The pros and cons of synchronising Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly Elections. 

One Nation One Poll: Mere Buzz or Solution to India’s Poll Frenzy?

Talk of advancing the 2019 General Election by a year coincides with the BJP’s suggestion to hold simultaneous Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the ball rolling in April 2016 when, while addressing the Parliament, he said – “These days there is talk of frequent elections. People say hold simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls...because things get stalled and a lot of time is spent on elections.”

Since then, Union Ministers, BJP leaders and even President Ram Nath Kovind have echoed a similar view. The Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat told reporters that logistically, it will be ready to hold simultaneous polls by September 2018.

Of the parties that have stated their positions, Congress’ P Chidambaram dismissed the buzz around early elections as another ‘jumla’ and the Left, which has consistently been against the idea of simultaneous polls, said it was not feasible.

But what would it mean for people like us, if the government does in fact turn the election clock back to the pre-1967 era when the Centre and the States went to vote together? Here’s what’s at stake.

How do you define #OneNationOnePoll?

In August 2017, the National Institution for Transforming India or the Niti Aayog, which is the government’s policy think tank, released a discussion paper on the idea of holding simultaneous elections. Authored by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, it favoured conducting synchronised two-phase Lok Sabha and assembly elections from 2024. This, the report said, would require a maximum one-time curtailment or extension of some state assemblies.

Further it defined “Simultaneous Elections” as structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronised to be held together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast his/her 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 provided voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha the same day.

How would #OneNationOnePoll work?

1. Synchronise the Election Calendar
First, the terms of the Legislative Assemblies will have to be synchronised with that of the Lok Sabha. The current electoral cycle sees between five to seven State Assemblies going to elections each year. Hence, the synchronising will not be possible without a one-time curtailment or extension of the terms of these Legislative Assemblies.

The Niti Aayog suggested that the idea be first attempted along with the elections for the 17th Lok Sabha which is expected to be constituted before June 2019. Assuming a two-month multi-phase election for the 17th Lok Sabha, it is suggested that April 2019 – May 2019 may be considered as the first dates for implementing simultaneous elections.

2. Simultaneous Elections
As per the Niti Aayog’s estimates, it would be impossible to synchronise polls before June 2019 (when Modi’s term ends). If this is to be done, then tenures of many State Assemblies would need to be curtailed by more than 2 years (Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, etc.) and tenures of many other State Assemblies would need to be extended by more than 2 years (Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, etc.). A more practical solution would be to synchronise Indian elections in two phases, as suggested by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in its 79th report.

Phase I is suggested to be in sync with that of the Lok Sabha elections, ie: April-May 2019. Phase II is suggested approximately mid-way in the term of the Lok Sabha, ie: 30 months after Phase I – around October-November 2021. Thereafter, it is envisaged to conduct elections every 2.5 years (30 months) in the country once the entire electoral cycles of Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies are synchronised by December 2021.

Why do we need to synchronise Indian elections?

Elections are a mammoth task in India and there are mainly 6 arguments in favour of synchronising them.

1. Improve Efficiency in Governance Continuous elections ensures the government of the day is in a perennial ‘election mode’. “The political class,” as Venkaiah Naidu wrote before becoming Vice-President, “is forced to think typically in terms of immediate electoral gains rather than focus on long-term programmes and policies for the overall progress of the nation and its people.”

The Niti Aayog estimates governance and developmental activities remained largely suspended for a total of seven months in 2014, ie: three months across the country and about two months in Jharkhand & J&K and another two months in Maharashtra and Haryana. As per the Niti Aayog’s analysis, it would be reasonable to expect the Model Code of Conduct to be in play for about four months every year.

2. Reduce Time Taken and Cost of Elections
The expenditure incurred on the Lok Sabha elections is incurred by the Government of India, while State governments bear the expense of conducting elections to their Legislative Assemblies. Holding synchronised elections would mean a shared expense which is likely to reduce the burden on both the Centre and States’ coffers.

The 2009 General Election had cost the exchequer about Rs 1,115 crore, and the 2014 elections expense was about Rs 3,870 crore. The Election Commission of India, on its part, has estimated the cost of holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies at Rs 4,500 crore.

3. Curb Canddiate/Political Party Expenses
While it may be a tall order, the Niti Aayog is of the opinion that synchronising elections may even help diminish the role of 'money power’ in Indian elections. “As elections frequently in some State Assembly or the other, political parties particularly worry about need to keep inflow of funds and contributions continued. This whole cycle is consequently blamed as one of the key drivers for corruption and black-money in the country,” the Niti Aayog’s report states.

4. Better Utilisation of Administrative and Security Apparatus
Conducting elections is a mammoth, complex, time-consuming exercise. During the 2014 General Elections, 10 million polling officials were assigned to 9,30,000 polling stations across the country. As for security, the Election Commission had deployed 1349 Companies of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF). While polling officials are required to be on duty only on the day the constituency votes, the deployment of security officials begins before and ends much after voting has concluded. This leads to a lock in of the CAPF personnel for prolonged periods of time. Such a lock-in is undesirable and takes the personnel away from their primary duties of ensuring internal security. Synchronised elections would mean this lock-in is scheduled and infrequent.

5. Reducing Communal Tensions
Among other things, synchronised elections will not only help reduce frequent disruptions to normal life, but will also go a long way in reducing caste and communal tensions in the country, as former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi argued in an article for The Quint.

“....Elections are polarising events which have accentuated casteism, communalism, corruption and crony capitalism. If the country is perpetually on election mode, there is no respite from these evils. Holding simultaneous elections would certainly help in this context. ”

Arguments Against Simultaneous Elections

1. Pose a Threat to Regional Parties
With the rise in the number of states created along linguistic lines, there has been a steady rise in the number of regional parties that hold sway not just over their states, but also have a say in national politics by allying with either of the two national parties. In the 1984 General Election, regional parties garnered only 11% of the total votes. This rose to 28.4% in 2009 and was 27% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Simultaneous elections could well mean a national agenda taking precedence over local issues, thereby undermining the federal nature of the Indian State.

