With the next Parliamentary elections due in 2019, preparations for the same have already started. While the timing of the elections is subject to multiple factors, including the Constitutional stipulations by the Election Commission of India (ECI), another important electoral issue has of late engaged the attention of policymakers and political observers. This relates to the conduct of simultaneous elections (SE) for the Lok Sabha and State 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 ‘One-Party- Rule’ both at the Centre and in the federating provinces across the country. And this may not do justice to our multi-splendoured diversity. Having a monolithic Government for the entire country, many apprehend, may make the ruling dispensation somewhat authoritarian and unaccountable to the electorate.
After all, holding elections at regular intervals keep the politicians and parties on their toes. The extant system ensures greater accountability vis-a-vis the proposal to conduct simultaneous elections which actually conjures the scenario of a single political party dominating the political scene. However, the champions brush the argument aside by terming it as nothing but wild conjecture.
Simultaneous elections are merely a means to save precious time and resources of the country. The move will still lend scope for reflection on societal pluralities at the hustings. The proposition also affords a more holistic outlook and freedom to policymakers. This can 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 simultaneous elections can save a fair amount of revenue ~ which is usually spent ~ on the conduct of multilevel elections at regular intervals. The money, thus saved, could be well utilized for development.. As per available records, a total of Rs 3870 crore were spent by the Government of India (GOI) on the conduct of 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 the conduct of these staggered elections almost every year could be hugely curtailed by holding the elections together. As of now, the funds required for the conduct of parliamentary and Assembly elections are provided by the Centre and State Governments concerned. The required expenditure for the conduct of 2019 Lok Sabha elections comes to around Rs 4500 crore. The amount can easily be shared between the Centre and States, thereby saving precious resources, time and energy for attending to more pressing needs of development.
Another major advantage of simultaneous elections relates to avoiding major disruption of public life because of frequent elections. The same negatively impacts and cripples the development 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 Central police forces ~ 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 broad-based debates and discussion.
However, the biggest hurdle will be reaching 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 jeopardizing the prospects of the regional parties. The latter visualize a distinct disadvantage in such elections which would be usually contested on national issues, thereby marginalizing 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.
Simultaneous elections to all State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament in 2019 seem impossible as the terms of most of the state legislatures will not expire around the same time. Partially, it could be called a simultaneous election involving Parliament and only few State Assemblies. As things stand now, many observers feel that, at most, 12 State Assemblies could be tagged to the forthcoming Parliamentary elections in 2019.
These states, inter alia, include Odisha, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana and Bihar. For many of these states, premature dissolution of State Assemblies will be required, but this should not be very difficult as they are ruled by likeminded political formations.
The Election Commission of India has recently ruled out the possibility of holding simultaneous elections 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 changes in the Constitution of India and the Representation of People Act, 1951. This is a prolonged process which is impossible to be executed before the scheduled time of the proposed elections to Parliament.
Many observers have also dwelt on the futility of such an exercise, given the complexity and character of the polity. Even if such an election is conducted, the reality would soon revert 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 Assemblies due to 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 regular and separate elections are, after all, not such a bad thing as is usually made out. First, the expenses on these elections create purchasing power in the economy thereby generating the multiplier effect by pushing the demand-supply chain. The plural character of our polity warrants such regular elections which ensure more accountability and sensitivity towards electoral needs. This also militates against societal dissonance and discord. Hopefully, the stakeholders will end the discourse sooner rather than later in the better interest of our polity.
The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, Government of West Bengal. The views are personal and not the Government’s.