Research paper

Feasibility of Simultaneous Elections : Implications for the Federalism in India

Abstract:

Elections are processes, events as well as celebrations in a representative democracy like India. So, elections and electoral reforms have often been a topic of discussion and deliberation in the public sphere of India. The proposal regarding the introduction of the simultaneous election system is one such widely debated electoral reform currently. It proposes to hold elections at both the central as well as the state levels, simultaneously at a fixed date every five years. India has  experienced simultaneous elections from 1952 to 1967, after which this system was discarded as a result of certain political changes. Three reports of different governmental institutions have  played a significant role in shaping the nature of the debate regarding the simultaneous election  system: the 170th report of the Law Commission of India, the 79th report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice  and a recently published discussion paper by the NITI Ayog. Also at a more political level, the  President and the Prime Minister of India have strongly pitched their support for simultaneous  election on a variety of forums.

There are mainly two justifications given for simultaneous elections, namely, reducing financial  burden on the exchequer and removing a ‘policy paralysis’ emerging as a result of the Model  Code of Conduct. However, the problem lies not in the desirability of simultaneous elections but  in its feasibility. Implementation of this electoral reform is likely to seriously affect the federal  nature of Indian polity. The slogan of ‘One Nation, One Election’ seems to be unitary in nature  as it ignores the autonomy of the state’s elections. It may produce uniformity in the composition  of political parties ruling at the central and state levels, as it is most likely to prefer the national  parties over the regional ones. It will also possibly facilitate the national ruling parties  dominating the state governments through employing the Article 356 when the existing state  governments lose the confidence of their respective assemblies and no other political  party/coalition is able to claim support of the majority. The simultaneous elections might also  erode the very purpose of the Rajya Sabha, namely, representing the states and working as a  check on the popular house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha).

The debate around simultaneous elections has highlighted different defects in its functioning and  produced a public debate regarding how to remove those effects. However, in this journey, the  Indian democracy can’t afford to damage its federal nature by further strengthening the central  government and the national political parties in an already vertically asymmetric federal polity.  We can take away lessons from this ongoing debate regarding the simultaneous election system and explore better alternatives that will bring about efficiency in our system but not at the cost of  further weakening the federal units, that is, the states of the ‘Union of India.’ What a better  purpose a public debate and deliberation can serve in enriching the world’s largest democracy!

 

FEASIBILITY OF SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS: IMPLICATIONS FOR  THE FEDERALISM IN INDIA

ANAND JAYSHETTE

 

Elections are not only the mechanical processes but also an expression of an organic relation  between the citizens and their representatives in democracy. In spite of a huge political and  socio-cultural diversity, India owns a unique history of running a democratic system successfully  through popular elections for the last seven decades, except some disturbances in the decade of  1970s. Regular elections are the instrument through which India’s citizens are facilitated to run  the government through their elected representatives. So, elections are processes, events as well  as celebrations in the Indian democracy.

Considering the significance of elections in Indian democracy, the electoral reforms have been a  widely discussed area. Many major-stones in electoral reforms, to name a few, the Tarkunde  Committee, the Dinesh Goswami committee, have encouraged public debates around the reforms in the sphere of popular elections. The debates around the alternatives to the First-past-the-post  system, use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and holding simultaneous elections for the  Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies are nowadays few such deliberate attempts in order to  bring reforms in our electoral system.

Debate of Simultaneous Elections: A Historical Overview

The proposal of the simultaneous elections system proposes to take elections at both, the central  as well as the state level, simultaneously at a fixed date after each five years. India has  experienced simultaneous elections from 1952 to 1967. But these simultaneous elections  were not ‘designed’ as such. The dominance of the ‘congress system’ facilitated these elections.  However, we could not continue with the simultaneous election after 1967 because of the  changing nature of the politics in India.

A debate of the simultaneous elections is not a very recent one. It is as old as one that got  a major momentum in the 1990s. The Law Commission of India talked about a wide range of  electoral reforms in its 170th report on ‘Reform of the Electoral Laws’ in 1999. And it  recommended the simultaneous elections as one of ways to bring ‘stable governments.’ It also  suggested ways how this reform can be brought about gradually by aligning elections of  different state legislative assemblies with that of the Lok Sabha.

Another influential case in favor of simultaneous elections was made by the Department-Related  Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice which  submitted its report to both the houses of the parliament in December 2015. This 79th report was  titled as ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and  State Legislative Assemblies.’ It discussed the feasibility of this reform in detail. It has  contributed to the debate on simultaneous elections through one of its recommendations which  suggests taking simultaneous elections in two phases, roughly each after two-and-half years. This  suggestion will, according to the report, reduce the curtailment in the period of existing  assemblies in order to align them with the General elections.

 

This issue is debated not only at the institutional levels as mentioned above but at the political  one as well. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the person who has re-initiated this debate in the public sphere. He has been advocating conducting simultaneous elections at many forums like  the meetings of the governing council of the NITI Ayog and the Law Commission of India and  so on. Also, while addressing the parliament, the President Ramnath Kovind asked the members  of Parliament (MPs) to discuss and consider the simultaneous elections as a way to reform our electoral system. So, both, the head of the government and the head of the executive, have  strongly pitched their support for the simultaneous elections in India.

Why Simultaneous Elections?

Simultaneous elections are justified mainly for two reasons. One, it will reduce the financial  burden of the exchequer. According to a discussion paper published by the NITI Ayog, titled  ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The “What”, “When” and “How”’, the 2009 Lok Sabha  elections incurred Rs. 1115 crores and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections Rs. 3870 crores. It shows  that the Govt. of India spends a huge amount of money on conducting elections and that also is  strikingly increasing day by day. Besides, political parties also spend a huge amount on  elections. Some news agencies’ estimate this spending by political parties on the 2014 Lok  Sabha elections could be more than Rs. 30000 crores. So, if we take simultaneous elections,  political parties do not need to spend extra on separately on the central and state elections.

Second justification is related to ‘policy paralysis.’ The Election Commission of India (ECI) is empowered to enforce the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) for the purpose of fair  elections. The MCC puts some restrictions on the governments regarding announcements of new  policies. And, on an average, at least three to four different elections take place in India every year. So, the governments are always in the ‘election mode.’ It obstructs governance. As  simultaneous elections will reduce the number of elections to only once a year, the central and state governments will have to face the MCC once a year. Hence, these governments will be able  to deliver their developmental policies for almost four and half years with any obstacles.

Also, there are some other justifications too. Simultaneous elections will reduce the burden on  the security personnel, deployed to ensure safe and peaceful elections. As noted by Dr. Y. S.  Quarishi, simultaneous elections will contain the incidences of communalism, casteism and  other polarizing events that frequent elections breed.

Is the notion of ‘One Nation, One Election’ unitary in nature?

Like, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) reform was guided by the notion of ‘One Nation, One  Tax’, the guiding notion in the case of simultaneous election is the notion of ‘One Nation, One  Election.’ Although uniformity brings order in the system, it is inherently harmful for diversity.

 

On the background of the homogenous Western democracies, diversity and democracy were  conceived to be contradictory to each other. As we all know, the preservation of democracy  along with promoting diversity is one of the contributions of the Indian democracy to the  theories and practice of democracy. The slogan of ‘One Nation, One Election’ suggests there  should be only one election after a fixed period, that is, five years. It attempts to do away with  different elections at the different levels in the Indian polity, mainly at the national and state levels {and Panchayat levels (3rd tier)}. But federalism is one of the basic structure principles of  the Constitution of India. So, the slogan of ‘One Nation, One Election’, the guiding notion of  simultaneous election debate, is unitary in nature, for it will negate the autonomy of state  elections.

Impact on regional parties

Often, issues in the national elections tend to influence the political choices of the people in their  respective state elections. According to a recent study published by the IDFC, there is a 77%  chance that Indian voters will vote for the same party for both the centre and state in case of a  simultaneous election. It clearly underlines that the significance of the developmental issues  related to the states will get sidelined by the wave of the issues involved in the national elections.  Also, simultaneous elections will reduce the chances of regional parties to come to power. This  electoral reform is likely to give more possibilities of the national parties getting upper hand on  and dominating the regional ones by monopolizing the central and state governments. And if  regional parties consequently become weaker, the diverse demands of states, which are integral  federal units, will not be able to reach the central as well as state governments.

If we want to align different assembly election-cycles with that of the Lok Sabha, it is necessary  to either prepone or postpone the current expected schedule of the assembly elections. It leads  to, then, two important questions. One is whether these state governments will be ready for any  curtailment in their existing tenure- and in their political power- which is the principal objective of any political party. Secondly and more importantly, what to do about the constitutional and  moral right of the people of that state to be governed by the existing government which they  have ‘popularly elected’?

Also, at a more political level, we usually see that one or two union ministers are made in charge of their political parties in the state elections. With the coming of the simultaneous elections,  the entire national leadership of the national political parties would be on the ground specifically for  the campaigning purpose. It might lead to the subordination of the state-level leadership who are  more aware of the regional problems. And for these national-level leaders won’t be a part of the  state governments formed after the elections and so, not being accountable to people of the state,  the simultaneous election system poses a possibility of national-level leaders hijacking the state  elections and ultimately leading to the loss of common people belonging to the concerned states.  

 

It is, no doubt, true that a very huge amount is spent on the elections in India. But simultaneous  elections, if they come into practice, may not be able to curb this huge expenditure. Regional parties  will be contesting in  their states and spending as they used to spend before the  simultaneous election system. It will be only the national parties who really benefit from this  electoral reform. So, these national parties will reap the economies of scale of one large election  at the cost of regional parties. And all this will erode the very essence of federalism in India.

Systemic Challenges

In a parliamentary form of government, the provision of no-confidence motion is the most  powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition to put a check on the power of the government.  Being a parliamentary system, India is no exception to it. The system of simultaneous elections  proposes to introduce a fixed schedule of elections, meaning there can’t be elections before or  later that fixed date which will come after every five years. This gives rise to a stumbling block  at both the central and state levels: if a no-confidence motion is passed and as the result, the  existing government steps down, who should run the government till the next scheduled date of  election comes?

Broadly, there remains two ways out. First one is suggested by the Law Commission of India in  its 170th report, referring to the Article 67 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, namely, the ‘constructive vote of no confidence.’ The ‘constructive vote of no  confidence’ entails no-confidence motion can be introduced in the parliament (in case of India,  in only the Lok Sabha) only if it enables electing the successor with the support of majority. It  has a very harmful implication for the parliamentary form of government, and for democracy,  as it puts restrictions on the right of the opposition as a check on the power of the government  through the weapon of the no-confidence motion. Second way-out is that of dissolving the Lok  Sabha and allowing the existing government to continue for its remaining term by providing the  ‘aid and advice to the President’, if no other party is able to secure the vote of the majority. It has  a variety of serious implications for the parliamentary as well as democratic system. But this  paper would not go into its details.

The second way-out, if applied to the state governments, creates one more  possibility: enforcement of the Presidential rule until the new government is elected through the  already scheduled election cycle. And, this affects the federal nature of the Indian polity. It blows  away the original purpose of Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, that is, inability of the  existing government to govern ‘in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.’ In other  words, isn’t continuing with the government that has lost the confidence of the legislature nothing different than an oligarchic rule? It will give a way for the central government to rule  over the states through its agents, the governors. It will also encourage the central government to  attempt frequently to topple the state governments, especially ruled by the opposition parties.

 

Any impact on the Rajya Sabha?

