Past Continuous: History Shows Simultaneous Polls for Parliament and States Is a Bad Idea

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Persistent raising of the #OneNationOnePoll issue for more than a year and  half by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet another instance of obfuscating facts and oversimplifying the democratic process while setting up one more pseudo-issue on which party leaders and publicists get the opportunity to rage against those arguing against the idea, and depict them as anti-nationals and groups blocking development of the nation. The way the issue has been framed, there is a worrying insinuation: anyone expressing doubts – even nuanced – over whether simultaneous polls is indeed a good idea, is suspect and against the national cause. But, it is worth examining if the idea is indeed good and not just from the perspective of necessity and feasibility.

To comprehend the extent to which the entire campaign is based on shallow knowledge of India’s political and electoral past, it worth taking a short walk in history beginning with the events in Kerala 60 years ago in 1957 and its immediate backdrop. For the uninitiated, it was in this year when the first communist government in the world acquired political power by a democratic election. After the polls in the newly-created state, formed on the basis of the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission, E.M.S. Namboodripad became chief minister at the head of a united communist party regime which though slightly short of a clear majority of its own, formed the government with support of a few independent members of legislative assemblies.

EMS Namboodripad

E.M.S. Namboodripad. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not just these events 60 years ago, but by sheer coincidence, developments 50 years back too, are central to Modi’s campaign to hold simultaneous polls for parliament as well as all state assemblies. In 1967, the fourth general elections were held and returned the Congress to office at the Centre, though with a much reduced majority. More importantly however, the party lost power in several states where a clutch of coalition governments were formed. But because parties that came together were a disparate lot and also due to assistance from Congress in sowing differences, these governments collapsed necessitating mid-term polls. Indira Gandhi too decided to order a snap parliamentary poll in 1971. These events provide the basis for the belief that elections were synchronous till 1967 but thereafter everything went awry. Modi’s argument is that India’s governance has become difficult because of asynchronous polls and #OneNationOnePoll is the magic wand for all ills. Hold polls in states and for parliament at one go and bharat shall be metamorphosed into the Golden Bird of yore.

It however, is not so simplistic. Even before the second general elections in 1957 when Namboodripad became chief minister, it became evident that in a nation as large as India, simultaneous polls could at best ensure smooth transition from a colonial administrative system to a democratic and independent system. In 1951-52 elections were held simultaneously throughout the country, These included states that ceased to exist after new states were formed in 1956-57. Travancore Cochin and Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) were among these states which merged into newly formed Kerala and Punjab. As legislatively mandated, the next polls in these states should have been held in 1957. But in both states mid-term polls were held in 1954 because governments were reduced to a minority and no alternative could be cobbled up. Even after a mid-term election, the government in Travancore-Cochin was not stable and collapsed in 1956 after a split in the Congress. Avoiding dissolution of the assemblies would have triggered horse-trading. But the Congress party was not delighted that communists came to power in 1957 and after engineering desertions, imposed President’s Rule in 1959 leading to elections in 1960.

The third general elections were held in 1962 but a year earlier in 1961, assembly polls had to be held in Orissa because the Congress party failed to work in tandem with its coalition partner, ironically named Gantantra Parishad. But what were straws in the wind became a major trend post 1967. Some states like Madhya Pradesh could avoid dissolution of the assembly because the chief minister was routinely changed to accommodate different factions. But this was not the case elsewhere: in Bihar polls were held in 1969 and 1972; in 1968 and 1972 in Haryana; in West Bengal four polls were held in 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1972 and finally in Orissa an early poll was called in 1971. The snap parliamentary poll called by Gandhi in 1971 too ensured India transforming into a country of serial elections.

Also read: Simultaneous Elections to Parliament and State Assemblies is Not Good for Democracy

The process did not cease because in democracies, people have the right to protest against government policy and in the absence of the Right to Recall, agitations remain the only legitimate process to try and topple governments. When governments are formed by coalitions or with external support of other parties or independent legislators, protestors often demand fresh elections. A new government is the only way to escape an anti-people regime. This right of the people cannot be taken away by making changes in laws and fixing tenure of legislatures. It would result in unprincipled coalitions forming the government becoming the norm and not an one-off development. For instance, the mandate in 2015 in Bihar was overwhelmingly anti-BJP, yet Nitish Kumar has now allied with the party. He would not have faced an moral loss of face, as he currently does, if there was a law to prevent fresh polls in the state till 2020, it would have appeared to be the perfectly legitimate decision.

