With Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsing the idea of simultaneous elections for a couple of years now, it has become amply clear that the Centre is determined to move ahead on this front. As a result, today there is a widespread expectation that the country may go in for simultaneous polls in 2022. Are we ready for such a dramatic shift?
The idea of simultaneous elections has its pros and cons. On the face of it, the idea is appealing. Particularly since, at present, the election codes of the Election Commission of India (ECI) curtail some powers of an incumbent government during elections, resulting in delays in implementing welfare schemes which are already underway.
The arguments against simultaneous elections include that it amounts to an acceptance of a presidential form of governance without explicitly stating it, and that it facilitates one-person domination without the country opting for such a system formally. This also means a dilution of the federal system in favour of centralisation. This leads to homogenisation of the country, instead of bringing equity, sustaining plurality, and promoting local and regional leadership.
The effects on India’s federal polity
We should not ignore that India is a country consisting of several states under a federal structure. How could it be “one election”, unless it is “one leader” for the entire country? How can anyone deny the fact that “one nation, one election, one leader” is not good either for the democracy or for the inclusive development of the nation? Similarly, it is not good for the federal system, and it cannot assure people of a free and fair election.
The idea of simultaneous elections should not deprive the states of having a popularly elected government on their own. Or, deprive a majority government in the states to wind up when the ruling party in New Delhi loses majority and goes for a midterm poll. It should not force states to dissolve their legislative assemblies and go for elections irrespective of its five-year tenure. Such a measure would mean imposing president’s rule in states on new grounds. Simultaneous elections should not offer yet another opportunity for the federal government to impose the president’s rule in states.
The core argument for simultaneous elections is that a considerable expenditure is spent on conducting elections at present. Additionally, it is also argued that the development process gets impeded because of the model code of the ECI.
More specifically, the reasons given for simultaneous polls are that frequent polls hurt the economy and slows down development. Yes, elections do cost, but it has to be weighed against the democratic system that we have adopted. The ECI deserves praise for its superb job of conducting polls in India at least cost to the public exchequer. On the other hand, what should be concerning for the country is what the candidates and the political parties spend, and more importantly, the kind of inducements they offer to the electorate every time and in a competitive way. This is what should worry the nation more. Also, it is important to remember that what is spent on polls in the country in all is much less than what the union government and the state governments spend on unproductive publicity and advertising yearly with all kinds of claims and promises.
Development at the centre of the debate
Regarding the issue of development, it is true that going by the poll code certain limitations are placed on the incumbent. But the cause for worry is the way the leaders and parties accuse each other and tend to vitiate the governance process. The model code by itself does not impede development. Even assuming that it does, it could be modified once the parties come to an understanding, and also by abiding with it so that the essential and on-going public services and projects are not affected. It is the incumbent who has to demonstrate an exemplary attitude and should not succumb to vote-getting compulsions.
So far, India has been a witness to the imposition of president’s rule on 108 occasions, which dislodged the popularly-elected government in states. Only a few times, it was due to the fact that a legislative house could not elect a leader in the normal course. In most cases, the president’s rule was imposed at the discretion of the leaders of the federal government or its agent in the state, the governor. Transparency in the process has been missing, and suo moto announcements have become a practice. Instead of curbing such practices, the idea of simultaneous elections could amount to an undermining of our democratic roots, resulting in erosion of our political plurality.
Instead, the need of the hour is to find alternate ways of conducting elections at all levels with minimum cost and in a free and fair manner, and to re-look at the duration of restrictions under poll codes. Second, efforts have to be made to curb the misuse of the government machinery by the incumbent party to its political advantage in elections. The question that we also need to debate is whether we should go for “one agenda” and “one leader” driving the poll process at the cost of local concerns, issues and interests becoming secondary.
The distinction among elections held at different levels gets blurred when voters are required to vote simultaneously. These questions need to be looked at from the point of view of both feasibility under the constitution and its desirability to democracy and development. From both these criteria, simultaneous elections could be reasonably pursued if and when we formally adopt a presidential system.
A myriad other political challenges
Now, let us get to other important and long-pending poll reforms. There are many issues that need to be dealt with. The first is to consider the proportional representation of elections in the place of the first-post-the past electoral system (FPTP), which we have been employing for nearly seven decades. A debate on this is more pertinent. Second, bring political parties under a regulatory framework and into a transparency regime by bringing them under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Third, the Prime Minister and chief ministers should be elected in a similar way as the speakers of parliament and assembly. Fourth, the whip system on the floor of legislatures should be limited to exceptional situations. Fifth, even more urgent, curb poll expenditure at all levels, including at the level of governments, political parties, candidates, and then come up with compliance mechanisms to put a ceiling on the expenditure in addition to bringing down the duration of the poll process. Several parliamentary committees have gone into these aspects over the decades without much headway in the process. Simultaneous elections in India, “one nation, one election” notion, is an antithesis to good governance.
The “one election” idea undermines regional parties, local leaders and the regional agenda. It promotes prospects of one leader, one party, and chances of misleading by whipping up passions and popularism. Such emotional appeals have already begun to threaten the spirit of federalism in the country. Certain key persuasive instruments that are available today for consensus manufacturing country-wide were not available during 1952–67 when we started with simultaneous polls. Instead, India would be better-off if it pursues political reforms first. Simultaneous elections could be adopted easily, but it has doubtful and difficult implications. The basic poll reforms, on the other hand, are difficult to push through but has durable positive implications to the parliamentary democracy and federal system that we have adopted.
N. Bhaskara Rao is the founder-chairman of Centre for Media Studies (CMS) and of Marketing and Development Research Associates (MDRA). He is the author of numerous books.