The story so far: In September, the Union Government notified the formation of a six-member panel to ‘examine and make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections’ in the Lok Sabha, State assemblies and local bodies. For this purpose, the panel has been entrusted with the task of proposing specific amendments to the Constitution and any other legal changes necessary to enable simultaneous elections. The panel also has to give its opinion on whether the proposed amendments shall require the assent of half of the State assemblies, as stipulated in Article 368. On October 25, the panel had an interaction with the Law Commission to discuss the roadmap to synchronise Parliamentary and Assembly elections by 2029.
Demand for simultaneous elections
The first four general elections involved simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. It was possible then as the Congress was in power both at the national and State levels. The bifurcation of elections happened due to the advancing of Lok Sabha elections by the Congress, which after suffering a split in 1969 was looking to secure a majority of its own, riding on the populist appeal of Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. As of now the Lok Sabha elections coincide with the Assembly elections in four States namely Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim.
The proposal to hold simultaneous elections has been pushed by the BJP since it came to power in 2014. After the NITI Aayog backed the proposal in 2017, it was mentioned next year in then President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to the joint session of Parliament. He asked parties to have a ‘sustained debate on the subject of holding simultaneous elections’. The Law Commission also released a draft report on August 30, 2018, examining the legal-constitutional aspects related to the proposal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the need to hold simultaneous elections in his Independence Day speech in 2019. Most recently, the proposal received support in the Law Commission Report, which is reportedly exploring the feasibility of a common electoral roll.
The case for common elections
The following arguments are being pushed in favour of holding simultaneous elections. First, holding separate elections incurs massive recurring expenditure for the State and the Central government. In case of simultaneous elections, there would only be one electoral roll for all elections and the government would need the services of security forces and civilian officials only once. This would save public money and human resources that can be put to other public causes.
Second, the dense electoral cycle involves prolonged deployment of security and police forces on election duty, thus posing a concern for national security and maintenance of law and order. The administration comes under strain due to the mass-scale transfers of officials within the State, either by the government looking for pliable officers in key positions or by the order of the ECI once code of conduct comes into force. High-ranking officers from other States are also deputed as observers in the poll-bound State. There is a climate of political uncertainty, wherein officials remain perpetually in election mode. Third, holding separate elections comes in the way of development as the enforcement of the code of conduct for a longer period leads to the stoppage of ongoing development work. No new projects can be started during this period and even on-going projects suffer from inertia. Looking to reap the electoral dividend, parties in power invariably indulge in populist schemes and do not commit to long-term investment in primary sectors. This happens frequently, burdening the state exchequer.
Fourth, simultaneous elections would lessen the role of money in elections as campaign finance of parties’ would come down. The monitoring of election expenditure by the ECI will also become more effective due to a concerted effort at the national level. Fifth, given the increasing role of divisive politics for electoral gains, the ‘one nation-one election’ plan would help in reducing the pernicious role of regionalism, casteism, and communalism in mobilising electorates. It would help in bringing issues of national importance on the electoral agenda. And finally, it is being argued that having too many elections creates a sense of fatigue among electorates. Voter turnout at the national level has stagnated in recent elections.
Against simultaneous elections
These are the arguments against the implementation of simultaneous elections. First, the Centre’s initiative is being viewed as being antithetical to the federal spirit as there has not been wider consultation with constituent States, especially the ones that are being ruled by non-BJP parties. Second, holding simultaneous elections would most likely push local and regional issues to the periphery. There would be a ‘national constituency phenomenon’ favouring polity-wide parties due to their comparative advantage in terms of their claim to better serve ‘national interest/ national security/national unity’ rather than regional parties who will be sidelined for focusing on ‘narrow, parochial’ issues. Simultaneous elections in a federal polity, would incentivise regional discontent.
Third, as far as cost saving is concerned, holding simultaneous elections would require large-scale purchase of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail Machines (VVPAT). Moreover, biennial elections to Legislative councils/Rajya Sabha and by-elections would still be held, costing money and resources. Fourth, frequent elections rather than sagging the enthusiasm of voters keep them enthused, as evident in the comparatively higher percentage of voting in State and local elections. Frequency of elections at different layers also helps in increasing accountability as elected representatives and their parties remain on their toes.
Legal and constitutional issues
Even if the proposal to hold simultaneous elections were to be adopted in principle, it would require a complex and lengthy legal process to implement.
First, at least five Articles in the Constitution shall need amendment. These articles are Articles 83(2) and 85(2) that relate respectively to the duration and dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Also, on the legislative agenda would be Articles 172(1) and 174(2), which provide for the duration and dissolution of the State Assemblies. Article 85 (1) and 174 (2) allows the President and the Governor to dissolve the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha before the completion of their tenure of five years, under the circumstances mentioned in the Constitution. Article 83(2) allows the tenure of the Lok Sabha to be extended for one year at a time in case of an Emergency being proclaimed under Article 352. Article 172(1) makes a similar provision for State assemblies. These provisions would need to be repealed. As of now, after the passage of the anti-defection law enshrined in the 10th Schedule (52nd Amendment Act, 1985) and later the Supreme Court judgment in S.R. Bommai case (1994) followed by the High Court judgment in Rameswar Prasad (2006), the decision to dissolve the Vidhan Sabha and impose President Rule under Article 356 is subject to judicial review. The Court can revive the Assembly and restore the government if it does not find the grounds of the President’s rule to be constitutionally valid as has happened in recent years in the case of Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
Moreover, such amendments need not only the two-third-majority support of both Houses of Parliament but also ratification by at least half of the State Legislatures under Article 368. Currently, no party has even simple majority in Rajya Sabha while the States have different parties in power, many of which are not in favour of such amendments.
It would also be much more complex and difficult to link general elections with local bodies elections. This is because local government is a State subject (seventh schedule, List II) and all the State Legislatures have passed separate Panchayati Raj Acts and Municipal Acts, fixing the tenure of these bodies (five years) as per Article 243(E) and 243 (U) respectively. Since all 28 States have their own specific Acts, it would require changes in 56 sets of legal provisions.
Given the complexity of the issue, likely focus is going to be on how Lok Sabha and Assembly elections can be held simultaneously. Even for that, multiple amendments would be required. Since the proposal involves Centre-State relations, judicial review of the amendment acts shall be a major block. What seems doable is to make an attempt to club as many Assembly elections as possible to be held together or with the Lok Sabha elections in one go and hope that the verdicts favour formation of a stable government. Even for realising this, there is a need for wider consultation across parties and constituent States.
Ashutosh Kumar teaches Political Science at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Views expressed are personal.