Whether the Lok Sabha election is advanced to November/ December this year or held on schedule next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on combining it with as many State Assemblies as possible with a view to restoring simultaneous elections eventually. Simultaneous election was the norm during the first four General Elections since independence.
The premature dissolution of some State Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, dissolving the fifth Lok Sabha one year before its term ended and extending the term of the sixth Lok Sabha by one year derailed the practice of simultaneous elections. Putting it back on rails is a near impossible task.
After the five-year term of the ninth Lok Sabha ended, elections were held in three successive years ~ 1996, 1998 and 1999. It was a vicious cycle of elections and its impact on political stability and the economy stress, the fixed term for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. But the task of restoring simultaneous elections at this stage is almost impossible.
A recent report of Parliament’s standing committee on Law and Justice and Public Grievances, under the chairmanship of EM Sudershana Natchiappan of the Congress favoured simultaneous elections. As far back as 1999, Justice Jeevan Reddy, heading the Law Commission of India, suggested return to simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies. Former President Pranab Mukherjee endorsed the suggestion. It was taken up by BJP leader LK Advani in 2009, but nothing came of it. The BJP included it in its 2014 election manifesto.
During the recent governing council meeting of NITI Aayog , attended by Chief Ministers of 23 States and Union Cabinet Ministers, Prime Minister Modi sought fresh ideas to restore simultaneous election, keeping in mind financial savings and better utilisation of national resources. The Election Commission has expressed its preparedness to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies provided the Union government made available adequate number of EVMs with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines in time.
Simultaneous elections are desirable but not feasible. Constitutionally it is not possible to implement unless certain drastic changes are made for which all States should be on board, but they are not. Articles 83 (2) and 172 (1) of the Constitution dealing with tenures of the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies would have to be amended appropriately. The first BJP-led Union government of Atal Behari Vajpayee fell in just 13 days. What happens if a similar situation arises? Should all the simultaneously elected State Assemblies be dissolved together with the Lok Sabha? What would be its effect on the administration of the country?
Mr Modi’s frequently repeated slogan “one country, one election” overlooks the fact that India is a union of 29 States and the scattered Union Territories and has a federal structure. When elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly are clubbed together, there is a tendency on the part of the voter to cast his ballot for the same party for both the Centre and the State. An analysis of electoral data since 1999, for which Assembly-wise results of the Lok Sabha elections are available with the Election Commission, shows that in 77 per cent of the constituencies the winner was from the same political party. There is no empirical evidence to support the popular notion that the Indian voter is shrewd enough to distinguish the difference between voting for the Lok Sabha member and the Assembly member.
According to the ‘working draft’ prepared by the Law Commission of India, simultaneous elections can become a reality only if “the rigours of the antidefection law laid down in the 10th Schedule of the Constitution” are done away with. When a political party wants to move a motion of no-confidence in the government, members of its legislature should repose trust in an alternative government. Enacted by the 52nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1985, the anti-defection law provides for disqualification of members of Parliament or State Legislatures on the grounds of defection.
The Law Commission draft recommends addition of a section to Paragraph 2 (1) of the 10th Schedule to the effect that in case of deadlock in the formation of the government or instability because of defection or withdrawal of support by an alliance party in the formation of government, the provision of the 10th Schedule will not apply.
This is tantamount to repealing the 10th Schedule which had stood in good stead since it became law to curb the Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram culture that emanated from Haryana in the 1960s. More than 100 MLAs and about 25 MPs have been disqualified so far under this law. Repeal of the 10th Schedule will be an unmitigated political disaster and open the floodgates of horse-trading.
The working draft stipulates the leader of the majority party will be elected as Prime Minister or Chief Minister by the entire House or the Assembly for the sake of stability of the government.
Such a government will be lacking in the mandate of the people and will defeat the very basis of parliamentary democracy. If a government falls mid-term, the term of the new government would be for the remaining period only. An Assembly (except the Jammu and Kashmir Legislature) is elected for a period of five years. It can be dissolved only when the government is unable to carry on as per the provisions of the Constitution.
If the constitutional machinery breaks down in a State after simultaneous election and no alternative government can be formed, will the State be brought under President’s rule for the rest of its term? Before resorting to simultaneous elections, the Constitution, Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies will have to be amended suitably.
Without embarking on any of these, the Election Commission is preparing to hold Assembly elections in 19 States together with the coming Lok Sabha election. The remaining States can go to the polls along with the Lok Sabha in 2024 when the process of restoring simultaneous elections will be completed.
The cluster of 19 States to be synchronised with the coming Lok Sabha election includes Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal all which are due for Assembly election in 2021 only and are expected to forego at least two years of their term of office. With Assam under BJP rule, Jammu and Kashmir under President’s rule and the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu becoming a ‘client’ unit of the BJP, they will fall in line with the Centre’s dictat and are unlikely to pose any problem for Mr Modi’s per project.
The Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and the CPI-M in Kerala are not going to take it lying down. Given the insurmountable problems involved in synchronising elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, Mr Modi may have to contend with people going to the polls in one part of the country or the other every year unless he is thinking of ushering in a presidential form of government in India.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School