Originally Published 2015-06-24 00:00:00 Published on Jun 24, 2015
The Parliamentary Standing Committee's (on Personnel, Public Grievances, and Law & Order) decision to consider the possibility of recommending 'concurrent' or 'simultaneous' elections to the Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies across the country is a suggestion worth serious consideration, like very many other aspects of electoral reforms.
Back to the era of simultaneous polls?

Given the complexities of 'national vs regional' politics and also of the poll processes, including security considerations, the 'Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, and Law & Order' has taken a lot of courage in its hands to consider the possibility of recommending 'concurrent' or 'simultaneous' elections to the Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies across the country. It does not mean that the suggestion can be implemented outright or overnight - or, will be welcomed all round, particularly by State facing Assembly polls early on and at every stage. Yet, it's a suggestion worth serious consideration, like very many other aspects of electoral reforms.

According to Parliamentary Committee Chairman E M Sudarasa Natchiappan, who chaired a consultative meeting of the panel at Chennai, political parties in Tamil Nadu, for instance, have welcomed the idea. Whatever the reason - not all of them credible and creditable - Tamil Nadu has had created a record of sorts for 'large States' in terms of 'single-day polling', be it in parliamentary or Assembly elections. It was so even for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, which in the State was over-shadowed by events and developments in neighbouring Sri Lanka on the 'ethnic war' front. It was assumed that single-day polling in Tamil Nadu (and also adjoining Union Territory of Puducherry) were thought of as a sure-fire cure to end large-scale 'bogus voting', when party cadres were known to be plying from their native constituencies to the neighbouring/far-off ones, for the purpose.

The Election Commission (EC) may have to mount a serious study of the poll process in Tamil Nadu, even if as a test-case, if single-day polling may have had anything to do with the high incidence of 'cash-for-vote' paradigm of the Saidapet/Thirumangalam kinds - the former when the AIADMK was in power, and the latter under parent-rival DMK rule. Today, when the R K Nagar Assembly constituency in the State capital of Chennai is facing a by-election (with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa as the ruling AIADMK nominee), leaders of the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP, ruling the Centre, have reiterated that it was a 'corrupt' and 'unjust' poll. One wonders if the EC is 'watching' as it should have been, or if the Centre is listening, as it should be.

Coalition confusions?

Multi-day/multi-phase polling is different from multi-year polls, and the reasons are many. But they do constitute a compelling part of the poll reforms that the nation is concerned about, from time to time. The first General Election was spread over six months, across two years (1951-52) as the nation went through the learning00 and educating curve, all at the same time. The time-frame became shorter in successive polls thereafter, and until 1962, were mostly 'simultaneous' in nature. Kerala and a few others did have 'snap polls' to the State Assemblies, owing to politicial instability in those States, but they were still an exception. The EC should be thanked and congratulated for fewer-phase, fewer-day polling for the Lok Sabha in the years to come. If the post-Emergency polls of 1977 were held from 16-20 March, four years after the 'Janata mis-rule', it was confined to just two days, 3 and 6 January in 1980. Earlier, the 1971 polls were concluded within a 10-day period, from 1-10 March, though there were clear signs of 'war clouds' gathering over what later became Bangladesh.

An impression has often been created that the States - and States alone - are to blame for the original constitutional scheme of 'simultaneous polls' going awry. It's true that coalition politics - so did, floor-crossing - commenced in States like Kerala, leading to political instability and consequent advancement of once-in-five-year Assembly polls, after dissolution of the House by the President, but at the instance of the Union Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister. But the Centre cannot escape blame, either. On the one hand, the Centre (both under the Congress and non-Congress regimes) had encouraged out-of-turn dissolution of different State Assemblies, at different times but with near-similar political considerations.

On the other, the likes of the 'Janata experiment' of the late Seventies, and the Governments, respectively led by the late Charan Singh, Chandrashekar and I K Gujral caused advancement of parliamentary polls. In between, Prime Ministers in the late V P Singh and H D Deve Gowda escaped the opprobium of causing early polls as they were followed by others in their place. In between, the Indira Gandhi Government at the Centre survived after the vertical split in the Congress Party in 1969, though that did not mean that parliamentary polls were not advanced by about a year, from 1972 to 1971.

It was also the first time that a decision over parliamentary polls contributed to the disruption of reviving hopes of 'simultaneous polls', which had anyway gone awry after the monolith Congress had been voted out of power in nine States in 1967. Tamil Nadu, incidentally, was one of the nine States, where 'defection' would cause dissolution of the State Assembly and early polls in 1987/89, the last of them to do so. Tamil Nadu however holds the distinguished record of a later-day DMK Government staying in on for full five years (2006-11), with the ruling party's Congress ally at the UPA Government at the Centre, extending 'outside support'. It also showed that 'coalition politics' could cut both ways - though weighing the merits and demerits of the same cannot stop with this one evaluation.

The history and issues are thus more complex than be outlined and understood. While persuading 'poll-going' States to fall in line and accept a delay or advancement of their legislatures' terms, to coincide with a national poll schedule for parliamentary elections (read: Lok Sabha polls), and effecting a constitutional amendment - or, amendments - for the purpose, along with possible changes to the Representation of the People Act (RPA) would be the least of the problems, though they by themselves are nearly insurmountable, so to say. It is not even about ensuring that political parties in the 'poll-going' States agree to a short term of President's rule - particularly those that are not being run by the BJP-NDA ruling the Centre. The greater difficulty is in divining the possibilities, both in States and at the Centre, and defining/re-defining terminologies like 'defection' and 'full-term' of Legislatures at all levels to check against the repeat of the past, everywhere.

The presence and continuance of a stable government at the Centre, with an absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha, for the first time in over 25 years, and with the same party also ruling in many, if not most of the 'larger' States, may have provided an opportunity - an, opening. It requires an imaginative and persuasive leadership to move forward on this score, by carrying them all with it in a spirit of federal cooperation and coordination, where non-federal and national elements do not feel left out or cheated, than had been attempted ever in the past. Considering that an Assembly election or two every year has put political and electoral considerations ahead of governance issues and priorities, a change in the scheme is urgent, given also that the Election Commission's welcome imposition of 'Model Code of Conduct' also plays a disruptive - though not a destructive - act, through and through.

The success or failure of such a 'national mission', if it could be called so, does not stop with the persuasive powers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on whom the initiative rests, but also on the successful implementation of the same in the years ahead. Any success would go on to strengthen democracy in this country. Any failure could cause greater disenchantment than already. For, any cure to the current problem should not aim at ending the possibilities of 'coalition politics' in the States and at the Centre, which the nation's 'illiterate population' had still preferred over a 'stable government' over the past so many decades. That way, the current incumbent ruling BJP-NDA's campaign-call in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls did not at all refer to 'stability at the Centre' as in the late nineties, but it was only over 'governance issues', which the nation comprehended as much or even better.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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