Are simultaneous elections good for us? The Question can either be answered by a No, Yes or it’s complicated.
No one can deny that Indian democracy is in perpetual election mode. The money, time and effort that such an exercise involves would be considerably reduced, were elections held simultaneously throughout the country. But is the ruling party playing fast and loose with facts to further its own political aspirations? To analyze the issue, it is important that the proposal be tested against two touchstones:
The actual impact of multiple elections on the character of Indian Democracy, and;
The possible motivation by self-interest on part of those advocating for this proposal.
Do you abhor the idea of multiple elections? A large part of this country, except perhaps political pundits and journalists, would answer that question in the affirmative. Their reasons would range from wasteful expenditure, noisy campaigns, and political rallies, to the disruption of everyday routine and a slowdown in developmental works owing to the Model Code of Conduct.
It is true that, each year, about 3 or more states go for elections in India and Model Code of Conduct is enforced by the Election Commission of India from the date of announcement of elections till the process of elections is completed. This number does not include the numerous by-elections and elections for Urban and Rural Self-Governance institutions (Municipal and Panchayat bodies) in various states. Except routine administrative tasks, no new projects or development works can be undertaken by the government of the state during this period. This prohibition also extends to actions of the Central Government in scenarios where decisions taken by the Union are likely to impact voter’s perception of a particular political party contesting in the state- negatively or positively. The latter principle, however, is hardly ever invoked to the same extent for by-elections or elections to municipalities or panchayats.
Rajya Sabha Member, Bhupender Yadav claimed that constant elections throughout the year all over country act as a hindrance in the working of the government and further suggested that simultaneous elections will solve this problem. Some may say that it will ensure consistency, continuity and governance, which are integral to democracy. The Election Commission has also been largely in favor of the idea and so have been atleast two previous CECs- N Gopalaswami and SY Quraishi. Their reasons have largely been related to the logistical constraints of organizing elections in a country like India and the reduced expenditure and effort required were all elections to be held simultaneously. We also know that the President, Prime Minister and the incumbent Chief Election Commissioner are all in favor of the idea. However, at this stage it is important for us to consider the two part test we established earlier.
What effect can simultaneous elections have on the character of Indian Democracy?
It is important to understand that India’s democracy is built around the idea of certain checks and balances that have evolved even outside the constitutional framework. These are unique in the sense that they fill up the gaps in ensuring accountability where the Constitution is either silent or not performing optimally owing to various reasons. For instance, most democracies have an inherent capacity to keep the executive under control by ensuring an autonomous legislature. Even in Parliamentary systems, where the Executive is more intricately involved with the Legislature compared to a Presidential system, there exists a level of independence in its functioning exercised by the MPs from within the ruling benches and outside.
"Constant elections have emerged as the only check on political parties that are able to win a national or state election with substantial majorities. The threat of spill over of bad news from a state or central government is what deters political parties into acting more carefully during their term."
The enactment of the 52nd Constitutional Amendment in 1985 changed all that dramatically. The then Rajiv Gandhi government, plagued with defections, decided to amend the Constitution so as to provide that MLAs or MPs who do not follow their party’s whip while voting in the Assembly or Parliament respectively would lose their seats. The member was also bound to lose his/her seat if they switched parties or left their party to become an independent after having been elected. While the provision, as it stands today, allows for 2/3rds of members to come together to form a new group or merge with another party on the floor of the house, this certainly raises the bar for expression of policy dissent. It also makes it less likely for governments with big majorities of their own, or stable alliances to be challenged on the floor of the house. Many argue that the application of the law across matters has also held up debate in the Parliament and may have contributed instead to disruptions as opposition parties often see little benefit in debates that end with a vote going in favor of the government.
In this context, constant elections have emerged as the only check on political parties that are able to win a national or state election with substantial majorities. The threat of spill over of bad news from a state or central government is what deters political parties into acting more carefully during their term. We saw this under the UPA-II when unpopular decisions were reluctantly put off during state elections. We have also seen this under the current BJP led dispensations which has been concerned to avoid negative news flow about communal incidents in UP or violence against Dalits in Gujarat or Maharashtra, or very recently, the negative news flow on the economy owing to demonetization.
This is what keeps political parties on their toes. An analysis for all simultaneous State and Center elections, by virtue of coincidence, held since 1999 up till 2014, reveals that there is a 77 percent chance that the average voter will vote for the same party at both the Center and the state, with the voter favoring the ruling party at the Center. This is also reflected in the very public refrain of both national parties about the harmonious relationship between the Center and the State Governments that would be aided by same parties being in power. Aside from the deeply problematic possibility of favoritism with state funds that this displays, it is also a reflection of how the political parties feel the voter thinks.
Furthermore, it is a stretch to argue that this impeded major work across the country. For instance during the Punjab elections in 2017, a month long period of MCC was observed in the state, yet, the routine work of the country carried on unabated. On the contrary, it was not the MCC but other considerations that led to the delay in the Winter Session of the Parliament in late 2017. Coincidentally, this was also the time when Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh went to polls and many pointed out that the government wanted to avoid the negative news flow on the economy on account of demonetization from flowing into Parliamentary debate so close to the elections.
While logistically and administratively, such elections would be a blessing for the Election Commission, there is a fear that whenever there is a majoritarian government at the Center, any anti-incumbency in the States is likely to get neutralized. This exactly why the regional parties have not been entirely of such elections.
