With the current government keen and the Election Commission of India ready to execute, the issue of simultaneous elections has gathered momentum. Homogenisation of elections is packaged as a “One Nation, One Poll” policy. Constitution being the supreme law of the land, nothing can farther from its spirit and the democratic principles enshrined in it. In accordance with the fundamentals of democratic polity, the Constitution allows for holding elections for the posts of President and Vice- President in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote. Within this context, Members of Parliament (Lok Sabha) and Members of Legislative Assembly are elected by First Past the Post (FPTP) mechanism. The discussion paper “Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The “WHAT”, “WHY” AND “HOW” by NITI AAYOG, justifies the revision to constitution to execute this policy. However, the discussion and debate on the cons as to why and how this policy could be problematic in the Indian context is the need of the hour. This policy would require structural changes to be made to the Indian electoral system and to the constitution.
Discussions pertaining to reforms in India tend to deviate from the main issue and put forth solutions that add to previously existing challenges. Simultaneous elections are desirable, as quite often Indian polity is in election mode, which leads to huge expenditures for the government and other stakeholders. On the contrary, concurrent elections, if held, the Government of India and the respective State governments could share the expenditure. We know that in a democratic republic, the will of the people is paramount and it forms the basis of authority. This is clearly enshrined in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution. This will is expressed by exercising their right to vote in elections. Elections are a means to gauge the level of public satisfaction and attitude towards the current government and, when conducted frequently, can result in citizens feeling empowered.
A few of the advocates for this policy argue that the practice of simultaneous elections started in the general elections of 1950-51 and continued in three subsequent general elections (1957, 1962 and 1967). The premature dissolution of the State assembly in 1969 disrupted this cycle. Nevertheless, this practice was not a constitutional requirement but a mere historical coincidence, the political instability that existed post-independence would be the reason for the same.
The executive derives its powers from the legislature and it retains power as long as it enjoys the confidence of the House of people (Lok Sabha). It falls with the passage of no-confidence motion. Thus, the fall of a government was contemplated during the process of framing our Constitution but the fact that it cannot be predicted in the coalition-era should be taken into consideration. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public grievances , Law and Justice in its 79th report on “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State legislative assemblies” had suggested that premature dissolution can be avoided by making it mandatory to have a confidence motion in favour of a government headed by a named individual. Such a practice may ensure that a government does not fall, thus failing the test of parliamentary system. To avoid premature dissolution, the entire house must vote to elect the leader of the house. This procedure is analogous to the election of the Speaker. This practice could bring in stability to the government and thus to the Lok Sabha as well. There are two potential challenges to such an arrangement. First, arriving at a consensus on leader of the house. Second, if the legislature throws out a government and is unable to form a new one, then elections are inevitable. A lot of time would be wasted in arriving at a consensus on the leader, thus affecting governance doing no good to the people. With reference to elections in States, like Goa, Nagaland and Manipur, such a practise would lead to individuals and political parties engineering splits thereby altering the democratic fabric.
“Will the fall of a government at the Centre necessitate re-elections in the States and are the States willing to go to polls?” There are serious doubts if States like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh would prefer going to polls. If they do, then it affects the basic principle of parliamentary system (i.e. 5-year term). The Indian Constitution has a quasi-federal structure, which is federal in form but unitary in spirit where the Centre is entrusted with more power. Majority of States should ratify these constitutional amendments. An analogy could be drawn between such an arrangement and the medieval ages where the rulers aimed to achieve a pan-India status, which was once enjoyed by the Congress immediately after independence. Such a policy would make the government at the Centre more authoritarian.
Another suggestion by NITI Aayog is that, when the legislature is prematurely dissolved and the period is short then, the administration would be carried out by the President at Centre and the Governor at the State. This suggestion poses problems because it is clearly visible that the regime at Centre is always keen on placing its nominees at the constitutional posts, and under such circumstances we may have to face serious repercussions like the declaration of emergency.
The standing committee report mentions the precedent of simultaneous elections in countries like South Africa. In Sweden, elections are held on a fixed date (similar to the US). Interestingly, the practice of simultaneous elections is complimented by the electoral system of proportional representation i.e. South Africa has party-list proportional representation and Sweden too has proportional representation where the parties are given a number of representatives based on their share of votes. Proportional representation is an alternative to FPTP and other majoritarian voting systems that tend to produce disproportionate outcomes and have a bias in favour of large political groups. Moreover, through the FPTP system, a candidate can win with a wafer-thin majority, and therefore the dissent voiced by the minority that are significantly a larger group is silenced. The idea of incorporating a PR system would be opposed by several political parties as election campaigns in India are aimed at persuading the swing voters and caste dynamics play an important role.
Supporters complain that the Model Code of Conduct prevents the government from carrying out welfare schemes. This argument is questionable. The very reason being, the trend where government brings out populist schemes just prior to elections to persuade a specific section, particularly the swing votes. There are instances wherein the ECI has allowed the centre to implement its schemes without much hassle (subject to restricting the publicity of such schemes). For example, the release of a second instalment of funds under MGNREGA was allowed by ECI for poll-bound States of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, with a rider that it should not be publicised. Therefore, blaming the Model Code of Conduct for hindering governance is inappropriate. The onus is on the government to empower the ECI prior to making amendments to the Indian Constitution to boot Indian polity. The government should be enthusiastic in bringing about electoral reforms. Increased public funding and capping the election funding by individuals (as in the US) would increase accountability.
Electoral reforms in the hands of politicians is a classic example of a fox guarding the henhouse. Political parties often disagree on several policies; yet form a remarkable front to resist the same. These issues are employed as deviationary tactics to avoid debating issues that have caused crises. In the quest for achieving uniformity (in the implementation of schemes), the proposal for simultaneous polls tends to sabotage the basic democratic principles.
The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
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