Indian constitutional forefathers have adopted the parliamentary form of democracy after India became an independent country in 1947. India as a nation of teeming millions has also taken a bold step of adopting universal adult suffrage when experts were debating about India’s survival as a nation. This one ‘right to vote’ given to Indians shows the faith of our constitutional forefathers in the capacity of Indian voters when India was poor third world country with low literacy and abysmal development and growth in the economy. This faith is still visible in India’s election processes, as Indian general election is the largest event management exercise on earth during peace times.
The Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950. The first general elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously in 1951-1952. In fact, this practice of simultaneous elections continued till 1967 when due to premature dissolution of State Legislative Assemblies the cycle of the synchronized elections got disrupted. In 1970, the fourth Lok Sabha got dissolved prematurely. And fifth Lok Sabha term was extended till 1977 due to emergency provisions under Article 352 of the Constitution of India. Since then the dissolution of the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies is the order of the day due to the fragmented political system, the emergence of regional parties and indiscriminate use of the power under Article 356 which gives power to the President to declare President’s rule in any state on various grounds. Though after the Supreme Court Judgement in S. R. Bommai vs. Union of India case, the arbitrary use of the Article has come down. The Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Lok Sabha was dissolved before the end of the term of their respective Lok Sabha. Due to this, the cycle of simultaneous elections got disrupted in the Indian polity for last 48 years.
Simultaneous elections mean a restructuring of the Indian election cycle in a manner that the General Elections for the House of people and the Assembly elections for State Legislative Assemblies are conducted simultaneously. In such condition, voters will cast their vote on a single day and at the same time for electing the members of Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies.
Recently, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched for the debate to conduct simultaneous elections at various platforms. In fact, the President of India Ram Nath Kovind in his first address to parliament this year advocated for simultaneous elections and remarked that a sustained debate is required on the subject of simultaneous elections. Election Commission, Law Commission of India, NITI Aayog and Parliamentary Standing Committee has favored the conduct of simultaneous elections of the House of the people and the State Assemblies. The analysis from the NITI Aayog report and the discussion conducted on the MyGov website provides enough evidence to conduct simultaneous to improve governance process and reduce the election fatigue in the country.
WHY DO WE NEED SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS?
India is a world’s largest democracy in the world due to its electoral size as well as subcontinental dimensions. It is the largest peacetime mobilization of the people in the world. Commenting on the size and scale of Indian elections, the Strategic Plan 2016-2025 published by Election commission of India mentions,
“The magnitude and complexity of the Indian election can be estimated from the fact that the Indian elections are not only the largest exercise in logistics in the world but are also considered as one of the most credible elections in the world. India, in fact, accounts for the largest share of electors in any country, exceeding the total number of electors in the entire American continent, or even that of the entire African continent or that of all the European nations put together”.It shows the complexity of election process. However, the independent election commission along with other organizations are doing the humongous job of conducting the election process in free and fair manner. Despite that, Indian election process is fart with a number of challenges. The scope of this paper is to focus on the challenges created by the frequent elections and their overall impact on the polity, economy, and society of the country.
If we take the example of the period March 2014 to May 2016, then as per the Election Commission data, there were 15 State Assembly elections were conducted along with the elections for the 16th Lok Sabha. If we add the elections conducted in the third tier of the Government i.e. the Panchayati Raj Institutions and Municipalities, bye-elections, the number of elections conducted in one year will increase substantially. To manage this situation and reduce the burden on the exchequer, the idea of simultaneous elections was propounded by various political parties as well as the reports of various institutions. 170th Report of the Law Commission of India headed by Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy, “the holding of a separate election to a Legislative Assembly should be an exception and not the rule. The rule ought to be one election once in five years for Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies”. In December 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Department of Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice has also supported the idea and given an alternative of holding the elections in two phases. It stated that elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the midterm of the Lok Sabha and elections to the remaining assemblies could be held with the end of the Lok Sabha term. It has also given recommendations for fixing the schedule of the bye-elections.