It is not that elections became asynchronous mainly due to political events in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Assam for instance, witnessed students agitation that paralysed the political process in the early 1980s leading to state polls in 1983 and 1985. After storming to power in 1983, N.T. Rama Rao chose to order snap polls in 1985 to capitalise on the crude Congress attempt to replace him with a Congress lackey when he went abroad for a cardiac surgery. Orissa continued to be politically volatile through the 1970s and elections were held in 1971, 1974, 1977 and 1980. So was the case in Uttar Pradesh where the Janata Party government fell following a split in the ruling party on the lines of developments at the Centre. An election in 1980 was held and the Congress returned to power.

Elections have been held prior to schedule for a variety of reasons besides political turbulence and instability. Often the Centre invoked Article 356 to dismiss unfriendly state governments and impose President’s Rule. Chief ministers have also often opted to advance polls in anticipation on making political gains. Besides Gandhi in 1971, even Atal Bihari Vajpayee advanced polls by several months in 2004 hoping to ride on India Shining. It however turned out to be a miscalculation. There have also been incidents like in 1992 when the Narasimha Rao government dismissed BJP governments in UP, MP, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Even before Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation in 2014 necessitating mid-term polls for Delhi assembly, elections in the capital were not synchronous to Lok Sabha elections because the state was formed in 1993. Barring dismissal of state governments by the Centre for flimsy reason, none of the other instances can be put on the prohibited list by making changes in law.

Also read: Why Modi’s Idea of Holding State, Parliamentary Elections Together May Not Work

State assemblies, like biennial elections to Rajya Sabha serve to balance ‘spikes’ in electoral behaviour. History has demonstrated that verdicts have after been driven by immediate ’cause’ and does not hold-out over even a small duration on time. Notice for instance the debacles suffered by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi afters securing convincing mandates in 1971 and 1984 respectively. It is early to state if the 2014 verdict is going the same way but the #OneNationOnePoll is a device to insulate the BJP from a repeat of history by flagging an issue that is unlikely to become reality and use that scenario to generate antipathy directed at BJP’s opponents.

Over the past three years, Modi and Arun Jaitley often expressed annoyance at the composition of Rajya Sabha and argued that the government was constrained by tyranny of those who cannot get elected to Lok Sabha. Discounting that the finance minister himself is one of them, Modi’s frequent call for Rajya Sabha to be “in tune” with Lok Sabha’s political character reveals that playing the blame game is integral to his style. He clearly wishes to put responsibility of non-deliverance of several promises on not having sufficient numbers. Often the Upper House and states where other parties are in power are targeted for blocking government initiatives.

Also read: Constitutional Experts Decry Modi’s Call to Hold Simultaneous Polls to Parliament, Assemblies

The #OneNationOnePoll campaign is undoubtedly driven the wish to maximise gains when the going is good. But while this may be beneficial for a party, it is against democratic ethos. American think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, conducted a study after 2014 polls and concluded that if simultaneous elections had been held in states simultaneously, the BJP and its NDA partners would have swept most states. But in just a year or so the trend was reversed in Bihar and Delhi. Undoubtedly, asynchronous polls makes India more democratic and prevents concentration of power in few hands or in a single party.

The principal reasons cited to make the case for simultaneous polls are:

massive expenditure for holding polls in rapid succession;
impediments to governance because of Model Code of Conduct; and
impact on delivery of essential services and burden on manpower deployed for conducting elections.

There is no doubt that democracy is an expensive system compared to totalitarian regimes or monarchies. Renewal of mandate costs money, requires manpower and restricts public discourse on other issues. But democracy is also the only system which makes political leaders answerable to the lowest common denominator. And, if there is a price to pay for this, so be it.

But if there is consensus between prime minister and other leaders that the Model Code of Conduct which frequently come into effect does indeed obstruct governance and slows administration, there is no stopping the political class from engaging with the Election Commission and other stakeholders to make the code less rigid. State funding of polls will also go a long way in reducing cost of electioneering, now dominated by black money. Fixing the tenure of parliament and state legislatures will seriously undermine democracy and saddle people with unscrupulous coalitions that do not have the mandate to work together.

#OneNationOnePoll is little beyond another jumla on the lines of One Nation, One Tax, One Nation, One Healthcare, One Nation, One Education. India is not the only democracy where asynchronous are a regular feature. Political leaders in these countries have made peace with political pluralism and it is time in India to put the democratic principle over party interest.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin