Stage is set to get back to simultaneous elections

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Stage is set to get back to simultaneous elections

EC's declaration that by 2018 it will be in a position to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies has taken the logistics issue out of the debate. It’s for the Government to forge a political consensus

The proposal to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all the State Assemblies got a fresh impetus last week when the Election Commission declared that it would be ready, from a logistics point of view, to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies in the country by September 2018. The commission has said that it would need four million Electronic Voting Machines and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) devices to synchronise elections to Parliament and the State Assemblies and that these machines would be procured within a year.

The commission’s announcement puts logistics out of the way in so far as simultaneous elections are concerned. Now, the bigger issue is for the Government to forge a political consensus and bring in the necessary legislative measures to make this happen. Going by the nervous responses of some political parties, which are averse to having these elections concurrently, evolving a consensus is not going to be easy, but this idea needs to be aggressively pursued if we wish to cut costs on elections and curtail the damage that the vicious cycle of elections is doing to governance and development. 

The elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies were synchronised in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. Thereafter, the system got disrupted because of two reasons. First, the year 1967 saw the defeat of the Congress for the first time after independence in several States and the formation of rather unstable rag-tag coalition Governments like the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal in the north. These Governments were formed by disparate political parties which came on an anti-Congress platform, but once they achieved their electoral goal, they fell apart because there was nothing else that could hold them together.

Also, the Congress, which was in power at the Centre, resorted to every political trick in its bag to destabilise these coalition Governments and when necessary, to impose President’s rule in these States. In fact, until the Bommai Case judgement in the mid-1990s, the Congress recklessly deployed Article 356 to dismiss Governments run by other political parties and to keep those States under central rule until it felt confident to order a fresh election.

The other major reason for disruption of the system of simultaneous elections was former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to order an early election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 — a year ahead of the next round of simultaneous elections to State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha. This decision of hers, taken purely to maximise her electoral advantage in a stand alone Lok Sabha poll, completely upset the system of simultaneous elections and has been the primary cause for the disarrangement of the electoral process in the country.

The Law Commission examined this issue thoroughly in its 170 Report in 1999 and came out strongly in favour of simultaneous elections. It said that undoubtedly, “the desired goal of one election cannot be achieved overnight in the given circumstances”, because the tenures of different State Assemblies were ending in different years in a five-year cycle. It suggested clubbing of elections to all State Assemblies which are due over the next 12 months. The commission said if all political parties cooperate, necessary steps can be taken without hurting the interests of any political party. If need be a constitutional amendment could be thought of, to curtail the terms of some State Assemblies for about six months, in order to enable the clubbing of elections.

There are loud protests in some quarters about the prospect of simultaneous elections. Among the objectors are the Communist Party of India, the Trinamool Congress and some smaller parties. Some political parties fear that in such a scenario, the national parties would sway the voters and only national issues would dominate the campaign. As a result, regional and smaller political parties would be drowned in the cacophonous battle between the big players, and they would be wiped out. This argument does not hold water when we examine the attitude of the electorate to Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. There are many instances when the voters have chosen different parties while voting for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies when the polls are held together and within a gap of a few months. In fact, the swing is no sharp that even seasoned politicians are shocked at the manner in which the voters shrewdly indicate different choices for the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies.

On the other hand, the advantages of simultaneous polls far outweigh the disadvantages. The present system of disaggregated polls does a lot of damage to governance. Once the model code of conduct kicks in, development comes to a standstill. Both the Union Government and the Governments in the States going to polls become tentative in their responses and hold back on many schemes and programmes fearing adverse reactions by the Election Commission. Also, frequent elections every year leads to massive expenditure. The Election Commission has estimated that the cost of holding elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies in the current form was Rs 4500 crore.

After the elaborate exercise of the Law Commission, the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Services, Law and Justice examined this issue more recently. The committee observed that frequent elections “often leads to

policy paralysis and governance deficit”. For starters, this committee said that the States could be clubbed into two blocks. One block could go to polls with the Lok Sabha and the other, a year or two later. Eventually, elections to all the States could be clubbed with the Lok Sabha poll.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu are among those who have strongly advocated the idea of holding Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections together. Mukherjee had said that since elections are being held somewhere or the other every year, governmental work suffered because the code of conduct would come into play for several months. suggested that even elections to panchayats and local bodies could be clubbed with the national and State elections. He said, “continuous festival of elections” was slowing down development.

Larger national interest demands synchorised elections. Petty political considerations of marginalised parties should not be allowed to derail the process. We must put Humpty-Dumpty together again!

(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati. Views expressed here are personal)

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