The Rajya Sabha is the upper house of the parliament facilitating representation of the states. The  system of simultaneous elections is likely to have a two-fold impact on the functioning of the  upper house of the parliament. If simultaneous election gives rise to, more or less, uniformity in  the political parties running the central and state governments, it will also bring about the  uniformity in the composition of the members of the Rajya Sabha as majority of them are elected  from the legislative assemblies. This has two implications for federalism. One, it will put a  challenge to the ability of the upper house to represent the diversity of opinion of the states. Second,  uniformity in party/ coalition, ruling at both central and state levels, might monopolize the  functioning of the Rajya Sabha by pushing the regional parties to the margin.

Another major likely impact of the simultaneous election on the Rajya Sabha is a more structural in nature: if the legislative assemblies are dissolved as the result of the no-confidence motion,  how to put in new members to the upper house, until the new elections take place on the  scheduled date of the simultaneous election? It is most likely to create a deadlock situation in the  Rajya Sabha.

Both of these possible impacts on the Rajya Sabha will undermine the possibility of the regional  parties to represent their states in the upper house of our parliament. It will also erode the  functioning of the Rajya Sabha as a check on the Lok Sabha.

Way out

Almost all political parties have a consensus regarding the intentions behind the simultaneous  elections in India. Problem regarding the simultaneous election is not about its desirability but its  feasibility.

Here is a need to refer back to the justifications, mentioned earlier, of the proposal of the  simultaneous election. The Election Commission of India spends approximately 1.8% of the total  budget of the Government of India. This amount is worth spending considering the importance  of the elections in the democracies. Rather, the government can introduce a cap on the spending  of the political parties on elections, which accounts almost 9 to 10 times more than that of the  government. If there will be no cap on the spending by the political parties on elections, even the  simultaneous election system might not be able to save this extra-spent amount to a large extent.

The problem regarding the MCC resulting in a ‘policy paralysis’ seems to be overemphasized.  The MCC does not suspend the ongoing schemes and their administration. It forbids only those  activities of the government which can ‘influence the voters.’ As correctly noted by Suhas  Palshikar, an eminent political analyst, in his piece in The Hindu (dated 02 February 2018), ‘this  problem emerges only because parties and governments fail to arrive at a consensus on the scope of the code of conduct and the meaning of what constitutes policymaking and what constitutes  distribution of patronage.’

The issue regarding the burden on the security forces during the elections is going to remain  there even in the case of the simultaneous elections. And social unrest due to polarizing activities  during the election has more to do with the routine, daily politics. This problem will anyways  pop-up in times of the simultaneous election as well.

No compromise with federalism and representative democracy

The principles of federalism and representative democracy are foundation-stones of the  Constitution of India and the Indian polity. The objective of the proposal of the simultaneous  elections is to increase efficiency of our system. However, if the proposal of the simultaneous  elections is implemented, it is most likely to pose a variety of serious implications for federalism: further strengthening the central government in an already vertical- as well as  horizontal- asymmetric-federal polity of India. The contribution of the debate around  simultaneous election is that it has highlighted many problems, as discussed earlier, and given momentum to discuss them. But if this electoral reform of ‘One Nation, One Election’ needs any  compromise with federalism and democracy, we should take away positives from it and look  ahead for better alternatives. After all, this is the significance of the freedom of expression and  deliberation in any democracy in the world. And, it is more important in the world’s largest  democracy which is also one of the most diverse nations in the world.

References

elections/article22625444.ece

  • Web link for the report of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on  Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice:

http://164.100.47.5/newcommittee/reports/EnglishCommittees/Committee%20on%20Per sonnel,%20PublicGrievances,%20Law%20and%20Justice/79.pdf accessed on 02  September 2018

  • Web link for the report of the Law Commission of India:

http://www.lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/lc170.htm accessed on 02

  •  September 2018 Web link for the report of the NITI Ayog :

http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/Note%20on%20Simultaneous%20Ele ctions.pdf accessed on 02 September 2018

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