The debate on the need for simultaneous elections has gone on for over two years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually flagged an issue that was part of the BJP’s poll manifesto in 2014. Earlier, in 1999, the Law Commission, too, had recommended it. The most prominent advocate of the idea was LK Advani, in May 2010.
The government referred it to the Law Commission, the Election Commission of India and a Standing Committee of Parliament. All three have supported the idea in principle but are grappling with its implications.
The cost of elections for the government and the political parties is indeed an important consideration. The cost of conduct of elections was estimated to be about Rs 4,500 crore. Campaign expenditure by political parties and candidates is, however, the more serious issue. One estimate put it at Rs 30,000 crore in the 2014 election, although the two main parties revealed expenditures totaling only over Rs 1,200 crore together.
The second argument for simultaneous elections is about the alleged ‘policy paralysis’ during the implementation of the model code of conduct (MCC). Once MCC kicks in, governments cannot announce any new schemes or make new appointments. To call it policy paralysis is not correct. Only new schemes and programmes are disallowed as these would tantamount to bribing voters on the eve of elections. All normal, ongoing programmes are totally unhindered. Even new announcements that are in urgent public interest can be made with prior approval of the EC.
The Commission has to ensure that the ruling party does not resort to populist measures for electoral benefit. In any case, any government has 4 years and 11 months to announce new policies and programmes. Why does it wait for election eve?
It is, however, true that work in many district offices is affected. District administration is totally focused on elections at the cost of virtually everything else. Besides these reasons, the evils of casteism, communalism and corruption get aggravated around elections.
The arguments for simultaneous elections are strong, the arguments against them are stronger. The single biggest argument is that the terms of the Lok Sabha and the assemblies mostly do not coincide. Moreover, of the 16 Lok Sabhas, eight were prematurely dissolved (1969, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2004). While legislatures have been completing their full terms lately, thanks to the anti-defection law of 1985, it is no guarantee against fickle coalition partners.
The second argument is that having to face the electorate repeatedly enhances the accountability of politicians and keeps them on their toes. Thirdly, many jobs are created during elections, giving a boost to the economy at the grassroots level.
Fourthly, rigorous enforcement of discipline, like non-defacement of private and public property, noise and air pollution, ban on plastics, etc., benefits the environment. Voters actually love the discipline. Fifthly, there is a sharp drop in crime graph because of the strong preventive measures taken by the Election Commission. And finally, local issues and national issues stand out distinctly, as they should in a federal polity. Besides the logistical and financial issues, however, it is the legal and constitutional issues that make simultaneous elections infeasible.
A proposal that is emerging is that if one election in five years is not feasible, let there be two. The NITI Aayog has suggested holding the first phase elections to 14 states along with Lok Sabha elections in 2019, and the remaining in October-November 2021.
Once these elections are synchronised, then the polls could be held once in two-and-a-half years each, it opined. To my mind this is a radical dilution of the original proposal of the prime minister for all three tiers of elections together.
With the major one-third segment (with 3 lakh panches) truncated and the remaining two tiers (4,020 MLAs and 543 MPs) bifurcated, what is left is a much-watered down version of “one nation, one poll”. Is it worth the effort in the face of serious questions being raised about the impact on the federal structure of the Constitution? And then, the reality is that if simultaneous elections could not be held for just two states (Gujarat and HP) for some ‘good’ reasons and a few (14) by-elections couldn’t be held along with Karnataka elections, what moral strength is left in the proposal for nation-wide simultaneous polls? What happened to the argument about the prolonged model code?
The way forward
We may consider an alternative route to deal with the concerns. The campaign expenditures can be cut by putting a ceiling on expenditure by political parties. Private fund collection may be banned and replaced with state funding of political parties (not elections) based on the number of votes they get.
Can the time consumed for the conduct of elections be reduced? Yes, certainly, if we could have three times the number of EVMs (for three tiers) and five times the central armed police force (for a single-phase election). Two weeks could be cut down in the electoral calendar by reducing the discretionary period of 21 days available to the EC before poll notification. Thus, the entire election process may be compressed to 33 days.
Many a year, state assembly elections are held in two batches when their terms are set to end within six months. If it is extended from six months to one year, more states can be clubbed in one batch. That will make it “One Year, One Poll”. That may be a good compromise. Prime Minister Modi has raised an important issue. It must be debated.
(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India)