NITI Aayog report has analyzed the whole issue extensively and recommended for holding simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. The recent India Action Plan- Three Year Action Agenda (2017-2020) also supported the idea of synchronized two-phase elections from the 2024 election to the Lok Sabha.
In fact, Election Commission of India also supported the conduct of simultaneous elections on various platforms. President of India has also supported the idea of simultaneous elections and said, “With some election or the other throughout the year, normal activities of the government come to a standstill because of the code of conduct. This is an idea the political leadership should think of. If political parties collectively think, we can change it… The Election Commission can also put in their idea and efforts on holding the polls together and that will be highly beneficial”. After this debate, Government of India has come out with five questions on the MyGov website to ascertain the views of the public and create a debate and discussion on this idea in public forum. People have aired their views freely in support of conducting simultaneous elections. In fact, they have narrated their ordeals of suffering due to deadlock in administration at the time of elections as well as disturbances of noise pollution, traffic jams etc. on the website. It can be seen as the anecdotal evidence to prove that the substantial number of people are in favor of conducting simultaneous elections.
Therefore, there is need to understand the profound implication of the frequent elections happening in our country. It can be seen on the below points:
- Impact on the Political and Administrative functioning of the government: Whenever any elections are conducted in our country, Election Commission enforces the Model Code of Conduct(MCC) to maintain a free and fair environment for the election process. It is imposed from the date of announcement of the election schedule by the Election Commission and is in force till the whole election process is completed. During this period parties in power as well as other political parties are not allowed to announce welfare schemes or development projects throughout India if it is a General Election. In fact, even during the Assembly election, the Central Government can’t take any decision related to that particular state.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee has articulated this problem stating that, “…The imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) puts on hold the entire development program and activities of the Union and State Governments in the poll-bound State. It even affects the normal governance. Frequent elections lead to the imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time. This often leads to policy paralysis and governance deficit”. If we just take the year of 2014, the governance activities were suspended around 7months. If we assume that number of the average period of operation of Model Code of Conduct as 2 months during the State Assembly elections, the analysis in the below graph shows that at least for four months every year, the government functioning, as well as development works, will be suspended due the imposition of Model Code of Conduct.
- Economic and financial impact of the frequent elections: Fighting elections and conducting elections create huge expenditure not only on the government machinery but also for all the political parties and their candidates. The management and the conduct of the elections create a severe strain on the economic and fiscal budget of the Government of India as well as the various state governments. In fact, this is also the reason behind the generation of black money and corruption. Dr. S. Y. Qureshi in one conference remarked, “…. elections have become the root cause of corruption in the country”. He further mentioned that “…. after winning elections, the politician-bureaucrat nexus indulges in “recovering the investment” and that is where corruption begins”. As per the news report, the expenditure on the General elections 2014 was the highest ever around 3500 cr. Therefore, conducting simultaneous elections will help in saving the precious tax money and increase the fiscal space which can be used for the development activities.
- The social impact of the frequent elections: Frequent elections disrupt the normal life of common citizens as can be ascertained from the responses on the MyGov website. Since normal functioning of the government is on standstill and officials are busy in the management of elections, normal people wait for the completion of the election process to take forward their essential activities. School teachers are deployed for the election duty which impacts the quality and quantity of the education provided to the children. Not only this, frequent elections perpetuate the feeling of casteism, communalism, and religious biases.
Therefore, there is a strong basis and need to synchronize the elections of Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies.
CRITICISM AND COUNTER ARGUMENTS
The idea of simultaneous elections is also criticized by various political parties, constitutional experts as well as various other stakeholders. The key criticism can be seen in the following points:
- There are various logistic and operational challenges present in conducting the simultaneous elections in India because of its sheer number of electorates and sub-continental size and diversity of Indian polity. It is very difficult to comment on the capacity and capability of institutions which manage the election process in India. If they are still successful in doing it, they will be successful in the coming future. Regarding operational challenges implementing this idea presently, there is need to create consensus among all political parties to debate and come out the feasible proposals and subsequent constitutional amendments.
