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Pros and Cons of Holding Simultaneous Elections in India

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Recently a voice has started gathering in favour of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies in India. The Prime Minister is in favour of it as well. And now the election commission has announced that it can hold simultaneous elections by September 2018. So should we celebrate holding of simultaneous elections in India? To answer this question we will need to know the advantages and disadvantages of holding simultaneous elections in India. This article does just that.

How are Elections Currently Held in India?

The control, supervision and overall responsibility to conduct free and fair elections to the Lok Sabha and the state Legislative Assemblies lies with the Election Commission of India. The tenure of the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures is 5 years unless dissolved earlier. Presently elections are held as per the duration of the Lok Sabha which may differ from the tenure of the state legislatures. In the case of states where elections are due within a gap of 2-3 months the elections to the legislatures of these states are held together. However elections to the Lok Sabha as well as all the state legislatures are never held at once since their duration are different.

What will be the Advantages of Holding Simultaneous Elections?

Holding elections together to the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures will bring the following benefits:

  • Reducing government expenditure: Holding an election costs crores of rupees to the government or the public exchequer. And holding elections many times a year to the state legislatures in addition to holding the Lok Sabha election once every 5 years costs thousands of crores to the public exchequer. If elections are held simultaneously there will be significant savings of public money that can be utilised for development works.
  • Reducing party election expenses: Fighting elections costs huge amounts of money to the political parties as well who leave no stone unturned to ensure victory for their candidates. Political parties have to engage in continuous resource generation since every year there are elections in at least 2 or 3 states. If elections are held at once, then expenses of political parties will also be under control. This will reduce the role of black money in election funding since political parties will not be tempted to seek illegal sources of funding for elections.
  • More time for development work: Right now ministers and their parties are in constant election mode since election to some or the other state legislature is just a few months away. This results in less time to devote to their official duties. If elections are held simultaneously to the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures the ministers and MPs and MLAs will be free for at least 4 years to devote to their official duties and constituencies.
  • Better utilisation of security forces: For holding elections hundreds of central police forces in addition to state police have to be deployed. Not only this costs huge amount of money but the security forces also are diverted from their core mandate of ensuring internal security in the country. If elections are held simultaneously to the Lok Sabha and the state legislatures it will free up the security forces to devote to their core duties for the rest of the period.

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Hindrances or Disadvantages of Holding Simultaneous Elections in India

However, simultaneous elections is a concept that has many problems as well. As highlighted above, the term of Lok Sabha and state legislature is 5 years unless dissolved earlier. How can the Lok Sabha or the state legislatures be dissolved before completing their full term of 5 years? If the party in power loses the majority in the Lok Sabha or the state legislature then the President or the Governor can dissolve the Lok Sabha or the state legislature respectively. The Governor can also recommend imposition of Presidents Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution by dissolving the state legislature before completion of its term of 5 years.

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Rule by the majority is the cardinal principle of Indian democracy. The concept of simultaneous elections goes against this principle since if elections are held simultaneously then the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies cannot be dissolved before completing their full period of 5 years even if the ruling party is reduced to a minority in the Lok Sabha or the state legislature. Hence the concept of simultaneous elections goes against the federal principles whereby each state has devised its own format and timetable of political competition.

Also, holding simultaneous elections will disown today’s reality of fragmented polity at the state level where coalitions are the order of the day. And where there are coalitions there is bound to be political re-alignments which will consequently cause changes in the assembly even leading to its early dissolution. So instead of accepting this aspect of Indian democracy, simultaneous elections tries to bring in a Presidential type of governance where the state assemblies no longer can decide their own path and have to be in existence for 5 years with a minority party in power.

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Update: Election Commission Says Difficult to hold Simultaneous Elections for 17th Lok Sabha

The Chief Election Commissioner O.P Rawat has virtually ruled out holding simultaneous elections to the 17th Lok Sabha in 2019 since already four states are going to the polls in December 2018. If elections to state assemblies are to be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha it would require a Constitutional Amendment in order to extend the term of these state legislative assemblies which are completing their duration of 5 years in December.

Moreover, holding simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies would require the procurement of 24 lakh Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and an equal number of voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) units. This is double the number required to hold only Parliamentary polls.

Obviously, holding simultaneous polls to the Parliamentary and state legislative assemblies requires almost twice the investment in EVMs and VVPATs then what would be required to hold polls to the Parliament alone. So the first objective of holding simultaneous elections – to curtail election-related expenditure of the government is not met.

So Should Simultaneous Elections be Welcomed?

Notwithstanding the benefits of simultaneous elections highlighted above, the cost to the Indian democracy in terms of playing havoc with the cardinal principle of rule by the majority will be far more than any savings to be realised to the public exchequer. This could also bring in dictatorial tendencies in the government of the day by reducing their accountability to the Lok Sabha or the state assembly since they cannot be removed from office even after losing the confidence of the House. Rather other alternatives should be explored to reduce election-related expenses like state funding of elections, decriminalisation of politics, bringing in transparency in political funding by linking Aadhar card to the Election Identity card which has still not been done etc.

What are your views on holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures?