The Election Commission itself has pointed out several constitutional limitations to the conduct of simultaneous elections in the country. It has been noted that the structure of the constitution is not one that foresees the conduct of simultaneous polling at the Center and the States. This means that a massive alteration of the several articles of the Constitution will have to be carried out. Some of these, according to the EC, include Art. 83 (duration of Houses of Parliament), 85 (Prorogation and Dissolution of Parliament), 172 (Duration of State Legislatures), 174 (Prorogation and Dissolution of State Legislature) and Article 356 (President’s Rule in States) among others. Further, estimates suggests that the EC will require an additional INR 2000 crore for procuring VVPAT EVMs. In addition, the principle of a no-confidence motion at the Parliament and the State Legislatures would have to be altered. The new motion would now have to provide for an alternative Council of Ministers (including a PM or a CM, as applicable), at the very instance of introduction of a no-confidence motion.
"It (No-Confidence Motion) is the expression of a will of the Legislature. Tying it up to an alternative will reduces the choice before the Legislature and gives more leeway to the government of the day to continue with actions that would have otherwise been deemed inappropriate."
A very important question to be raised here is if this does not further raise the bar for dissent against an incumbent? The purpose of a No-Confidence Motion, however, unlikely its passage, is to restrain a government from performing an action without the sanction of the Parliament. It is the expression of a will of the Legislature. Tying it up to an alternative will reduces the choice before the Legislature and gives more leeway to the government of the day to continue with actions that would have otherwise been deemed inappropriate. The scope for political malice would increase if the choice of conducting fresh elections right after the dissolution is denied and instead the legislature is obligated to put in place a new government.
Source: India Today
Upon the successful passage of the No-Confidence Motion raised against his government in 1979 by Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of Britain, the Rt. Hon. James Callaghan had said in the House of Commons (the Lower House of the British Parliament)- “Now we shall take our case to the country”. A scenario where an alternative is simultaneously put in place with a No-confidence motion denies the public the very fundamental right to choose its government. The government elected by the people after the elections was based on a majority, that was chipped away in the legislature owing to certain circumstances. A passage of a no-confidence motion, should, at the very least afford the people a right to pass their judgement on the action of the legislature. Not doing so legitimizes the incoming government and opens it up to criticism, further derailing any actions it might wish to undertake once in office.
The Election Commission has suggested ways to cut short the duration of polls. Regional parties, with a fraction of the resources national parties have, will find it difficult to explain to the masses the agenda for the state election as opposed to the national agenda. Money and muscle power will further dominate the electoral landscape. The more resourceful a party, the greater its control over the narrative.
Also, in the event of a wave in favor of one of the national parties – like the Congress in 1984 or the BJP in 2014 – people may choose to ride that wave. The electorate will be deprived of the opportunity of self-correction. That would be disastrous for our country and democracy.
There's no question that holding simultaneous elections would definitely save a lot of money. But this argument about saving money should only be discussed when money is being wasted. Conducting elections in different states at different points of time does take a lot of time, toil and money but to choose the voice of the people and to help them with the various problems that arise in their lives this amount is not a big price to be payed and certainly not a waste.
The so-called simultaneous elections to Parliament and State legislatures till 1967 were less by design and more due to the majority governments of that time until now only Narendra Modi had been able to flourish such a stable majority after the 2012 General elections. With the absence of this neatness the system gave way to coalition politics has brought stability, added to the vibrancy of democracy, and ensured an active role for State parties and greater power-sharing among parties.
Professor Sanjay Kumar, Director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, and an eminent psephologist, claimed that,
“Simultaneous elections will curb the voice of people living at the margins of the society by strangulating the scope for regional parties which reflect local aspirations/issues. This will reverse the process of deepening democracy”, he cautioned.
The conduct of elections is the underlying foundation for democratic governance. All other rights and privileges, such as right to life, freedom of expression, etc., serve one end- ensuring that people are able to exercise their choice in a safe, informed environment. Elections are about increasing the scope of this choice and making it accessible to people. One of the most celebrated traditions of Indian democracy has been its ability to, with a single stroke, grant this choice to all its citizens. It has also been able to ensure that evils that plague elections elsewhere, such as gerrymandering, exclusion of minorities, etc. are kept at bay.
There are several problems with the conduct of elections in India, such as money and muscle power, obfuscation of facts, fake news, ideologically manipulated information, communal tensions etc. These are the real challenges plaguing our democracy, they destroy the free and fair representation of public will and thereafter the conduct of governance to the benefit of the people. Regular elections cannot be kept at the same plank with these severe shortcomings regardless of the logistical constraints. In one way, as we have seen above, they may further entrench these problems and by centralizing the process, we may end up increasing the influence these problems have on the governance of the country.
There is no problem with multiple elections, let’s not attempt fixing a problem where none exists in an attempt to shift discourse away from real issues.
Views expressed are personal.
About the Author
Abhay Singh Dhillon is one of the youngest politicians in India and the District General Secretary of the Youth Akali Dal. A highly decorated student of Welham’s School for Boys, Dehradun, Abhay is a multi faceted personality. He possesses extraordinary oratory capabilities and has also addressed a large number of rallies in Punjab. Abhay was recently recognised by the IAYP (International Award for Young People), a thriving youth program which discerns the various hurdles, snags faced by youngsters and professionals.