2. Could Lead to Centralisation of Power
Critics of simultaneous elections say that a well-managed election campaign by a national party could result in a ‘wave’ that could drown out the voices of political parties that represent smaller, marginalised groups.

3. Political Uncertainty is an Inevitable Fallout
Considering a stable two-party system is yet to evolve in Indian national and state-level politics, coalitions remain the order of the day. An inevitable fallout of coalitions, is constant re-alignment. In the eventuality of a government falling mid-term, the imposition of President’s rule till the next (synchronised) election, could completely undermine the people’s vote.

4. Lack of Accountability to the Public
Another major concern is the confidence that a guaranteed five-year term can inspire in the government of the day, leading to reduced accountability to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies.

How feasible is the Idea?

Predicting some challenges that synchronised elections could bring up for the Election Commission, SY Quraishi writes:

1. Holding simultaneous polls will be tough for the Election Commission, stretched both in terms of staff and funds.

2. A logistical challenge for the EC would be procuring EVMs, two to three times more than their present number.

3. An alternate mechanism of state funding of political parties may cap the expenditure and curb illicit means of financing the campaign.

4. Widening linkage between Lok Sabha and assembly polls has an adverse impact on overall governance as well.

What changes will need to be made to the Constitution?

Legislation will have to be enacted to provide for a situation when a government falls in between its five-year term, thus breaking the simultaneous election.

Currently, governments fall mid-term due to internal political upheavals or in some cases, interference from opposition parties. In such a case, a no-confidence motion is put into effect which allows the government in power prove its majority. However, this provision finds no mention in the Indian Constitution. It finds mention under Rule 198 of the Rules and Conduct of Business of the Lok Sabha that states 50 or more members of the Lok Sabha can move a no-confidence motion. The rule says, if the motion passes, the government has to resign, and if neither party is able to form the government, premature polls are conducted.

With such political uncertainty, the Centre can recommend President’s rule. The point of concern with this possibility arising under the simultaneous election system is that the people’s mandate will stand completely undermined.

To tackle this very issue, the Law Commission had in its 1999 report recommended a system similar to the one followed by the German Parliament, wherein a No Confidence Motion cannot be passed without a Confidence Motion, which ensures the seat of governance does not fall vacant. Only if both motions pass, is the change allowed to take place.

India's History of Synchronised Elections

After the adoption of the Constitution, the elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 till 1967 when the cycle of synchronised elections got disrupted.

The first general elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held together in 1951-52. That practice continued over three subsequent general elections held in the years 1957, 1962 and 1967. However, due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, the cycle got disrupted for the first time. In 1970, Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections held in 1971. Thus, First, Second and Third Lok Sabha enjoyed full five-year terms.

The term of Fifth Lok Sabha was extended till 1977 under Article 352. After that, the Eighth, Tenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Lok Sabha could complete their full five-year terms. Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Lok Sabha was dissolved prematurely. Various State Assemblies also faced similar issues over a period of time. As a result of all such premature dissolutions and extension, the cycle of simultaneous elections has been firmly disrupted.

Not the First time the Idea Has Been Floated

First Proposal
In September 1982, the Election Commission recommended holding simultaneous elections to the House of the People and the Legislative Assemblies of States. In its first Annual Report of 1983, it listed reasons such as colossal expenditure and administrative slowdown for synchronising elections. The report also indicated the aversion of the Congress government, which at the time was led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Second Proposal
In 1999, the Law Commission, headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy submitted a report, calling on the Centre, state governments and the Election Commission to “seriously explore” its suggestion of holding simultaneous elections.

The Law Commission is an executive body that reviews and repeals obsolete laws and examines existing laws – in its 170th report, it acknowledged that “the desired goal of one election in every five years cannot be achieved overnight in the given circumstances”. The Commission proposed that it can be achieved in stages by extending or curtailing the term of one or more Legislative Assemblies, say for six months or so, wherever it is necessary to achieve the said goal.

Who Made the First Political Move Towards #OneNationOnePoll?

In August 2003, deputy Prime Minister LK Advani announced that the government was holding consultations with the Election Commission and National Democratic Alliance partners on holding simultaneous polls. At the time a senior Congress leader, Pranab Mukherjee did not outright reject the idea and was quoted as saying, “Every year there is one election or the other, which prevents the government from taking hard decisions.” The Left parties, however, were against calibrating EC’s calendar to hold simultaneous elections.

A 4 August 2003 report in The Tribune gives us an insight into the political situation of the time, which was conducive to the prospect of simultaneous elections:

“The idea of clubbing the Lok Sabha elections with the Assembly polls gathered momentum in the wake of the BJP’s internal assessment of the party’s electoral prospects in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. In at least four out of these five Congress-ruled states, the BJP’s prospects of wresting power from the Congress appeared to be bleak, the internal assessment said.”

According to the report, Chief Ministers of the five poll-bound were inclined towards co-ordinating election schedules, which would’ve negated the need for a Constitutional Amendment to synchronise Indian elections:

“The sources said that along with the Lok Sabha poll, the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh could also be advanced to derive political mileage out of the exercise. While Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was not in favour of advancing Assembly elections in his state till last week, the sources said he was for it now. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is not averse to an early dissolution of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly so that she can increase her strength in the next Assembly.”

While the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did advance the general election, it did not go ahead with the plan to synchronise it to the assembly elections. Vajpayee and Advani did, however, succeed in making the UPA, which came to power in 2004, refer the proposal to the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice.