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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Simultaneous Elections: How Practicable ?

Sunday 23 December 2018

by Saumitra Mohan

With the next parliamentary elections due in 2019, preparations for the same have already commenced. While the timing of the ensuing elections is subject to the consideration of multiple factors including relevant constitutional stipulations by the Election Commission of India (ECI), another important electoral issue has lately been engaging the attention of the policy-makers and political observers. This relates to the conduct of simultaneous elections (SE) for the Lok Sabha (the House of People) and the various Vidhan Sabhas (provincial Legislative Assemblies). A very intense and keen debate has been raging in the country regarding the advisability of the same for quite some time now.

Various arguments have been advanced for and against the proposal. Many critics have termed the proposition as a chimera without any practicability. They feel that such a move, if at all realised, would actually compromise the plural character of Indian society by encouraging and propping a ‘One-Party-Rule’ both at the Centre and in the federating provinces across the country which may not do justice to our multi-splendoured diversity. Having a monolithic government for the whole country, many apprehend, may make the ruling dispensation somewhat authoritarian and unaccountable to the electorate.

After all, having elections at regular intervals across the country keep the politicians and the political parties on their toes while also keeping them on the leash. The extant system ensures more accountability vis-a-vis the proposed idea of having SE which actually conjures the scenario of a single political party dominating the political scene across the country. However, the champions brush the argument aside by terming it nothing but a wild conjecture.

SE are merely a means to save the precious time and resources of the country. The move would still give scope for reflection of societal pluralities at the hustings. The proposition also affords a more holistic outlook and freedom to the policy-makers which would facilitate more effective policy-making. The government in power shall actually be unencumbered by the imperatives of electoral politics which often compromises its autonomy and encourages prodigal populism for wooing the voters due to the uncertainties stemming from frequent elections.

It has been suggested that holding SE would save the country plenty of revenue which is usually spent on the conduct of multilevel elections at regular intervals. The money, thus saved, could be well utilised for the purpose of developing our country. As per available records, a total of 3870 crore rupees were spent by the Government of India (GOI) on the conduct of the parliamentary elections in 2014. The same was conducted at 2.3 lakh polling stations across the country with the assistance of 1349 companies of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and 1.11 crore polling personnel.

The massive expenditure, manpower and logistics required for conduct of these staggered elections almost every year for the various Legislative Assemblies and Parliament could be hugely pruned by holding of the SE. As of now, the finances required for the conduct of Parliament and Legislative Assembly elections are provided by GOI and concerned State governments respectively. The required ballpark expenditure for the conduct of 2019 Parliament elections come to around Rs 4500 crores which could be easily shared among the Central and State governments, thereby saving precious resources, time and energy for attending to more pressing developmental needs.

Another major suggested advantage of SE relates to the avoidance of major disruption of common public life because of the conduct of frequent elections. The same negatively impacts and cripples the developmental process and policy-making because of the prolonged imposition of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). This also compromises national security because of the regular deployment of the CAPFs away from their core areas. The intense political battles, as fought regularly due to these elections, also keep the political pot boiling. The ensuing internecine parochial politics and politicking based on caste, religion, language and region often compromise the societal consolidation and national integrity. The advocates, however, argue to the contrary saying the move actually consolidates and strengthens national unity because of the emerging ‘national feeling’ and harmony due to broadbased debates and discussion.

However, the biggest hurdle for undertaking such an exercise shall be the reaching of a consensus by all the stakeholders including the national and regional political parties. As of now, most of the major political parties have opposed the idea on one or the other ground. It is feared that such an exercise shall actually benefit the national political parties while jeopardising the prospects of the regional parties. The latter visualise a distinct disadvantage in such elections as SE would be usually contested on national issues, thereby marginalising the local issues and compromising the electoral prospects of smaller parties. Surprisingly, even many national parties are averse to the idea because of their own political calculations.

Again, SE for all the State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament in 2019 seem impossible as the terms of most of the State Assemblies don’t expire around the time the Parliament elections are proposed to be held. So, anyhow it shall be partial SE involving Parliament and only few State Legislative Assemblies. As things stand now, many observers feel that, at most, 12 State Legislative Assemblies could be tagged to the forthcoming Parliament elections in 2019. These States, inter alia, include Odisha, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana and Bihar. For many of these States, premature dissolution of State Assemblies shall be required but the same should not be very difficult as they are ruled by likeminded political formations.

Notwithstanding all the foregoing discussion, the Election Commission of India has recently ruled out firmly the possibility of holding SE in 2019 because of legal imponderables. It has said that the proposition is an impossibility given the absence of the required legal framework. The changes required for realising the idea include the introduction of relevant changes in the Constitution of India and the Representation of People Act, 1951. The same is a very long drawn process which is impossible to be realised before the scheduled time of the proposed elections to Parliament.

Many of the observers have also pointed to the futility of such an exercise, given the complexity and character of the Indian polity. Even though we conduct such an SE, the reality would soon revert back to the present situation as it is unlikely to ensure that all the Central and State governments would survive their full term. Sooner or later, one or the other State Government shall witness a premature dissolution of the State Assemblies due to the emergent political complexities, thereby warranting the conduct of separate elections. In a country as large as India, the practicality of such a proposition remains doubtful.

Besides, many observers also feel that the regular and separate elections are, after all, not such a bad thing as is usually made out. Firstly, the expenses on these elections create purchasing power in the economy thereby generating a multiplier effect by pushing the demand-supply chain. The plural character of our polity warrants such regular elections which ensure more accountability and sensitivity to the electoral needs. This also wards against societal dissonance and discord. One just feels that all the stakeholders shall soon sit together to seal the debate sooner than later in the better interest of our polity.

Dr Saumitra Mohan is an IAS officer, presently working as the Commissioner of School Education, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed here are personal and don’t reflect those of the government.

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