In a television interview recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that holding elections simultaneously for parliament and the state assemblies needs to be seriously considered. It would save the country from the permanent electoral cycle, party politics and polarising issues that it is presently caught in and provide more time and opportunity for governments to undertake governance. Pointing out that the issue had already been considered by a parliamentary committee, Modi held that it should be considered by the Election Commission (EC), a respected, autonomous body.
More recently, on September 5, 2016, on the occasion of Teacher’s Day, President Pranab Mukherjee supported the idea and urged all parties to consider doing away with constant elections to ensure political stability. These statements by the prime minister and the president have sparked a debate on whether holding elections simultaneously is feasible and would suit the working of our democratic system.
Advantages versus disadvantages
The constitution describes India as a ‘union of states’ and gives the states control over their own governments, which are directly elected. Apart from stipulating that elections have to be held every five years for both parliament and state assemblies, the constitution is silent over whether this should happen simultaneously.
The Supreme Court has held that wherever enacted laws are silent or make insufficient provision for the conduct of elections, the EC has residuary powers under the constitution, to act in an appropriate manner.
There are undoubtedly advantages in holding national and state elections together. It would reduce the time and cost involved in conducting elections in terms of the use of paramilitary forces, government staff on election duty, EC staff, organising booths, electronic voting machines and voter slips. The imposition of the ‘Model Code of Conduct’ every time an election is scheduled delays the implementation of central and state government infrastructure projects and welfare schemes, and takes away time and effort from governance issues. The cost of campaigning for parties would be less and, as some commentators hold, voters may vote for the same party at the centre and in the states, thereby promoting cooperative federalism and stable coalitions.
Nonetheless, the sheer logistics involved in holding simultaneous elections would perhaps be unmanageable. The electorate exceeds 670 million in about 7,00,000 polling stations spread across widely varying geographic and climatic zones. Polling stations are located in the snow-clad mountains in the Himalayas, the deserts of the Rajasthan and in sparsely populated islands in the Indian Ocean. In a large and diverse country, finding a period when elections can be held throughout the country is difficult.
The EC has to take into account the weather, the agricultural cycle, exam schedules and religious festivals and public holidays. The commission has to ensure peaceful polling, prevent booth capturing and violence, check expenditure of candidates, deal with petitions during the election, all of which require a vast number of paramilitary forces who are moved from one part of the country to another. There is also the question of what happens to simultaneous polls if a ruling party or coalition loses the confidence of an assembly before the five-year term of its government has ended. Will there then be an extended period of president’s rule, to ensure synchronicity with the election calendar?
The political agenda
Critics have alleged that the prime minister’s interest in simultaneous elections is politically motivated and does not arise out of a concern for better governance. Holding national and state elections together could, it is hoped, help the BJP create a ‘wave’ by a well-organised, aggressive, campaign like 2014, to persuade the electorate to vote for the same party, and capture power at the Centre and in the states. The use of social media today makes it possible for parties to reach out to voters in remote areas without holding rallies, something the BJP made good use of in the 2014 elections. The victory of the BJP across the country would help in promoting its ideology and programme of creating a culturally united ‘Hindu’ nation.
An ‘opposition mukt’ Bharat?
However, the trajectory that democratic politics has followed since independence does not seem to support this prospect. In the immediate post-independence period, elections to parliament and state assemblies were indeed held simultaneously. Media reports of the time show that the burden of winning elections was on the MLAs – not the MPs – who organised and carried out the campaign.
But this was a period of single party dominance. The number of opposition parties was limited, as was their size, and the Congress could win seats in parliament and in state assemblies in many states. The decline of the Congress and its support base in the states led Indira Gandhi in 1972, to disconnect national and state assembly elections. She had hoped by this, to increase central control over party organisations in the states and regain Congress’s dominance and meet the challenge posed by the rise of regional or state parties. However, she was proved wrong; the states emerged much stronger and developed a separate political and cultural arena. Regional and local issues assumed more importance in assembly elections.
There are many examples of the electorate in states voting differently in national and state elections, even when held temporally close to one another. The most recent example is Odisha in 2014, where both general elections and assembly election occurred in quick succession. Commenting on the subject in the 1980s, Paul Brass had maintained that the longer term tendencies on the sub-continent would continue to be towards greater pluralism and decentralisation.
Historically, regions with diverse cultures and languages have co-existed on the Indian sub-continent. The colonial period witnessed the rise of regional consciousness based on movements that provided regions an identity of their own. This eventually translated into the demand for linguistic states, post-independence. Even in its heyday, the single dominant Congress system could not cover all regions, notably the south and the northeast. In the late 1980s, the breakdown of the ‘Congress system’ and the parallel process of regionalisation of politics, have introduced changes that would make it difficult for a single party to capture power at the Centre and in the states.
The states today have strong parties which are able to maintain control over their home turf and forge alliances in national coalitions. In the 1984 national election, regional parties obtained only 11% of the total votes cast; by 2009 this rose to 28.4%, while in 2014, it was 27.6%. The BJP in the 2014 elections could gain only 31% of popular votes. Despite the achievement of a parliamentary majority by the BJP in the 2014 national elections, much negotiation and bargaining between the central and state governments was required recently before key pieces of legislation, such as the GST, could be agreed to by the latter. Underpinning these changes, the party system has moved from a single dominant, to a highly fragmented, multi-party system. As parliamentary majorities are manufactured in the states, it is worth asking whether there ever was a national party system. Instead, it could be electoral patterns in the states that have historically driven national politics.
Consequently, today the states have come to occupy a crucial position in our federal system. The rise of strong regional forces and new social identities have ensured that there is a common arena of state politics that is conscious of its own autonomy, that is somewhat divergent from national politics. It is for this reason that every state assembly election seems like a national election, throwing up new challenges to national parties. The contest almost everywhere is between a national party and regional parties, while parties based in regions are also competing for power at the Centre.
Thus, apart from not being particularly feasible, the simultaneous holding of parliamentary and state assembly elections is not suitable in our increasingly regionalised, federal democracy. As competition is the essence of democracy, it would not be desirable to have an “opposition mukt Bharat”.