Why this insistence on simultaneous elections?

Current government’s attempt at discussing this issue interminably appears to be a diversionary tactic at best 
Last Updated 24 June 2019, 11:14 IST

Almost the first serious action of the present National Democratic Alliance government has been to call a meeting of about 40 political parties to discuss the proposal to conduct the elections to Parliament, State Assemblies, and Panchayats and local bodies simultaneously. Given that this very issue has been discussed threadbare over the last three years with no acceptable conclusion, the newly elected government giving it top-billing, while intriguing, can also be revealing.

It is a fact that holding simultaneous elections was in the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and it was repeated in the 2019 manifesto. The government’s case for holding simultaneous elections was put forward in detail in the form of a discussion paper authored by two officials of the NITI Aayog.

All the arguments that the government gave in favour of holding simultaneous elections have been commented upon, and challenged, widely here. Creating the impression that simultaneous elections, or ‘One Nation, One Election’ is a new slogan, or is a brand-new idea is actually misleading. It was first mooted by the Law Commission of India in 1999. It was also strongly recommended by senior BJP leader LK Advani in a blog in May 2010.

Going back even earlier, the idea of synchronised elections entered public discourse in India for the first time, after the March 1971 Lok Sabha election in which the faction of the Congress led by Indira Gandhi won 352 out of 518 Lok Sabha seats. This overwhelming majority, and the apparent one-party, and one-person, dominance resulted in some Congress members suggesting that India should shift from the then prevailing, and currently continuing, Parliamentary system to a Presidential form of government. Holding simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies appeared to be a natural corollary to the Presidential form of government.

So, what makes the present, and the immediately preceding, government so keen on holding Parliament and State Assembly elections together? The argument of saving money is demolished by asking a few simple questions: Should the nation be looking to create the ‘least expensive’ democracy or the ‘most effective’ democracy? Is it possible, or is it even desirable or advisable, to assign a monetary value or cost to democracy? Should the country entertain the idea of “development” without or at the cost of democracy?

The other major argument in favour of holding simultaneous elections is that if Parliament and State Assembly elections are held separately, as they are now, governance and development suffer because (a) the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) comes into force, and (b) the entire government machinery gets busy in the election and normal work cannot be done.

This apprehension has no basis in fact because the MCC says only that new programmes and schemes which may have a bearing on the results of the election need to be cleared with the Election Commission (EC). There are innumerable cases where the EC has no objection and has permitted such programmes and schemes to be launched. The MCC does NOT say anywhere that all existing and schemes which are already in operation should be stopped. So, saying that all development work stops during election time is a bogey.

So far as the entire government machinery getting busy in the election is concerned, what is deliberately overlooked is the fact that every state has one assembly election and one Lok Sabha election once in five years. There is no reason whatsoever for the government machinery of all states to “get busy” in the assembly election being held in just one or two states.

Above all, forcing all states to have assembly elections together with the Parliament election, even when they are not due, will be a clear violation of Part VI of the Constitution of India which gives a distinct constitutional status to the states of the Union. In addition, it will be a violation of the ‘basic structure of the Constitution doctrine’ enunciated by the Supreme Court in a judgement in the famous Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala case. The doctrine says that while the Parliament does have the power, under Article 368 of the Constitution, to amend the Constitution, this power does not allow the Parliament to amend the “basic structure” of the Constitution, and “federal character of the Constitution” has been specified to be one of the features of the basic structure.

What this means is that even if all the political parties agree, it will not be possible to hold simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies because that would violate the basic structure of the Constitution, and will not be approved or allowed by the Supreme Court under existing law. The current government’s attempt at discussing this issue interminably appears to be a diversionary tactic at best.

(Jagdeep S Chhokar is former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM Ahmedabad. Views are personal)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 24 June 2019, 07:57 IST)

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