Prime Minister Modi has a knack of catching the Opposition napping. More than the Congress and other Opposition parties, it’s the voters who should be worried about it since this is an attack on the fundamentals of our Constitution and voting rights.

If an idea saves the government hundreds of thousands public exchequer and makes the process easier, save time and energy of those participating in election preparations, wouldn’t it be a great one?

Well, not really if it curtails the fundamental rights of the voters and the elected state assembly.

The Election Commission of India’s (ECI) assurance on October 5 to the Modi government that it was ready to hold simultaneous state and national polls by September 2018 may have come as a surprise to many. However, Prime Minister Modi and his government had given enough indications of this in last year or so. So much so, Mr Modi and BJP, along with the institutions, seems to have made up their mind to bring the idea into reality, much to the chagrin of the essential idea of democracy.Mr Modi and BJP, along with the institutions, seems to have made up their mind to bring the idea into reality, much to the chagrin of the essential idea of democracy.

Prime minister Modi pitch for holding the state and national elections together.
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Modi’s incessant pitch for simultaneous polls

A month before ECI’s assurance, on August 27, the NITI Ayog —India’s planning commission released a report summarising that all elections in India should happen in a free, fair and synchronised manner to ensure minimum "campaign mode" disruption to governance. Calling it in the “national interest," the commission had recommended forming an experts committee to work out an appropriate model and had urged Election Commission to set up the timeline for achieving this. Interestingly, within days of this report, the Vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya had resigned from the commission.

But NITI Ayog’s report was totally in line with Prime minister Modi’s pitch for holding the state and national elections together. Speaking in the Parliament in February in response to President Mukherjee’s address, Mr Modi had spoken how the election expenditure of Rs 1,100 crore in 2009 Lok Sabha shot up four-fold to Rs 4,000 crore in 2014. While agreeing that the process may not be easy, Mr Modi had said, “Few will lose some and others will lose more, but parties will have to come together to achieve this.”

Ex-President Mr Pranab Mukherjee too, who Mr Modi fondly called a father figure, had supported the demand that the elections be held simultaneously. It appears that the Modi government has been doing extensive groundwork with various constitutional bodies to check the feasibility.

The huge cost of holding elections can be saved by holding polls together
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Arguments in favour of the simultaneous polls

The votaries of this idea have given two major advantages of making a ‘one-time’ change in the process to synchronise the polls. 

One, the huge cost of holding elections can be saved by holding polls together —since some of the state and national polls are just months apart. And two, there will be a continued focus on governance from the politicians rather than the “disruptions of election campaigns”. Also, it will reduce the time of model code of conduct that restricts the government schemes. 

Take for instance the Maharashtra Assembly elections that took place in September 2014 right after the General elections of May 2014. The four-month gap, arguably, resulted in a huge loss of state exchequer. 

Even former Election Commissioner Mr S. Y. Quraishi was in support of this idea except that he thought the constitutional amendment to effect this would not come easy.

Why joint election is a serious threat to federalism and voting rights

Although the so-called benefits of simultaneous polls look extremely lucrative, a close look at the electoral process and democracy reveals that this is only a grave danger subtly served with sugar of convenience and cost saving.

The Election Commission mentioned that six states, including Gujarat are going to the poll next year. The simultaneous elections are possible only if the Loksabha polls, due in 2019, are advanced by a year to 2018. Or alternatively, terms of assemblies in states like Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh are extended by one year (The term expires in March) and also to curtail the assemblies of the states, such as Maharashtra and Haryana by few months in order to have joint elections along with Loksabha polls.

Renowned Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy cautions against the curtailment of state assembly terms. “There are state governments whose term will extend beyond 2019. Those cannot be dissolved to align the State and Union elections unless this government and Parliament jump through some very unlikely constitutional hoops. For this reason, I don't believe this will happen, it'll be too strong a strike against federalism.”

If it was not for separate elections, both Delhi, Bihar and Karnataka would have seen BJP governments in the state as well, given that Modi was riding on a strong wave.
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Ms Nundy’s fear of strong strike against federalism is not unfounded. Although the center can use Article 356 to dismiss the elected state governments and impose President's rule under rare circumstances, curtailing the term for convenience would be very difficult to get across the parliament and legal hurdles.

