Although a reform in the electoral cycle could limit the amount of money and time spent in electioneering, experts believe the idea could be motivated by political considerations.
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to hold simultaneous elections to parliament, state assemblies, panchayats and urban local bodies has not gone down well with Constitutional experts, who believe the idea is fraught with danger as it seeks to make light of Constitutional provisions.
Although Modi called for the electoral cycle reform as a means to limit the amount of time and money spent in electioneering, and to ensure political and social workers had more time to invest in people-oriented programme, Constitutional experts believe the proposal could be motivated by political considerations, as when simultaneous elections are held voters tend to vote for the same party. Incidentally, a recent article by researchers from IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank, had also noted this trend.
The article notes the “widely held belief among political observers and politicians that the Indian voter is astute and distinguishes between voting for her State government vis-a-vis the national government” is “devoid of any evidence”. The report also noted that based on an analysis of Election Commission data from 1999 onward, there was a 77% chance the Indian voter would vote for the same party at the state and Centre if elections were held simultaneously.
Challenging Constitutional provisions
Alluding to this argument, senior advocate and former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising said, “Not all voters are highly educated. They do not know whether they are voting for the Assembly or Parliament. Therefore, obviously these they would be confused about who to vote for.”
Seeing a design behind the proposal, Jaising added that Modi was relying on the ‘wave theory’. “If there is a wave in the favour of the Union that that would continue for the States, at least that seems to be the motivation for him.”
Constitutional provisions, Jaising said, are very clear in the matter. Article 83(2) provides for a term of five years for the House of People (Lok Sabha), from the date of its first sitting, unless dissolved earlier. Similar provisions under Article 172 (1) provides for a five-year tenure for state legislative Assemblies from the date of its first sitting.
“See the mandatory term has to be completed first, very often what the state governments do is that they dissolve the assembly before the term ends and they conduct elections. It is the prerogative of the assembly to decide when to call an election. Legally they can do it. But in doing it for conduct of simultaneous elections, they would be misusing the Constitution,” Jiasing cautioned.
Providing a corollary to this proposed move, she said the misuse would be akin to the recent misuse of Constitutional provisions in proroguing the Lok Sabha to issue an ordinance. “You give the appearance of legality but actually you are misusing the provision. A House is not meant to be prorogued for issuing an ordinance, yet they did that thrice for the Land Acquisition Ordinance. And the law still did not come.”
However, Jaising said a single phase of election for states or even the Lok Sabha was desirable as “between one phase and another you have various opinion polls which end up influencing the voters.”
Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S.Y. Quraishi had in a recent article suggested that although the idea of simultaneous elections was “good in principle,” it was “fraught with constitutional issues and administrative problems”.
Observing that frequent elections had some benefits too, Quraishi had noted that not only did they bring politicians back to the voters, they also boosted the economy, creating more jobs. But more importantly, he pointed out that such elections prevent local and national issues from getting mixed up in the minds of the voters.
The former CEC also noted that to conduct elections across the country on the same day, about 3,500 companies of paramilitary forces are required, as opposed to the 700-800 made available as of now. “Raising a few battalions of various paramilitary forces will also give relief to the extremely stretched and stressed forces, provide employment and contribute to better enforcement in troubled areas,” he suggested.
A practical solution?
A parliamentary standing committee had in its report on the Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies observed that simultaneous polls would reduce: (i) the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections; (ii) the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; and (iii) impact on delivery of essential services and (iv) burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time.
The committee had also recommended that to conduct simultaneous polls, “elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the midterm of Lok Sabha” and “elections to the remaining legislative assemblies could be held with the end of Lok Sabha’s term.”
It had also suggested a cycle for this, stating that “the proposed first phase of assembly elections could be held in November, 2016. Elections to all state assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year before or after the appointed election date can be clubbed together. Similarly, the second phase of elections can be held in 2019 with the General Elections to Lok Sabha.”
E.M Sudarsana Natchiappan, the chairperson of the standing committee and a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, said such polls were practically possible, despite his party opposing the idea as “impractical, unworkable and (one that) can lead to a scenario where the necessary balance in Indian democracy given the diversity of the country is lost”.
“There is no need for amending the Constitution. If there is a consensus among the political parties to have a two-phase election, it can be done over a 10-15-year period. In the interim what we are suggesting is that the assembly elections coming in one year be conducted together. What we are suggesting is that the president has got the power to extend the period of assemblies by up to one year to bring about this uniformity. Similarly, preponing of elections can be done by the concerned chief ministers and political parties in the States,” Natchiappan said.
“Later we can have elections at mid-term of the parliament. All the states besides Jammu and Kashmir (which has elections every six years) and Bihar (which went to polls recently) can be brought into this scheme right now,” he pointed out.
Senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal said the whole idea behind simultaneous polls should also consider the issue of logistics involved when it comes to requirement of security personnel and election and administrative officials.
“At present, you cannot ensure the security of the people in one state simultaneously, and elections are being held in up to five to seven phases over a period of two months, and you want to have polls all across the country in one go. How will you ensure that? Over how many months will the elections be held? You don’t have that many officers and the security forces are not enough,” she said.
In view of recent attempts by the ruling BJP to dislodge state governments led by the Congress, Jaiswal also cautioned that a situation might arise where “if the Centre does not like a government or a political party, it will recommend President’s rule in that state. This would give a good ground. So simply said, in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh the terms will be extended and in Uttarakhand and Himachal they will be cut short. We are looking at a utopian society, but in this there will be greater misuse.”
Regional parties’ response
While many of the smaller regional parties had in their submissions before the standing committee supported the idea of simultaneous elections as this would reduce expenditure, most had expressed concerns about how it would be implemented.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had extended its support to the idea in principle but cautioned that there will be problems in “adjusting the residual time period of the existing state assemblies which are currently not coterminous with the Lok Sabha. It could mean that the next Legislative Assembly in Tamil Nadu may have a tenure only from 2016 to 2019, while Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, etc will have tenures from 2017 to 2019, and Bihar from 2015 to 2019. These aberrations are inevitable if a policy of simultaneous elections is adopted …”
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had said it supports the idea as it would reduce the financial burden on small parties and reduce the time for which the model code of conduct is applicable to the states, which often leads to policy paralysis and a slow implementation of developmental programmes.
The Indian Union Muslim League has supported the idea of holding simultaneous elections and said that it would lead to significant saving in time, energy and resource across the country.
The Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam also supported the proposal and said, “if a government is formed after premature dissolution, its term should be fixed for the remaining period only. Only then it will ensure the conduct of elections simultaneously for parliament or assembly ….”
The Shiromani Akali Dal was also supportive of the idea, but asked “An important point needs to be considered is that in case if in some state a hung assembly is formed, as recently happened in Delhi, what mechanism will be available? As President rule in such a situation cannot be imposed for the remaining full term of the legislative assembly. And if there happens to be a re-election due to any factor what should be the term of the assembly thus constituted? Such solution needs to be clarified in time so as to implement the new policy.”
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India and the Nationalist Congress Party had found the idea unfeasible, while the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen had stated that “fractured verdicts or unstable governments cannot be avoided in any democracy and Indian democracy is no exception.”