On 5 October 2017, speaking in Bhopal, Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat declared willingness and readiness of the Election Commission of India (ECI) for holding the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly (31 in all) elections simultaneously by next year. The government had sought a response from the ECI on the issue to which it agreed, indicating that it would require a prior notice to make preparations for the gigantic task and all the political parties would need to be on board for this. In fact, the ECI, he said, had already placed orders for around 4 million EVMs and VVPATs at the cost of around 154 billion to be delivered by September 2018.
In fact, this is not a sudden development. Simultaneous elections at the two levels had found a place in BJP’s 2014 election manifesto. Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed this up as one of his pet projects since his electoral victory. A parliamentary standing committee recommended a move in this direction in December 2015. It felt that by streamlining elections into two phases – one concurrent with Lok Sabha elections, the second in the mid-term of the Lok Sabha, it was possible to hold simultaneous elections at the two levels. It considered such a reform ‘important for India’ to focus on the country’s development agenda to compete with other nations. In March 2016, Narendra Modi told party workers that he supported the idea in order to give them more time for grassroots ‘social work’.
The ECI was asked by the Ministry of Law and Justice in 2015 about the feasibility of the proposal. Responding positively to it in May 2016 the Commission asked for funds, time and framework. Obviously, it would require the government to take a decision on this, but the ECI appears to have prepared itself for the eventuality with a little nudge from the government.
Former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, who published a book titled An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election in 2014, had earlier called the idea ‘good but with very low practicality’. He pointed out that it would need a constitutional amendment and then, the terms of state assemblies would need to be reduced or extended, which would need consensus. He still feels that the idea is a ‘doable’ one, though the number of machines would have to be doubled.
Obviously, like many of his ideas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued consolidation of the electoral process in the country since he won an unprecedented victory for his party in the 2014 general election. Systematically, he has pursued shaping of the idea through the PMO, to parliamentary committee, to NITI Aayog to the ECI. Even before the ECI came on board, the NITI Aayog was asked to prepare a blue print. On his nudge and following recent NITI Aayog consultations, a push for this is expected. However, the following questions need comprehensions to make the electoral process simultaneous – (i) How and why the electoral process were fragmented over the years? (ii) What does it mean to ‘simultaneousize’ the electoral process constitutionally, politically and operationally? (iii) Can ‘simultaneity’ be justified while ensuring the constitutionality of India’s democratic process?
How the Two Levels Separated
The fragmentation of the electoral process in India began soon after the fourth general election in 1967 that, with a hindsight, was the beginning of the decline of the Congress and fracturing of the party system. Indira Gandhi broke the simultaneity of elections since 1971 to effectively neutralize the satraps in the Congress. The real decline of the Congress happened between 1989 and 1996, but the party system, once characterized as one-party-dominant system and the Congress system was theorized as one-party inhering alternation, governance and opposition functions, aside from the existence of several ideologically diverse dynamic parties. The fracture caused instability in 1977-80, 1989-90, and 1996-99, till a federalized coalition system emerged as a bipolar/binodal configuration around the Congress and the BJP between 1999 and 2014. An absolute majority for the BJP in the sixteenth general election and a two-thirds majority for the National Democratic Alliance it leads, along with pulverization of the Congress (44 seats), created a new dynamic majority party coalition vis-à-vis the opposition contracted within one-third.
After the 1967 elections, thus, for the first-time unstable coalition governments in states began falling midway, causing midterm elections frequently till 1971, when the Fourth Lok Sabha was dissolved a year before completion of its term and the rupture in simultaneous elections was complete. In 1972, Indira Gandhi dissolved and reelected eighteen Legislative Assemblies. The extension of the Lok Sabha for a year (1975-76), the dissolution of the state assemblies by the Morarji government in 1978, Indira Gandhi returning the compliment in 1980, only intensified it. The following years witnessed an increasing disjuncture and scattering of the election process as fracturing of the party system intensified since 1989; state/regional parties proliferated, consolidating in their strangleholds and extending their stakes in New Delhi as they coalesced with national formations.
Elections in India have thus become an annual and year-round ‘event management’, a continual exercise the largest in scale anywhere in the world. With the local bodies elections across the country factored in, the scenario looks further accentuated. No wonder, various committees and commissions have recommended quest for a methodology for ‘simultaneousizing’ the process. The 170th report (1999) of the Law Commission of India suggested comprehensive political, institutional and electoral reforms along with measures to ‘achieve the desired goal of one election for Lok Sabha and to all the Legislative Assemblies simultaneously.’
A New Proposal
A recent detailed note circulated by the NITI Aayog, and discussed with various ‘stakeholders’, argues for ‘one nation one election’. It considers, with data to support its arguments, the plusses and minuses of the current and proposed scenarios. It argues that since in the parliamentary system the legislative bodies do not have a fixed tenure (a dubious argument), the two sets of elections can be synchronized in two phases between 2019 seventeenth general election and the midterm of the seventeenth Lok Sabha in 2021 by extending or curtailing the tenure of the elected legislative assemblies. In case of a midterm dissolution of the Lok Sabha, the remainder term, if not long (specified) ‘there could be a provision for the President to carry out the administration of the country, on the aid and advice of his Council of Ministers to be appointed by him till, the time the next House is constituted at the prescribed time’.
