Ending Round The Year Poll Cycle
Rajesh Singh

In a recent interview to Times Now news channel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly endorsed the idea of simultaneous Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections. The last time elections to the States and the Centre were held together in the country was nearly half a century ago.

The Prime Minister also said that he had interacted informally with various political leaders and the impression he gained was that there was an in-principle agreement on the revival of this practice. There are certainly more compelling reasons for than objections to having polls simultaneously for the States and the Centre. Given this reality and the assumption that most parties should have no problem with a sensible suggestion such as this one, it would appear that the idea will get a ringing endorsement as and when the Government initiates a formal process of discussion. However, given the partisan nature of our political ecosystem where issues are opposed for the sake of opposition, because they are raised by rivals, it remains to be seen if a consensus can be built on simultaneous elections.

The Government is certainly serious in carrying the matter forward and seeking its implementation in time for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. It can take heart from the support the suggestion has received from at least two non-partisan quarters so far: Former Chief Election Commissioner of India N Gopalaswami and former Lok Sabha Speaker and veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Somnath Chatterjee. The Union Government has set up a panel under the Ministry of Law and Justice to study the issue and submit its finding; the submission is likely to happen soon. According to a recently published report in the Indian Express, the Election Commission of India had sent a letter to the Law Ministry in the first of May, expressing its willingness and general preparedness to conduct elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies together.

Fortunately for the Government, a good deal of work has already been done on the subject and the Government can use the material to strengthen the case for simultaneous polls. In 2002, a national commission to review the working of the Constitution, with constitutional expert and former Lok Sabha Secretary-General Subhash Kashyap as part of the exercise, had recommended that the Government should gradually migrate towards simultaneous elections. It had pointed out that a consensus among all political parties could avoid the need for constitutional amendments which, as we all know, can prove to a long-drawn process and result more in bad blood than a resolution.

More than a decade later, the report of a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice too recommended simultaneous elections. The panel, headed by EM Sudarsana EM Natchiappan, in its report titled, ‘Feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies’, remarked that “every political party likes to have simultaneous polls”, and added that the elections can be held together if either of the following two conditions were to be met: A motion for early polls has to be agreed upon by two-third majority in the House; the House passes a non-confidence motion, and with no alternative arrangement emerging, the road would be cleared for State elections by disrupting the current schedule.

Experts may hold different opinions on whether a constitutional amendment is needed, but they agree that a way must be found to hold simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, and that the shift should be done in a gradual manner This, they believe, is also the will of the people who are constantly dragged into election mode much against their wishes. Natchiappan observed in his report that “common people feel there should be lesser elections and more performance by the Government”.

Before we go into the benefits and challenges that are associated with simultaneous polls, let us understand why the Lok Sabha and State Assembly election schedules are not synchronised. Ideally, they ought to have been, given that the democratic exercise of casting votes began simultaneously for Assemblies and the Lok Sabha in 1951-52. This happy coordination continued until 1967. Thereafter, a number of developments took place that led to the disruption of the practice. Some State regimes either collapsed for want of numbers or were dismissed by the Centre — thus resulting in dissolved Houses and the need for fresh polls ahead of the five-year term; Governments at the Centre too slipped into instability, leading to their terms coming to an abrupt end and a fresh Lok Sabha election; on at least one occasion, the head of a Government called for an early Lok Sabha election to strengthen her position within the party as the undisputed leader and sideline the ‘old guard’ (Indira Gandhi did so in 1970).

Instability and abrupt dismissal of State regimes have been the primary cause through the decades. Among the first instances of a State regime dismissed through the invocation of Article 356 that gives the Centre powers to constitutionally dislodge a State Government, was that of Kerala Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad’s regime in 1959. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a democrat both by temperament and training, and must have cringed while doing so. But it has been said by many in the know that Indira Gandhi persuaded her father to take the step for the sake of ‘national interest’. Whatever, it did set in motion a trend that gained momentum over the decades and effectively ended up plunging the country into a cycle of unending elections. If Indira Gandhi is said to have played a behind-the-curtain role in the dismissal of the Namboodiripad Government, she was to later assume an open and unapologetic posture as Prime Minister as she used Article 356 to the hilt in ousting State regimes that she considered inimical to her. And if that proved to be difficult in certain instances, there was always the option of destabilising the Government from within, bringing it to its knees and forcing a dissolution of the House. It must be added, however, that she has not been the only one to play around with Article 356; her successors from within the Congress and outside have proved to be no better.

The Centre too has had a taste of the medicine. The VP Singh Government lasted for a short duration; and so did the regimes of Chandra Shekhar, HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. In the late seventies, we had Governments of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh falling apart in quick succession. An election had to be held earlier than scheduled when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime fell. These developments naturally upset the five-year schedule of holding the Lok Sabha election.

Of course, even if simultaneous polls to State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha are conducted, there is no guarantee that the five-year schedule will hold. Governments may still fall or be made to fall before their time. But there would be a greater appreciation among political parties on not disrupting the schedule for petty ends. In any case, given the constant media glare and the enhanced difficulty in Governments getting away with the imposition of Article 356, as well as with the anti-defection Act in place, dismissals will not be easy.

The subject of the duration of the Lok Sabha and the States Assemblies is dealt with in the Constitution of India in Articles 83(2) and 172(1) respectively, and these provisions will have to be tackled in case simultaneous elections are to be held. Article 83 (2) says, “The House of People, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting…” Article 172(1) holds that “every Legislative Assembly of every State, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years…” In both the cases, “unless sooner dissolved” holds the window to simultaneous polls. This is from where the idea that the State elections can be synchronised with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, comes. The two provisions also make it clear that the term of a particular Lok Sabha or a State Assembly cannot be beyond five years.

It is, therefore, clear, that legally it is possible to return to the simultaneous election format. However, some experts have reservations. Well-known lawyer Indira Jaising said the Indian voters, not all of whom are educated, can be “confused” on “who to vote for” in case elections are held to State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha together. She is quoted in thewire.in as saying that, while “they (the Government) can do it, they would be misusing the Constitution”. Writing in an article that appeared in The Indian Express, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi opined that, while the idea was “good in principle… it was fraught with constitutional issues”. He pointed out to situations such as the one in 1998, when the Lok Sabha was dissolved in just 13 days, and wondered what would happen to State regimes if they too were made to follow suit to meet the simultaneous election demand.

It is interesting to note that, while the issue of holding elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies has seized the nation’s attention today, the Constituent Assembly debates which gave the Constitution its final shape, do not have any material directly related to the subject. It does appear that the eminent members of the Constituent Assembly had not anticipated a situation where elected regimes would be toppled prematurely in a regular fashion because of their political differences with the Centre, or that defections would become endemic, or even that elected regimes would behave in a suicidal manner, throwing constitutional norms to the wind.

Let us now look at the benefits of simultaneous elections. The first is that governance will become more development-oriented than poll-oriented. With elections round the year, most political parties and Governments are generally busy conjuring populist schemes and making populist statements that contribute little to the cause of robust governance. They are loathe to pursue tough but necessary measures to tackle problematic issues for fear that such steps could adversely impact their prospects in a State that is going to vote soon. Their leaders are kept occupied with electioneering work, which is a strain on their governance time. This is more so in an era where even regional leaders have begun campaigning outside their State, either to expand their own area of influence or to help a friendly party. Let us remember that since the last Lok Sabha election, as many eight State Assemblies have gone to polls at different times; in 2015 there were two (Bihar and Delhi); in 2016, four States and one Union Territory have already voted; in 2017, some six States will vote for their Assemblies; a few others will vote in 2018… the cycle of polls is unending.

The second benefit will be the reduction to the minimum the impact of the Model Code of Conduct that comes into play every time an election kicks in. While the code is a necessity to ensure a level playing field, it does hamper development work, since Governments in question are shackled in announcing new projects and schemes that can benefit the people. Here, it’s not just State regimes that are hampered, but even the Union Government gets bound by the code and cannot declare State-specific policies and projects that are critical to development. If simultaneous polls are held, the Model Code of Conduct has a smaller window of opportunity.

The third, and perhaps, among the most important, change will be in the reduction of cost of conducting elections. According to media reports, the Election Commission has estimated an amount of Rs 9,000 crore for the simultaneous conduct of Lok Sabha and State Assembly polls. This is a big figure and many will say under-estimated. But most analysts believe that, when compared to the amount spent on frequent elections, this would be on a significantly lower side. There is no definitive cumulative cost estimate available for the latter, though. Related to the cost of holding elections frequently and separately, is the play of black money, or unaccounted wealth. This too would be contained if simultaneous polls are held. After all, the amount of money needed by the Election Commission is very different from the colossal sums spent by political parties and individual candidates. For instance, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Centre for Media Studies had estimated that a sum of Rs 30,000 crore could be spent by the then Government, political parties and candidates; the official spending by the Government and the Election Commission of India was judged at around Rs 8,000 crore. If simultaneous elections are held, not only would the costs (declared and hidden) come down, the official limit on expenditure by an individual candidate can also be hiked by the poll panel. It’s a win-win situation both for the political parties and the country’s economy.

The fourth, and perhaps the politically most significant, is that a check on round-the-year elections can reduce friction between parties and lead to greater understanding among them on critical issues of national importance. When motives for disagreement (an an election is the strongest motive) are minimal, there is a greater possibility of the Government and the Opposition working hand in hand. For instance, the success of many of the Modi Government’s initiatives rests on cooperation from State regimes. But if a particular State is in poll mode, its Government, if from a rival party, is unlikely to push for the Central schemes’ implementation because it would not want the Centre to take credit and reap electoral rewards. While such confrontations will not go away with simultaneous elections, the occasions for friction that lead to needless public grandstanding will taper in numbers in five years across the country.

There are challenges, of course — of marshalling the massive resources, including machine and manpower needed for simultaneous elections, and of security considerations that are critical to the conduct of free and fair polls. One example will suffice to indicate the enormity of the task: As many as one lakh security personnel were deployed for just the third phase of the recently held Assembly election in West Bengal (of this, the State’s police contingent was 25,000). One can only imagine the figure (and that includes Central security forces) when nationwide elections to both the Lok Sabha and Assemblies are held together. Such large deployment of police and reserve forces hampers law and order duties in the States and the Centre, and it is best that it is done once in five years across the country, and not frequently. Daunting as these challenges are, they can and should be tackled in the larger good of the nation.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator)

Published Date: 12th July 2016, Image Source: http://www.tribuneindia.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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