Frequent elections impose enormous social and economic costs on the nation, which leads to corruption and disruption
The Union Government has set up a committee under the chairmanship of the former President of India, Ramnath Govind to examine holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha (LS), state assemblies, panchayats and other local bodies. Even as the committee has kicked off the deliberations (its first meeting is scheduled for September 23, 2023) the idea is being staunchly opposed by many political parties. The opposition isn’t new as in 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a meeting on June 19 that year to discuss ‘One Nation, One Election’ (ONOE), it was boycotted by about 50 per cent of the parties who were invited.
What are the grounds for opposition?
A major ground for their opposition is that this will be an onslaught on the federal polity. hence, unconstitutional. The parties argue that in a scenario of simultaneous poll to both the LS and all the state assemblies, the national issues will dominate over the state-specific subjects. This may yield fortuitous benefits to the dominant national party as the voter won’t be able to clearly articulate his/her choice while casting a vote for electing members of the assembly.
The national party getting a clear majority in the LS who does not enjoy the confidence of the state subjects on local issues will thus get to rule the states as well. Most opposition parties fear that BJP which enjoys a clear edge at the national level will be able to install its governments across the country. This will violate the federal character of the constitution which envisages running the affairs of the state in sync with local needs and aspirations.
The above line of argument is completely flawed. It presumes that while voting at the same time for the Parliament and the Assembly, the choice of the voter will get obliterated to favour the dominant national party (read: BJP). How could a mere act of asking her to press the button for choosing candidates for two entirely different elections - one for the LS and the other for the state Assembly - around the same time lead to obliteration? It grossly underestimates the ability of the voter to make ‘educated’ and ‘informed’ choices on national and local issues. That this isn’t the case; that the voter is intelligent enough to make the right choice is amply corroborated by the results of LS polls in 2019 when elections to some State Assemblies, viz Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, were held co-terminus.
Despite an overriding national narrative favouring Prime Minister Modi, voters in these States showed clear preference for regional parties, namely the YSR Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, who got an absolute majority in the assembly. Just because the voters exercised franchise at the same time for both the LS and the State did not deter them from giving overriding importance to local issues. The fallacy of the opposition’s argument may be seen from another angle.
In the above example, apart from securing a clear majority in the state Assembly, the YSR Congress and the Biju Janata Dal also cornered a major chunk of seats from the state in the LS. Now, if one were to believe opposition that voters’ choice gets distorted (courtesy, the same timing) then are we to say ‘local issues are dominating over the national issues’?
The crux of the matter is: that the voter is intelligent enough to make a distinction. While voting for a candidate in the LS election, she is guided by national issues whereas, in the Assembly election local issues dominate her mind. She won’t mix up things just because she has to press the relevant buttons around the same time. There is nothing unconstitutional in holding simultaneous elections.
The founding fathers of the Indian constitution had contemplated simultaneous elections only. Indeed, things were on the right track till the mid-60s, when the then ruling dispensation disturbed the apple-cart by the ‘premature’ dissolution of some state assemblies (1968/1969) and LS (1970). Over time, the mismatch got aggravated with the dissolution of many more assemblies. If, during the initial phase (from 1952 to 1967) when elections to both the LS and state assemblies were held concurrently, everything was hunky dory, how come now, restoration of that very dispensation be construed as an assault on federalism.
The existing system wherein a State Assembly goes to polls almost every other year imposes unprecedented social and economic costs on the nation. It is not just the official expense of conducting elections (in a big state like Maharashtra, it can go up to Rs 1,000 crores) but also several thousand crores being spent by political parties. In turn, this gives a boost to corruption and other unethical practices even as parties seek to raise funds to support the mammoth expenditure.
Then, there is a continuous distraction from issues of governance even as the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) - each time an election exercise is taken up - leads to the stoppage of all major policy decisions that impede development work. The delay in project implementation and resulting cost escalation (a case in point, the delay in completion of the dedicated freight corridor’ project) imposes an unsustainable fiscal burden.
A third indeed the most devastating impact has to do with almost every political party promising more and more sops to win elections. After the five guarantees promised by the grand old party in Karnataka did the trick, it is giving guarantees in almost all state elections due this year. Others such as AAP are following suit. Such sops have the potential of denuding the state exchequer.
Finally, given the political parties in election mode year after year, no incumbent Government at the Centre has the gumption to implement hard reforms, particularly considering that the party at the helm has stakes in the states as well. A case in point is fertilizer subsidy which the then finance minister Arun Jaitley promised to prune drastically; yet fertiliser subsidy not only continues but has increased by leaps and bounds (during 2022-23, it was Rs 255,000 crore). To end these maladies, the subsisting system has to go and the ONOE restored in sync with the intent of the authors of the Indian Constitution. This will enable both the Centre and States to focus on governance for a full five years without any distraction. This will help save thousands of crores in election expenses, ensure continuity of policy decisions enabling unhindered project execution and development work, drastically curtail election-oriented populist sops and give a boost to the implementation of hard reforms. Opposition parties have pointed towards uncertainties that could arise if the ruling party loses the vote of confidence before its mandated term. But they need to recognise that this can at best be a rare situation and not a matter of routine (the public gives a mandate to a government to run its full-term and all stakeholders should ensure that this is honoured). Still, such a scenario (albeit rare) can be addressed by either electing a new leader (who enjoys the confidence of the House) or holding a fresh election for the “residual” term.
Apart from required constitutional amendments, the switchover to ONOE will entail some increase in expenses on procuring extra EVM and VVPAT. But that is a very small price for achieving monumental socio-economic gains.
(The writer is a policy analyst)