An unconstitutional idea

An unconstitutional idea

One nation, one poll: Modi’s idea seeks to reduce the spirit of democracy to an ‘efficient’ machine

Even after heated debates involving great scholars, the makers of the nation’s fundamental law did not feel it fit to incorporate a provision for simultaneous elections in the Constitution for obvious reasons. PTI photo.

The first Article in the first part of the Constitution defines the nation by stating that “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. Any centralising tendency in the realm of the economy, elections or administration will have to meet the constitutional test in terms of federalism. Federalism is not just a matter of division of powers between the Centre and the states. It determines the participatory role of the people in the decision-making process and in the choice of the regime. In a deliberative democracy, the argumentative citizen plays a decisive role only during elections. Conceptually, anything that enhances her space by providing more opportunities to make a political statement (by exercising franchise) is intrinsically good. That which diminishes this space is intrinsically bad. Elections are not the ultimate end in a working democracy. But they connect the ‘ruler’ to the ‘ruled’. Elections become the moments of questioning, trying or even sentencing those who held power or want to hold power. Elections are therefore reflections of people’s sovereignty.

 On June 15, 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar pleaded for an Election Commission in whom the superintendence, direction and control of elections should be vested. He did not advocate for simultaneous elections but conceptualised a situation having “each general election to the House of the People and to the Legislative Assembly of each state” and “each biennial election to the Legislative Council of each state having such a Council”.

Even after heated debates involving great scholars, the makers of the nation’s fundamental law did not feel it fit to incorporate a provision for simultaneous elections in the Constitution for obvious reasons. In a federal set-up with a party system, based on the first-past-the-post principle, governments could be formed only based on temporal political majority. The moment the government of the state loses that majority, presidential rule and elections should follow. At the Centre, there is no scope for presidential rule. The loss of a government’s majority and the lack of an alternative would immediately result in new elections. The country has witnessed several instances of governments collapsing both at the Centre and in the states due to loss of majority for the ruling dispensation. That situation will occur in the future, too. Presumably, this is the reason why the founders of the Constitution discarded that idea. If, after simultaneous elections, the government collapses at the Centre or in a state, whether the Centre or that state should wait for the next election, after five years, without having a government?  The idea of simultaneous elections does not take into account this basic reality.

Elections to the parliament and state assemblies were held simultaneously in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. It happened in a natural way, since it was quite possible and convenient. The next general election was to take place only in 1972.  But the fifth Lok Sabha election was necessitated in 1971 after Indira Gandhi recommended dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Thus, the practice of simultaneous elections came to a halt. A parliamentary standing committee noted in December 2015 that seven of the 16 Lok Sabhas till now were dissolved prematurely. The imposition of President’s Rule and consequent elections in many states created a clear separation between parliamentary and assembly elections. This scenario is irreversible both legally and politically. Therefore, the very idea of simultaneous elections is neither practical nor feasible.

The five-year tenure for Lok Sabha is mandated as per Article 83(2) of the Constitution and the same length of tenure is prescribed for state legislatures as per Article 172(1), but there is no fixed term for any government. Given the possibility of premature dissolution of the respective House, these articles imply that synchronisation of polls is impossible. To begin to do that now, the tenure of the current assemblies will have to be drastically altered, which is legally impermissible and politically impossible.

V Krishna Ananth and C Rammanohar Reddy have pointed out that even “an initial synchronisation” of elections can result in reduction or extension of the tenure of certain assemblies up to 30 months and, even thereafter, the process could get derailed the moment a government at the Centre or in one of the states falls.

False arguments

Frequent elections need not meddle with administration or governance, as has been argued. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) prior to the election could be limited to cover only unfair practices in governance like vote-hunting. All activities of administration, development and reforms could be allowed throughout. This will ensure that the MCC preceding the election does not interfere with governance. 

The huge expenditure during elections is by political parties and candidates and that is a separate topic that calls for reform of the political parties and their activities. Election campaigns can be moderated to mitigate the overplay of corporate money. But no one chooses centralisation and dictatorship for “maintaining stability” or to avoid the cost of elections. That’s simply a false choice.

The political, social and economic issues at the state and national levels are different. A unification of elections runs the risk of national issues attaining centrality and marginalising regional issues, and confuses or narrows down the choice for voter.

 It is true that 2014 was a year that resulted in an election cost of Rs 3,426 crore for the government. One would think of mitigating this expense by curtailing the expense, and not the elections themselves. More alarming is the expenditure incurred by political parties. The BJP spent over Rs 714 crore in the 2014 election and the Congress spent Rs 516 crore – and these are just the publicly revealed figures. That’s the expenditure, and the corruption it entails, that must be curbed.  

The annual report of the Election Commission (1983) and the 170th report of the Law Commission (1999) are only formal expressions of a desire for synchronising elections. They do not, however, reflect a constitutional perspective or people’s aspirations in a federal polity. Unfortunately, in recent years, the Parliamentary Standing Committee and the NITI Aayog have taken a similar stand, which is logically unconvincing and constitutionally untenable. One also finds that these official bodies lacked representatives from the states and therefore, like their decisions, the decision-making process itself was fundamentally flawed and centralised.

(The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer)