Prime Minister Modi is pushing very hard to hold simultaneous elections for India's Lok Sabha as well as all its Vidhan Sabhas in 2019. Government agencies are tripping over each other to fulfill a strong PM's publicly stated desire. But the people haven't understood nor debated the idea's long-term benefits and drawbacks. The idea appears pragmatic and advantageous for the country's near-term future, but it breaks fundamental democratic principles, and it is doubtful that it will serve the nation in the long run.
Holding simultaneous elections is not a new idea. India held its first four general elections in this way. The practice was changed in 1971 by Indira Gandhi. In 1995, then BJP president L.K. Advani tried to bring the idea back into prominence, saying that delinking "has not been good either for the health of democracy or that of the administration." In 2010, he made another attempt. This time he touted the benefit of fixed-term legislatures. "Our Constitution makers adopted the British pattern and invested the Executive with the authority to cut short the term of the elected legislature," he wrote. So his idea "did not mean taking away Parliament's right to throw out a government; but taking away government's right to throw out Parliament."
Clearly, Modi is in a rush to implement simultaneous elections because he expects to win in 2019. Advani had the same interest in 1995 and 2010...
In this recent push Modi and others have advanced many more arguments. The PM says, "India's voter is now very mature and able to take different decisions for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls." Holding these elections together can "reduce expense, rid the country of black money, and give us full five years to move the nation forward." President Pranab Mukherjee has chimed in by adding that "with some election or the other throughout the year, normal activities of the government come to a stand-still because of code of conduct." A recent 36-page report from NITI Aayog bolsters the above arguments. And it adds a few more: frequent elections disrupt normal public life; require a huge number of government and security personnel; and "perpetuate caste, religion, and communal issues."
NITI Aayog is only the latest government agency to give its consent. A parliamentary standing committee—oddly, one on "Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice"—did so last year. It simply advanced a 1999 Law Commission recommendation in favour of simultaneous elections. In July 2016, India's Chief Election Commissioner gave a typically bureaucratic green light, full of caveats. "We are on board," he said, "provided there is consensus, unanimity of opinion among the political parties and also there are amendments in the Constitution."
NITI Aayog is even trying to meet Modi's timeframe. Its report outlines a two-phased election: the Lok Sabha and roughly half the state assemblies together in 2019, and the rest of states in 2021. It does so despite many opposition parties—Congress, Trinamool, NCP, CPI, etc.—already expressing their reservations about the whole idea.
Clearly, Modi is in a rush to implement simultaneous elections because he expects to win in 2019. Advani had the same interest in 1995 and 2010; he knew the BJP would do well in upcoming elections. Ironically, Indira Gandhi's 1971 decision to delink had the same motive. She knew her star was rising and didn't want to wait for LS elections to be held along with state assemblies. Some state leaders were gaining popularity that she figured she couldn't overcome.
Diminishing the value of state elections—which a lumping with national parties and issues is bound to do—cannot be good for India's federalism.
Such political expediency is not good for the country. Indira Gandhi sensed that LS elections should be held separately from the states for a very good reason. Given India's size and diversity it was only natural that state issues, leaders, and parties rose in prominence. This fact has become increasingly evident. In state after state, local accountability has been the people's most consistent demand. Diminishing the value of state elections—which a lumping with national parties and issues is bound to do—cannot be good for India's federalism.
We Indians have never really understood the value of genuine federalism. We do not view state governments as a matter between that state's people and their elected representatives. We do not rely on the state's people to know what is best for them. And we do not rely on their representatives. Instead we send outside governors to preside over them, and we control state governments via a so-called strong Centre. But what business is it of the central government—or the nation's PM—to be involved in a state's election? The truth is that by giving state elections more importance, and state governments more independence, we would improve governance on the ground.
Besides, how is it possible to synchronise elections without breaking the fundamental parliamentary principle that governments can be brought down at any time? This tenet is what keeps parliamentary governments accountable. Remember Ambedkar's point in the Constituent Assembly about picking between "responsible" versus "stable" governments. He said having both was impossible. By fixing the term of elections, India would end up with governments guaranteed to last their five-year term, without much in the name of accountability. Poor governance and corruption would only get worse.
Holding elections frequently should be our strength. We have made it our weakness by not having a good system of separating the Centre from states.
NITI Aayog and others have suggested ways around this fundamental principle. One proposal requires that a no-confidence motion must also mention the next PM or CM. But given all the shenanigans we have seen in bringing down governments, there is no guarantee that there would be any agreement. The people would end up with no government or a minority government. Another proposal is to copy a 2011 British Act which requires a two-thirds majority to kick a government out. This is also undemocratic, and it would also worsen the deal-making and corruption.
These proposals are only admissions of another major problem with synchronisation: it cannot be permanent. Not only that, this one-time synchronisation will only reduce the frequency of some elections. All other elections—local, panchayat, municipal, Rajya Sabha, presidential, etc.—will still go on as now.
The bottom line is that there is something odd about an electioneering country trying to reduce the number of elections. Is there anything more important than India's democracy? Holding elections frequently should be our strength. We have made it our weakness by not having a good system of separating the Centre from states. If each state elected its own government, and the Centre minded its own business, both governments would improve. That is the direction India must take.