- Some think-tanks and experts like Indira Jaisingh are of the view that not all voters are highly educated. They do not know whether they are voting for the Assembly or Parliament. It is not as simple as it seems. Indian voter is very matured and credible which can be seen in the track record of India’s voting pattern since the First General Election. In fact, the voting behavior depends on a range of parameters like incumbency, anti-incumbency, narrative dominance, political leadership, local and regional issues and other factors of caste, religion etc.
- Another strong criticism is that simultaneous elections would benefit national parties at the cost of state/regional parties in case of a “national wave in favor of large national parties”.This can’t be proved after seeing the General election of 2014 when there was a wave in favor of BJP government, despite that Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim voters chose for regional parties in their respective states with more percentage of votes.
- There is also a criticism that the simultaneous elections will weaken the federal structure in the country between Centre and States. However, it is premature to talk about this because the spirit of federalism has not come from anywhere rather the Constitution of India provides enough grounds for the principle of federalism in the Indian polity.
Successful experiments of Simultaneous Elections
South Africa held elections simultaneously for every five years for national and provincial legislatures and held municipal elections every two years. Sweden also held an election to its national legislature(Riksdag) and provincial legislature(landing) and local bodies(Kommunfullmaktige) on the fixed date on the second Sunday of September every four years. The UK also passed a Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011 to provide a sense of stability and predictability to the British Parliament and its tenure. It will provide some stability in the electoral process. In fact, the Parliamentary Standing Committee praises this experiment as a novel experiment which needs to be looked on. In fact, the US election, though it is a presidential system, works in proper fixed term form which creates stability in the functioning of the democracy of their country. There is no doubt these countries have a good track record in their democratic process except some hiccups as well as human development parameters.
Therefore, India should also synchronize the assembly and general elections to make our democratic process more stable and vibrant.
Indian democracy celebrates the festival of elections every year with a number of elections. Elections are the symbol of a vibrant democracy. However, the frequent elections create disturbances not only in the administration and political system but also in the normal life of the people of India. In fact, in the last 30 years, there has not been a single year without an election in our country. It leads to a number of unavoidable consequences which creates problems for the long-term growth and development of the country. In fact, India is on the cusp of change because of its huge demographic dividend[i] in the form of a window of opportunity. The governance processes also need to be transformed radically to satisfy the expectations of the youth in the country. To bring about rapid transformation[ii], India needs to bring about huge structural changes in the economy and public policy of the country. Frequent elections not only impose restrictions on the functioning of the governance process but also saps the energy and risk-taking capabilities of the government. Therefore, it is imperative to evolve a solution to stop these frequent elections cycle and move towards a stable system of simultaneous elections[iii].
Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy, 1999, ‘170th Report on the reform of Electoral Laws by Law Commission of India’.
Sarkaria Commission Report on Centre-State Relations (1988)
Supreme Court Judgement on S. R. Bomai vs. Union of India (1994)
Justice A. P. Shah, March 2015, ‘255th Report on the Electoral Reforms by Law Commission of India’.
Dr. E. M. Sudarshan Natchippan, December 2016, ‘79th Report on Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies by the Department related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice.
Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: What, Why and How’ by NITI Aayog.
Standing Committee Report Summary by PRS Legislative Research.
‘India Votes- The General Elections 2014’ by the Election Commission of India.
Priyanka Chaturvedi, 2016, ‘Idea good, but is it practical?’, Observer Research Foundation.
Hemant Sarin, 2016, ‘Simultaneous Elections to the Parliament and State Assemblies’, Live law.
Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar, 2016, ‘Constitutional Experts decry Modi’s call to Simultaneous Polls to Parliament and State Assemblies’, The Wire.
Venkaiah Naidu, 2016, ‘Breaking out of Election Mode’, The Hindu.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar and Sanjay Kumar, 2016, ‘The case against simultaneous polls’, The Hindu.
Kanishka Singh, 2017, ‘Merits and Demerits of simultaneous elections’, The Indian Express.
Dr. S. Y. Qureshi, 2016, ‘Holding Lok Sabha and Assembly polls together are desirable but not feasible’, The Quint.