But what if the amendment gets passed?

Will the common voter gain anything by using his voting rights a fewer number of times? What about his choice of two different parties for state and national level? 

In the Delhi Assembly elections of February 2015, it was reported that many BJP voters who voted for Modi in 2014 chose Aam Admi party to take care of Delhi. In case of a simultaneous election, Delhi would have seen BJP government both at the state and the center. Thus, restricting voters changing choices based on performance.

Payal Gaikwad, constitutional expert and Supreme Court lawyer stresses on the right of voters to get multiple chances to decide best options. She says, “Elections have always been a turning point in this country. The Constitution mentions that elections are to be held in every 5 years, in both, the centre and the state but was silent over that it should happen simultaneously. Periodical elections give chance to people, to assess the performance of the candidate as well as the party. In Bihar assembly polls in 2015, wherein people changed the mandate and voted BJP out of the state despite giving it full mandate in 2014 Loksabha elections”

If it was not for separate elections, both Delhi, Bihar and Karnataka would have seen BJP governments in the state as well, given that Modi was riding on a strong wave. But the local issues and voters basic amenities would have been sidelined in presence of strong nationwide waves.

BJP’s seriousness in taking the simultaneous elections idea to significant actionable level should worry the supporters of democracy.
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Bihar and Delhi election debacles did help in giving a break to BJP’s ambitious plan of an opposition-free country. It forced them to rethink their strategies.

Nitin Meshram, Supreme Court advocate strongly opposes any such move and criticise the much-touted cost saving. He says, “We are in a shared federalism. Expenses on state exchequer is a malicious propaganda to prevent the enrolling of democracy in the society. More mature voters who are difficult to be emotionally fooled.”

Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram famously called for elections frequently. He maintained that he prefers majbur sarkar (weak government) and not a majboot sarkar (strong government) since he thought a weak government will do more for the people if it sees that elections are round the corner. 

Nitin Meshram tends to agree to this. He says “ if the elections are held at once for both  Parliament & Assemblies, the political parties, their leaders & elected representatives would become absolutely arrogant, unresponsive & hostile to the common public. It will also ensure widespread and massive corruption by the political parties, its leaders and by government agents.”

Is India the only democracy where separate elections happen?

The United States, often juxtaposed with Indian Democracy, have mid-term elections for Senate and Congress. The elections take place for many Senators and Congressmen two years after the Presidential elections are done. This significantly changes the majority in Senate and Congress halfway through the president's term. An election setback helps the president review its policies and pay more attention to the internal issues. During his first term, President Obama lost the control of Senate and House but this acted as a reality check and the president and his party worked hard to get re-elected for the second term.

BJP’s seriousness in taking the simultaneous elections idea to significant actionable level should worry the supporters of democracy.
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Whether its L.K. Advani asking people to vote for only national parties (even if it meant voting Congress), Mr Vajpayee setting up constitution review committee or the party repeatedly asking to fix the five-year term for the state assemblies and Parliament, BJP has long wanted to do away with established constitutional norms. But BJP’s seriousness in taking the simultaneous elections idea to significant actionable level should worry the supporters of democracy.

But why is BJP hell-bent on doing it this time?

Well, the party has the majority in Loksabha, so this is the best time for it to go for any legislation. Also, after demonetisation, the BJP is best placed financially to fight elections at any time.

But the effects of anti-incumbency are now widely seen, with social media slowly turning against BJP and the Opposition trying to make a slow comeback. BJP may not want to give sufficient time for them to recover and may announce early general elections.

The simultaneous election amendment will in effect mean fixing a five-year term for the governments. India’s Opposition parties must rise to this occasion and fight this inevitable attack on the fundamentals of the Constitution, Federalism and the basic rights of the voters. Their failure will lead India to a political autocracy in the guise of stability and maximum governance.

Ravikiran Shinde

Independent writer on socio-political issues in India

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