OPINION | One Nation, One Election: Is Holding Simultaneous Polls Feasible in India?
Since the last time India witnessed simultaneous elections, a lot of changes with respect to trends and grounds have occurred in the political scenario.
Women show their voter identity cards as they stand in a queue before casting their votes during the first phase of the general elections, at a polling station in Agartala, Tripura. (Image: PTI)
The concept of ‘One Nation, One Election’ has stoked a debate in the country. This concept calls for a single election for state legislatives, Lok Sabha and Panchayats in a span of five years. The effect of such an idea has to be necessarily assessed with its degree of impact on the federal structure of India. It is supposed to bring a major reform in the electoral system and functioning of one of the largest democracies of the world. However, the complex and diverse political nature of our country poses a major challenge for adopting the system of simultaneous elections.
The Indian constitution calls India a ‘Union of states’ and the concept of federalism has divided legislative, executive and judiciary powers between the State and the Centre under Part XI. The constitution defines legislative powers separately between the Centre and the State, with three different lists — the state list, the union list and the concurrent list. Both levels of governments have their own jurisdiction to hold power, to make laws and execute them. The Election Commission is responsible for conducting union elections, whereas the state election commissions are responsible for holding state legislative and Panchayat/Municipal elections under Articles 324 and 243K of the Constitution respectively.
History and Culture of Elections In India
Our constitution is structured in a way that promotes simultaneous elections. Provisions for tenure of five years from the date of first sitting of Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies is mentioned under Article 83 (2) and 170 (1) respectively. Article 356 comes as an exception in case of dissolution or failure of constitutional machinery of a state.
This concept is not alien to our country as the first election after enforcement of constitution in 1952 was conducted simultaneously, and later the elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962 were also the same. The liquidation of fourth Lok Sabha brought an end to the process. Premature dissolutions and extensions of Lok Sabha and various state assemblies in past 40 years have ended the cycle of simultaneous elections. Within 15 years of the newly-formed democracy and establishment of an electoral system in India, the process automatically dissolved.
Since the last time our country witnessed simultaneous elections, a lot of changes with respect to trends and grounds have occurred in the political scenario. As the constitution lacks an explicit statement in favour of simultaneous elections, the rise of coalition governments and multi-party system has given rise to the existing electoral conditions of continuous elections.
The role of political parties is vital in discussing such changing scenarios. India needs electoral reforms and introduction of good practices in politics. Political parties are reluctant to change their attitude towards reforms such as transparency of income of political parties, involvement of different caste groups and women in active politics, measures for curbing corruption, refraining from playing caste or society divisive politics, etc.
Citizens remain highly dissatisfied with the choice of candidates and despite so many political parties in the fray, many voters prefer to choose NOTA. Decreasing voting percentage, specific wave of disturbance during elections and unending groundless political debates are also the concerns. This questions the social image of political parties and determines the interest of people.
The Election Commission has taken several steps constantly to ensure smooth functioning of the electoral conditions. Lowering of voting age from 21 years to 18 years, introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), rules and conditions for contesting candidates, voters’ awareness programs and voting awareness day, several prohibitions during elections (sale of liquor, holidays of employees, going unarmed to the booth etc), model code of conduct (MCC) etc. The Election Commission has largely emphasised on cleansing the electoral system by debarring criminals, empowering the EC by suggesting ways of appointment of EC and CEC, and make the electoral process more efficient in every possible way. The concept of ‘One Nation, One Election’ comes similarly as a recommendation.
Federalism is said to promote more efficiency in governance, be it politically and economically. For better stability and prosperity of the nation, it is necessary that federal structure exists. Division of power under union list, state list and concurrent list, existence of so many regional political parties and active political structures in each state shows that India has been a successful federal structure so far.
Also, it is different with its underlying sense of unity from all other existing federations across the globe. Simultaneous elections can be better understood with an insight of its pros and cons as well. Here are some disadvantages:
Advantage to national parties: Regional parties gather their state machinery for the state legislative elections, whereas national parties will gain more momentum with their power in every state.
National issues over regional ones: National issues may overpower the regional ones which are equally important to be looked upon. Submerging of regional stories with national issues may create havoc.
Federal structure would be disturbed: The party in power at the Centre may exercise such powers which may hamper the working of parties in power at state levels.
Shortage of staff and security: One election in all levels at a time would require large deployment of forces and resources together for secure and smooth functioning, which would be a big challenge. The ignited election mode would require high security. More than 24 lakh EVMs and VVPAT would be required to conduct elections together.
Disturbance in system of checks and balances: In a federal structure, the state governments and the central governments, especially when from opposite parties, check each other’s work and evaluate it. This competitive spirit may be curtailed and a lethargic attitude may crawl into working of these governments.
Reports from various committees and institutions have always spoken in favour of simultaneous elections. Here are the advantages which they highlight:
Saving time and energy: A lot of money and time is being spent on elections. The money could be put to better use. The focus of respective parties is on winning elections in different parts of the country rather than on actual governance. Violence, hate speeches and surcharged atmosphere can disturb the law and order situation.
Less promotion of individualism over nationalism: Parties, in order to win hearts near the time of elections, declare individualistic policies to lure the voters and not the nationalistic policies. The spirit of policy making gets hampered. Simultaneous elections would stop this.
Smaller role of corruption, casteism: Party funding would not be required again and again, which would reduce manipulative practices of the parties to raise money. Caste politics won’t be ignited every time elections are round the corner.
