Co-authored with Shruti Kedia
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently mooted the idea of evolving a method for holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously. Primarily two reasons stand out in favour of this electoral reform. With parties in perpetual election mode, the imposition of model code of conduct severely affects the delivery of development schemes, which leads to "administrative lethargy and issues."
PM Modi might also be right when he argues that simultaneous elections are bound to reduce the overall expenditure of conducting polls. Interestingly, he even goes on to suggest that party workers seldom have the time to involve themselves in developmental activities as they are busy with some election or the other and this reform would change the status quo.
[T]he idea of simultaneous elections clearly goes against the constitutional structure of the Indian parliamentary system.
However, ideal as this reform may sound, the devil lies in the details. At this juncture, it is bound to work only on paper and its implementation would go against the fabric of our democracy, leading to confusion and a chaotic election season.
Constitutionally not feasible
For starters, the idea of simultaneous elections clearly goes against the constitutional structure of the Indian parliamentary system. The Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in its report stated:
"In India, the Executive derives its legitimacy from the legislature and remains in power as long as it enjoys the confidence of the latter."
The ruling party in power enjoys its status as long as it has the support of a majority of elected representatives. Hence, in the case of a fallout by the passage of a 'no-confidence' vote, the rebel elected representatives can vote the ruling government out of power.
How can we possibly predict the fall of an elected government?
A classic example is the recent Uttarakhand government crisis where nine rebel Congress MLAs have withdrawn their support from the Harish Rawat-led Congress government. Fragmented verdicts or unstable governments cannot be avoided in any democracy and India is no exception to this rule.
[T]he idea of mid-term polls is a contentious issue that will render the entire exercise of holding simultaneous elections futile.
Furthermore, in the case of a hung Assembly (as witnessed by Delhi in 2014), imposition of President's Rule is a temporary solution and it should not be extended for the full term of the Legislative Assembly. Moreover, in case of President's Rule, the ruling government will implement the central government's policy in the state, which essentially goes against the mandate of the people who voted for a state government based on a different set of promises as opposed to the central government.
The Lok Sabha has been no different. Of the 16 Lok Sabhas, as many as seven have witnessed premature dissolution. Simply put, the idea of mid-term polls is a contentious issue that will render the entire exercise of holding simultaneous elections futile.
Onus is on the Election Commission
The EC has a daunting task of carrying out free and fair elections, and despite various corrective mechanisms imposed by the EC, reports of hawala transactions, liquor and corruption continue to do the rounds every elections. In conducting simultaneous elections, the EC would require massive manpower for security purposes and managing multiple elections in several thousand poll booths.
In the past, former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) SY Quraishi had said:
"We had considered it but quickly decided it was not feasible... If we keep fixed tenures then we will be going against the spirit of democracy, and one party will be able to run like a dictator for five years."
In conducting simultaneous elections, the EC would require massive manpower for security purposes and managing multiple elections in several thousand poll booths.
In 1999, another veteran CEC James Lyngdoh had said that due to security reasons, simultaneous elections cannot be held. Holding simultaneous elections would prove to be an expensive and difficult affair for the Election Commission. A statement issued by the Election Commission noted:
"For conducting simultaneous elections, the Commission expects that a total of Rs 9,284.15 crore will be needed for procurement of EVMs and VVPATs. The machines would also need to be replaced every 15 years which would again entail expenditure. Further, storing these machines would increase the warehousing cost."
Manpower and security aren't the only foreseen logistical challenges. For simultaneous elections to be conducted, both the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies should be given a fixed term. Fixed dates of election and counting should also be announced in advance. However, it's this fixation that is problematic.
As the AIADMK rightly states in the Parliamentary Standing Committee deposition:
"[W]hile adjusting the residual time period of the existing State Assemblies which are currently not coterminous with the Lok Sabha, will the terms of these Assemblies be extended or cut short?"
Look beyond political gains
Elections, be it Legislative Assemblies, Zila Parishad or Nagar Panchayat, are a means by which the electorate and rival political parties keep a check on the ruling government. Multiple elections at various governance levels ensure that no party gets complacent and are consistently kept on their toes.
What we need are not a set of big bang measures but a bunch of smaller and more feasible electoral reforms that we can slowly build upon.
While the BJP could garner 73 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections riding on the Modi wave in Uttar Pradesh, if elections are to be held today, several pollsters predict that the BJP might not be able to secure even 73 Vidhan Sabha seats, as the mood of the state has changed completely. The same was observed in Bihar where the BJP took a massive beating.
All said and done, we must not completely dismiss this measure as wholly unworkable. Unfortunately, at this juncture in Indian polity, it is a reform far ahead of its time. In 2015, the Economic Survey had argued that what India needed was not a set of "big bang economic reforms." Instead the survey argued that an approach comprising "a persistent, encompassing, and creative incrementalism" would be far more desirable and feasible. The very same idea is applicable to the debate on electoral reforms. What we need are not a set of big bang measures but a bunch of smaller and more feasible electoral reforms that we can slowly build upon.
Focus on reforming parallel institutions and curbing malpractices such as paid news, hawala, increasing use of money, muscle and mafia should be the main priority. State funding of election has proved to be successful in several European nations and deserves a thorough relook in India. Without any discussion on any of these pertinent issues, any move towards adoption of simultaneous elections will prove to be a futile exercise. The Prime Minister deserves praise for igniting the debate on electoral reforms. However, this time around, he seems to have barked up the wrong tree.
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