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Sharad Shah - October 10, 2018

Simultaneous Rolling Elections

“One Nation, One Election” or “Simultaneous Elections” is the burning topic of the day.
A note prepared by Niti Ayog has defined the term “Simultaneous Elections” as “structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronized together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify further, simultaneous elections do not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies needs to happen on a single day. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice when voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha the same day”.
What is proposed in the note is simultaneous elections conducted once in five years – not on the same day but conducted in a phase-wise manner over a period of couple months.
In support of the proposal following benefits are cited: (i) Lower cost of conducting simultaneous elections; (ii) Elimination of frequent elections leading to massive expenditures by Government and other stakeholders that are claimed to fuel corruption and the black economy; (iii) Policy paralysis due to enforcement of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and (iv) the temporary diversion of local resources of security and administration for election duty.
Let us examine each of this claimed benefit: (i) The cost saving in this scheme if any will be more than cancelled out by increase in other costs. By their own estimate 50 lakh EVMS and VVPATS at a cost of Rs.15, 000 crores are required to conduct simultaneous elections thus there is probably no saving but every possibility of increase; (ii) Simultaneous elections per se will not eliminate midterm elections without constitutional amendments that can lead to sabotage of democratic process; (iii) A better way to deal with policy paralysis due to enforcement of MCC, if found to be counterproductive, is to abolish it. The party in power has the advantage that it can offer some sops before elections and the disadvantage of anti-incumbency sentiments. Approximately, these cancel each other out; (iv) While the frequency of temporary diversion of local resources of security will decrease the intensity will increase many fold during the two months of elections.
But there is another alternative which will save even more – lot more – and that can resolve the issues more effectively. This is Simultaneous Rolling Elections. In this scheme all the elections in any Parliamentary Constituency – Parliament, Assembly, Municipal bodies, Gram Panchayats – will be conducted simultaneously once every five years but these elections will be staggered across the country over a period of five years with roughly one or two elections every week.
The work load of the Election Commission will be evenly distributed over a period of 5 years (60 months) instead of over two months. In this scenario, the number of EVM machines and other peripheral equipment required will be reduced by a factor of 30 and no additional EVMS will be required. My estimate is that savings may be so large that the other proposal of funding the candidates hanging fire for lack of funds can be implemented now. There is no question of imposition of MCC as there are always elections somewhere or the other in the country. The proposed Simultaneous Rolling Elections meet all the objectives. The political parties will also benefit from this. The financial planning and resources mobilisation will be easier and efficient. The weekly results of elections will serve as a bellwether to policy makers and the ruling party will be called upon to show progress reports continuously and not five years later after memories have dimmed. Another advantage is that the time of election for each area can be selected in accordance with the climate of that area.

Opposition, not without justification, suspects that the proposal is politically motivated. Even the note of Niti Ayog seems like a command performance and the gathering support orchestrated. The success of any attempt to improve the existing systems will depend on the cooperation of all stake holders and unless all are brought on board and the suspicions of the dissidents and the sceptics resolved the chances of success are dim. The note recommends immediate start of the process with a five year phased program. This is premature and may be counter-productive and delay or even jeopardize any such effort in future. Consensus must be built on the proposed changes, all possible hurdles anticipated, legal framework agreed upon before start.
The experience of the emergency of 1975 should be a lesson when amending the constitution. Luckily, there was no violence and the army was not involved and normalcy was restored soon. But it must be ensured that such a thing never happens again. With Simultaneous Rolling Elections, there will be no dissolution of the Parliament, no mid-term elections and the Parliament will be a continuing entity with members retiring after their five year term substituted by newly elected members. If there is a vacancy due to resignation or death of a member, a mid-term election can be held if the remaining term is more than two and a half years otherwise the seat will remain vacant for the remaining term. There is another option. At the election every candidate will have a Nominee who will take his place for the remaining term in case of his death or resignation. If the party in power loses the confidence of the House and no other party can form a government, the Parliament can elect a committee of ten members by a single transferable vote and the President will rule with advice and consent of this Committee. To provide checks and balances, the Parliament will have the power to overrule any decision of the President by two third majority. This will continue until some party comes to the President with requisite majority support. This may amount to mutating to Washminster model – Westminster in normal times and Washington in abnormal times in a reversible metamorphosis.
The Niti Ayog note succinctly enumerates the steps and suggests that a focused group of stakeholders comprising constitution and subject matter experts, think tanks, government officials and representatives of various political parties come together and work out appropriate implementation related details and drafting appropriate constitution and statutory amendments, agreeing on a workable framework to facilitate transition to simultaneous elections, developing a stakeholder communication plan etc. Prudence demands that this is done before the implementation is started and not as we go along. We do not want another demonetisation experience.
MCC Cl. (VII) – Party in Power only says that (vi) From the time elections are announced by Commission, Ministers and other authorities shall not – (a) announce any financial grants in any form or promises thereof; or (b) (except civil servants) lay foundation stones etc. of projects or schemes of any kind; or (c) make any promise of construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc.; or (d) make any ad-hoc appointments in Government, Public Undertakings etc. which may have the effect of influencing the voters in favour of the party in power. These are hardly restrictions that can lead to policy paralysis. But if this is so, as an interim relief, these clauses may be deleted immediately with the approval of all stake holders so that the Prime Minister’s vision for India of “rapid transformation, not gradual evolution” is not delayed.
The watch words should be – Hasten slowly but don’t miss the bus.

(1280 words)

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