Model code of conduct (MCC): Political parties wouldn’t make unnecessary measures to win elections in the wake of MCC. Frequent imposition of MCC results in standstill of the government machinery, thus hindering development and policy implementation.
Increase in voting percentage: It has turned out in many researches that voters’ participation is motivated with simultaneous elections. Voting percentage is a serious concern.
People have clear opinions for choice on different levels of governments. During the general elections in 2014, people of Delhi showed a clear preference for a particular party. However, in the 2015 Delhi legislature elections, the wave was completely different for a state party.
Recommendations of Reports and Committees
The idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’ was suggested by the Election Commission in 1983.
“Commission is strongly of the view that a stage has come for evolving a system by convention, if it is not possible or feasible to bring about a legislation, under which the general elections to the House of the People and Legislative Assemblies of the States are held simultaneously.”
The main reason for drawing such conclusion was heavy expenditure on elections, deployment of forces affecting their normal course of duties, slowing down of administrative machinery throughout the country etc.
Later in 1999, Law Commission in its 170th report headed by BP Jeevan Reddy, suggested that India go back to the concept of simultaneous elections. It stated that this concept couldn’t be adapted overnight in the prevailing circumstances. Suggestion for inserting rule 198A in the Rule of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha for conducting confidence motion in alternative government as well as non-confidence motion in the current government simultaneously was provided.
The report has highlighted that even after the enforcement of Article 356 of the constitution, separate elections must be an exception and not a rule. Also, political parties at every level would have to co-operate for the same.
Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) in 2002 highlighted that amendments with respect to simultaneous elections could be done without disturbing the basic structure of the constitution. The 255th Law Commission report discussed amendment to Anti-Defection Law, which is an important subject with respect to simultaneous elections.
The 79th report presented by Rajya Sabha in December 2015, after consulting various political parties, organisations, individuals and experts, suggested various reforms and conducts. It held that the term of legislatures could not be extended, except during emergency, but elections of Lok Sabha/State Legislative Assemblies could be conducted six months earlier under Section 14 and 15 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. It also suggested conducting of elections in two phases where some state legislative elections are conducted for a shorter term to end their tenure with the tenure of Lok Sabha.
Recently, the Law Commission headed by B.S. Chouhan called 7 National and 59 regional/state parties for their response on the concept. It, however, failed to get consensus. The most recent draft report of the commission has been issued after hearing the views of various political parties, organisations and experts in favour and criticism of simultaneous elections. Keeping in mind the structure of the constitution, the draft suggests least possible amendments in the constitution and statutes. It has suggested amendment in Article 172 of the constitution and three options to synchronise elections of state assemblies with Lok Sabha.
The idea of holding simultaneous elections has been highlighted by NITI Ayog as well, which has called frequent elections a ‘fundamental problem’ in the electoral system. It has also discussed both the arguments.
The current Prime Minister and his party highlighted simultaneous elections in its manifesto. Also, the current and the former President of India have supported the concept.
Simultaneous elections carry an international perspective as well. This system has been carried forward in several parts of the world with ease under similar scenarios.
In South Africa, the national assembly, provincial legislatures and municipal council elections are held simultaneously in a cycle of five years. ‘Party list proportional representation’ is followed. In Sweden, parties are given seats according to the proportion of vote they achieved in the elections. County council and municipal council elections are held simultaneously. Belgium witnesses five different kinds of elections where European elections and federal elections are held every five years, coinciding with each other. In Indonesia, the presidential and legislative elections would be held simultaneously from 2019. They have made changes in their constitution, striking down some provisions as unconstitutional. The German constitution doesn’t allow removal of chancellor alone by bringing a no-confidence motion. They also have to agree on some replacement.
There are many more countries such as Bolivia, Philippines, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala etc. However, they all have presidential form of government where elections are held simultaneously along with legislative elections.
Need for Discussion
Various models have been suggested simultaneous elections in the above mentioned reports. These solutions need to be discussed to understand how simultaneous elections could be implemented in India.
It would be highly premature if a one-shift model is approached immediately. A complete shift at one time to conduct simultaneous elections may fail due to lack of experience, heavy expenditure at a single time and changing dynamics of politics. The preliminary level requires ground work and slower approach to attain the goal of simultaneous elections. The model for conducting two-phased simultaneous election is also suggested where some state assembly elections would conduct elections with Lok Sabha, while others would conduct elections in the mid-term of Lok Sabha. This suggestion comes along with suggestion of holding elections every 2.5 years till they become synchronised.
In another suggestion, the gap between the two phases is again suggested to be minimum to avoid further chaos. However, expenditure which may occur altogether has to be estimated. Such models should not exclude the inclusion of local self-government elections in the process. The idea of simultaneous elections includes it as well. The system of no confidence motion and the anti-defection laws also call for relaxation. It has been suggested that the party bringing no-confidence motion must also vote upon alternative, subsequently bringing a confidence motion. Relaxations must be provided in anti-defection laws to avoid hung parliaments.
It is true that the idea of simultaneous elections at present tends to create a specter of threat to federalism. However, we must not shy away from considering much needed reforms in our system. The nature of our constitution is flexible for the reason that amendments shall bring good governance and strength to democracy. Major challenges and dynamic changes may have to be adapted to bring required consistency for an empowered federalism. It is not just about elections but good governance because ballots are more powerful than bullets.
(The author is a research fellow at Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra, a Delhi-based think-tank)
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