While this deserves a debate as it would require a major constitutional change, the simultaneity argument too needs to be examined in the larger perspective of political and institutional reforms. Beginning with the possibility of a before-term Lok Sabha dissolution and the President taking over the reins for a less than six-month term, we need to tread cautiously while peeping into the minds of the Constituent Assembly. There were two strands of this debate, both regarding situating the President of India in the embryonic Indian republic. Election through an electoral college was preferred over direct election to craft the Head of state on the lines of the British monarch. Importantly, Article 54 dealing with the presidential powers was drafted to situate the President symbolically on the lines of the monarch in the British Cabinet system. The question of the President working as the chief executive in the manner of the US President, suggested in the NITI paper, was not considered suitable for India. To consider that eventuality even for a short duration just to simultaneousize elections, does not stand to any logic or principle of governance.
The Law Commission’s 170th Report quoted to justify the NITI’s proposals, deservers a consideration in its entirety. A comprehensive treatise on political and electoral reforms, it lays greater emphasis on the reform of the party system in the perspective of the proliferation and weakening of the parties and deinstitutionalization of the party system in India. Anomalies in party funding and its impact on the electoral and political processes is highlighted and streamlining is suggested. If undertaken, these would strengthen the party system and remove the causative factors leading to instability.
The major issue in any case is the possibility of an unstable government due to weaknesses in the party system and indifferent organisational-institutional strength of the parties in the system that leads to fragmented mandate, unstable legislatures and governments. Veteran scholar-journalist Pran Chopra suggested in 1999 that ‘simultaneous votes of no-confidence in the incumbent and confidence in the alternative’ would be ‘much safer’ and ‘would eliminate the need for a mid-term poll.’ Obviously, if the political reforms and institutionalisation of the party system is initiated by this government with active support and participation of the Election Commission of India, the number of elections would certainly be reduced. In the interim, instead of the complex road-roller system proposed, elections to the Legislative Assemblies each year, as also to the Lok Sabha in the year it falls, could be clubbed, making the process annual. Slowly, but surely, simultaneity would emerge with stability in the system.
The pertinent question is as to what has prompted PM Modi and the BJP to push for simultaneous election in full throttle? The answers could be surmised with international and Indian experiences, for the government’s ‘difficult-to-believe’ rationale is economics of elections, time management, better coordination and governance. Let us begin with international experience.
Available evidence across the world, particularly from countries such as the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Germany, the US and Europe suggest that simultaneous elections yield more aligned results between national and regional elections. Simultaneous elections also appear to contribute over time to the nationalisation of party systems and bring greater cohesion in them. However, a contrary evidence of results from simultaneous elections has emerged from Ukraine during 2000, where differences persisted at the two levels.
However, the earlier evidence, combined with that of India in the 1950s and 1960s do not lead to any concrete conclusions. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when the election process began, the Congress had an edge as the ‘epochal’ party in Duvergian sense. Hence, to draw any conclusion of any cohesion or the party gaining any strength due to simultaneous elections would be erroneous. However, despite the Congress, or the Congress system as Rajni Kothari conceptualised it, Kerala and Orissa (later Odisha) broke the simultaneity in the early 1960s itself. In fact, Kerala has been out of the simultaneous process quite frequently before the simultaneity broke after the fourth general election in 1967 and in 1971 decisively. This rupture was due to the dynamics of the country’s politics of that era. Though, political actors were indeed involved.
This lead to some pertinent questions, which the supporters of the simultaneity must answer. First, in country as diverse and dynamic such as India, and in a society as plural and boisterous as India, can electoral process and politics be mechanised? Was it not India’s diverse dynamism that led to scattering of the electoral process? Isn’t it true that repeated appeals during the Congress era to give synchronized same party governments at the Centre and States did not necessarily result in fruitful policy outcomes? Can it be ensured that in an artificially synchronized simultaneity, people would not look differently at the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections? How would people decisively conclude that policy decisions at the exalted national level is giving them better results at the state level as well? There many more questions, but the push from the BJP at the moment is hard and no one is in a mood to look at the evidence available.
The electoral accountability chain in India’s federal politics is complicated and complex. It is not always that a voter can easily disentangle the level of government responsible for a particular policy initiative. Even if the federal government blocks a state policy, or in a coalition scenario a satrap or state party blocks a federal policy initiative, the voter is unlikely to make out. If a state government does not give the right push to a centrally sponsored scheme, it would be difficult to convince the voters that the scheme was good but the different-party state government was tardy. This has happened in the case of MGNREGA or PDS.
Prime Minister Modi scrapped the Planning Commission because it was centralising and was killing state autonomy and initiatives in economic planning. With the proposed artificial mechanism for simultaneous election he is attempting to impose a highly improbable same party centralising governance.
(The writer is Director [Honorary], Centre for Public Affairs, Noida, UP)
By Ajay K. Mehra