Explained: Law Commission's Quest for 'Workable' Solution for Simultaneous Polls

In its draft report, the commission has discussed the relevant problems and recommended methods for synchronising elections in the country.

On August 30, the Law Commission of India submitted a draft report on ‘Simultaneous Elections’. In the 171-page report, the committee has concluded that “holding simultaneous elections would be ideal as well as desirable, but a workable formula is required to be provided in the Constitution”. Thus the commission has placed the draft report in the public domain in recognition of the need for further discussion and examination on the issue, before making a final recommendation to the government.

What does simultaneous election mean?

Before we look at what the term means, let us eliminate what it does not mean. The common understanding of a simultaneous election, the commission has noted, is that Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and local bodies’ elections are held on the same day. However, due to the large number of local bodies as well as the fact that election to such third-tier institutions is a state subject, the focus of the report is on simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies only.

Could we then see elections throughout India being held on one single day? No. The commission has categorically observed that “simultaneous elections would not mean that voting across the country for the House of the People and all the state assemblies take place on a single day. In a vast country like India, elections can take place only in phases”. Instead, if the proposal were to come into effect, this would mean that voters in a particular constituency would vote for the state legislature and Lok Sabha on the same day. Elections would continue to be held in phases.

Financial implications

Through an analysis of elections held simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha etc in 2014 with those that were held separately (with assembly elections being held after 2014) such as in Haryana and Delhi, the commission concluded that “segregated elections take away opportunities to optimise such costs and lead to yearly outflow of public money. From a financial consideration, implementing simultaneous elections seem to be not only feasible but also desirable and will result in a reduction of enormous costs involved in separate elections.”

Logistical issues

The issue of storage of electronic voting machines has been noted as a problem. At present, the same EVMs are used for elections in various states, however moving to a system of simultaneous election would necessitate the procurement of more EVMs and as a result, add to the storage problem.

With regard to the deployment of security forces during elections, the commission has observed that due to elections happening every six months, the security forces are ‘locked-in’ in election-related security arrangement instead of being deployed in other internal security assignments. The impact of the frequent elections on schools, which usually function as polling booths, and disruption of the general academic environment has been noted as yet another reason to move towards simultaneous elections.

File photo of a VVPAT machine. Credit: PTI

Simultaneous election equals more governance

In the report, the commission has endorsed the view that frequent elections lead to more focus on electoral success than on the governance. Interestingly, it also says that elections being a once-in-five-year affair would result in a substantial reduction in “hate speeches, violence and law and order problems”. Reference has also been made to the problem of black money in election, and it has been suggested that such simultaneous elections would reduce its role. The impact on voter participation has been examined briefly by the commission, based on which it has concluded that simultaneous elections will boost voter turnout, even in geographically remote areas.

Implementation framework

The commission has recommended three options for synchronising the elections in the country:

Option 1:

Elections to 12 state assemblies and one union territory (with legislature), could be synchronised with the elections to the House of the People (Lok Sabha) in the year 2019.

  • Out of these, elections to the Legislative Assemblies of five States, viz., Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Telangana are due with the elections to the House of the People, and, therefore, stand synchronised.
  • If there is political will, and consensus is arrived at, elections to four state assemblies, viz., Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and NCT of Delhi (Union Territory with Legislature), can also be held along with the House of the People and the five states mentioned in (i) above, in 2019, subject their voluntarily agreeing to take recourse to Article 172(1) or by the operation of law.
  • In case of the other four states viz., Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan, where elections are due in early January of 2019 (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and end of 2018 (Mizoram), extension of up to six months is required to attain synchronisation with the elections to the House of the People in 2019, which will entail amendment to Article 172 of the constitution.
  • In case of the remaining 16 states and Puducherry (union territory with legislature), holding simultaneous elections in 2019 will be impracticable. Therefore, the elections to these state legislative assemblies can be conducted towards the end of 2021, which will be approximately midway of the term of the House of the People, assuming that the term of the 17th Lok Sabha begins in mid of 2019. In such a scenario, the maximum period by which any state assembly is to be extended will be by 13 months (in the case of Bihar) and the maximum period of curtailment is seventeen months (in the case of Karnataka). The term of the state legislative assemblies so constituted as a result of the elections in 2021 shall be only for 30 months or till June 2024, whichever is earlier. Thereafter, elections to the House of the People and all the state legislative assemblies and union territories (with legislatures) can be held together from 2024, completely synchronising the elections.

Option 2:

  • As a second option, once the elections to 12 state legislative assemblies and one union territory (with legislature), are synchronised along with the elections to the House of the People in 2019 and the remaining 16 state legislative assemblies and one union territory (with Legislature) by the end of 2021, the elections will stand synchronised in such a manner that they are held only twice in five years, repeating the cycle of the elections to the House of the People and 13 states (including one union territory with legislature) in mid-2024 and elections to 17 states (including one union territory with legislature) by the end of 2026. This will result in elections only twice in a period of five years.
  • Synchronisation of elections as given in Option I above will, therefore, require suitable amendment to Article172 of the constitution or insertion of a new clause to that Article, for (i) extension/curtailment of the terms of legislative assemblies of certain States; and (ii) limiting the terms of the state legislative assemblies constituted as a result of the elections to be held in end of 2021, so as to be synchronised with the elections to the House of People to be held in mid-2024. For Option II, Amendment only as mentioned at (i) above will be required and the cycle of simultaneous election will be such that elections are held twice in a period of five years, i.e., mid-2019, end-2021, mid2024, end-2026, etc.
  • Also, if felt necessary, provisos to sections 14 and 15 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which deal with the notification for elections to the House of the People and the state legislative assemblies, respectively, may also be amended, along with a sunset clause.

Option 3:

  • As a third option, if it is not possible for some reasons to conduct simultaneous elections as discussed in the above two options, then, it is recommended that all elections falling due in one calendar year be conducted together during such part of the year, which is conducive to all the state legislatures involved and/or the House of the People (if sooner dissolved). Even for achieving this option, the provisions contained in Articles 85(1) and 174(1) of the Constitution and the provisos to sections 14 and 15 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 may be amended suitably.

Other recommendations

In addition, the commission recommended the following:

  1. Ratification by states: Although the proposed constitutional amendments do not fall within the purview of the proviso of Article 368(2), as a cautionary measure, the government may seek ratification by no less than one-half of the states.
  2. No confidence motion: The concept of ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’ i.e., a member or group of members moving no-confidence motion would have to simultaneously put forward a proposal for forming an alternative government may be adopted in place of the existing ‘vote of no-confidence’ in order to ensure the stability of the government. Amendments should be made to rule 198 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the Lok Sabha to reduce the number of such motions, similar amendments should be made in the rules of the state legislatures.
  3. The term of the House constitution upon dissolution: Where the house/assembly is constituted upon the dissolution of the house/assembly before the expiration of its duration, it would continue only for the remainder of time the dissolved house/assembly would have continued had it not been dissolved, instead of a fresh five year term. This has been recommended to ensure the cycle of simultaneous election is not disturbed. It could be done by adding a proviso to Article 83(2) and 172(1) of the constitution.
  4. By-elections: The commission has recommended that all by-elections falling due in one calendar year may be conducted together.

At this stage, it is safe to say that the issue of simultaneous elections remains a work in progress, facing both legal and political hurdles.

Wajahat M. Jilani is a fourth-year law student at the Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.