Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Aug 08, 2016
Simultaneous elections: Idea good, but is it practical?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a few months ago, had floated the idea of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and local bodies. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievance and Law, headed by Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP E. M. Sudarsana Natchiappan had also sought public opinion on the feasibility of changing India’s electoral schedule to simultaneous elections every five years for both Parliament and all State Assemblies. This again brought to the fore the debate on can India afford  (cost wise, loss of work hours due to model code of conduct, the voter fatigue) to be in a ‘permanent election mode’.

As a political party spokesperson, even I would concur that yes the idea is good in principle (who wouldn’t want to be done with voting for all elected bodies in one go and presenting arguments for it too), however, one needs to understand if it can withstand the constitutional principles and not lead to administrative hurdles. It also needs to be understood if this suggestion comes out of genuine recognition for administrative and electoral reforms — the ambit of which is much larger, or as political opportunism by cherry picking the electoral reform that suits the expansionism of a political ideology.

If election history is to be looked at, then general and state elections till 1967 were being held together. However, due to dissolutions of state assemblies in 1968 and 1969 followed by the Lok Sabha dissolve early in 1970, and general elections held in 1971 leading to a change in the way India voted. The Law Commission’s 170th report submitted to the government in 1999 on electoral reform reads, “This cycle of elections every year, and in the out of season, should be put an end to,” though subsequent reports on electoral reform found the recommendation not feasible something that even former Chief Election Commissioner S. Y. Quraishi concurs with.

The arguments that are made in favour of simultaneous elections maintain that the cost of administering paraphernalia  such as logistical expenses incurred by the government and the para-military forces that provide official security etc is very high and by introducing simultaneous elections it would reduce  the cost drastically. They also maintain that it would ensure that normal work does not come to a standstill due to model code of conduct that becomes applicable as soon as election dates are announced by the EC. Under the rules of Model Code of Conduct, the government cannot announce any new schemes, make any new appointments, transfers or postings without EC approval. With the ministers getting busy with their own election campaigns and the district administration machinery directing its focus on the process of elections the economic growth of state/country gets hampered. The last argument tilting in favour is also voter fatigue that sets in with elections at different points in time that leads to low voter turnout.

So, while the above points make a case for simultaneous elections various pro electoral reform activists, political parties and respected voices across the system, they argue that this is not a reform that propagates democracy rather goes against the spirit of it. Besides, by giving fixed tenures to state and central governments, one would have a situation where the government has the power without accountability and the inability to seek change if the government doesn’t perform as per expectation. What is likely to happen in scenarios where state governments dissolve due to political developments?  Would that mean the state stays under President’s rule till the next elections are held? It would lead to chaos in the state and governance challenges which probably for political gains are being overlooked.

The argument for reform suggests that Indian voters are discerning enough to know the difference between local issues vis a vis national issues however the truth of the matter is that many voters cannot discern the difference either due to lack of education or due to less awareness to be able to differentiate between issues, political parties they vote for and their manifesto. Even the data analysed by a think tank on voting pattern since 1999 reflects that. The data showed that on average, there is a 77 percent chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the State and Centre when elections are held simultaneously. This trend of choosing the same party has gone from 68 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2004 to 76 percent in 2009 and 86 percent in 2014.

Dr. S. Y. Qureshi, in his well-argued column against the idea says, “Infringement of the people’s right to choose their representatives for the sake of saving money or for sake administrative convenience, or “to save party workers their time” (the immediate provocation for PM Modi’s suggestion) cannot pass judicial muster.”

What are the options that are feasible if electoral reforms need to be implemented? Considering as of today that the ruling party enjoys simple majority, they can make it happen if there is a political will to do so. The Law commission recommendations under Justice A. P. Shah have amongst other reforms emphasised the need for transparency in election funding, strengthening the office of ECI, speedier processing of election petitions and challenges, restricting government ad spend can be the starting point for the government to usher in the change.

The election commission needs to be empowered enough to take immediate action against parties or their candidates found violating the norms of not just funding, but guilty of subverting or flouting rules. The duration or flexibility of Model Code of Conduct is also an area that can do with reforms to reduce the impact of electioneering process. The most important however would be reducing the duration of election process by conducting the elections in one day rather than the long drawn (in some states the process is in phases over a period of a month).

While everyone agrees the reforms are much needed but just picking and choosing reforms to suit a political purpose is not the way to move forward. It needs to be thought through, taking all stakeholders opinions into account before implementation of these ideas. Ill thought and half baked ideas can only add to the confusion that the country can do without.

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Priyanka Chaturvedi

Priyanka Chaturvedi

Priyanka Chaturvedi is an Indian politician serving as Member of Parliament Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra and Deputy Leader of Shiv Sena. She is a regular ...

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