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Simultaneous Elections vs Accountability

Are elections a mere instrument to elect the government or a meaningful democratic exercise?

 

“One Nation, One Election’’ has been an issue of great priority for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This intention of the BJP was clear in its move to take up the discussion of such a proposal on priority in the all-party meet that took place on 19 June 2019. The BJP seeks to define the idea of holding simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. While there appears to be an acceptance of the idea among the National Democratic Alliance constituents along with a few regional parties, certain opposition parties have opposed it on the ground that it may adversely affect constitutional democracy and federalism. Many suspect that such a move may lead to the consolidation of authoritarian tendencies of the ruling party. Hence, it requires due deliberation and careful consideration.

Though the idea of holding simultaneous elections is not new, as it was mooted by the Election Commission in 1982 as well as the Law Commission in 1999, the recent impetus has come from a discussion paper by NITI Aayog members as well as a report by the Law Commission. Furthermore, this idea has been pushed forcefully by the Prime Minister in his speeches and monologues, thereby giving it political weightage. Primarily, the rationale for this idea rests on the arguments for efficiency and expenditure. The simultaneous conduct of elections is said to help reduce the overall expenditure on holding elections in a staggered and sequential manner, as has been the general precedent since 1969. Moreover, it would also remove the impediment in taking policy decisions due to the adherence to the model code of conduct at different points in time. Such arguments are essentially managerial/instrumental in nature and show scant regard for constitutional principles and democratic values.

The implementation of this idea would demand the curtailment of the ongoing tenure of several state legislatures, which would effectively mean undermining the democratic mandate. Even if this process is to be ensured without invoking Article 356 and were to be carried out consensually, it would stand to harm the federal principle. Although the non-simultaneity was an outcome of the overreach of the then central government in the first place, over time, with the changes in correlation of political forces, it has aided the strengthening of federalism. It is so because specificities of state-level issues and the regional forces addressing them prominently find better scope and space with the singular focus being on the elections in particular states. Simultaneity threatens to drown these specificities and further strengthen the unitary bias, particularly in the context of the concentration of immense resources and the control of the narrative with one party. Various assembly elections that happen to be held separately from general elections to the Lok Sabha can exercise democratic pulls and pressures on the union government. Besides, elections held at different times can possibly force the union government to correct its anti-people policies, and pay heed to the demands of the masses.

Furthermore, the proposals put forward to sustain the simultaneity stand in brazen contravention to the principle of accountability of the executive to the people through the legislature. It is so becuase the sustenance of simultaneous elections demands a provision for fixed tenure. With the absence of such a provision, the pattern of simultaneity may be broken if a successful no-confidence motion against a government, at the union or state level were to necessitate mid-term elections. Such eventuality is sought to be addressed through proposals, such as a so-called constructive no-confidence motion (which can be moved only by proving the possibility of an alternative arrangement), President’s rule, or immediate election for a curtailed period (that is a remainder of the term). None of these ideas find any place in the Constitution. Much premium is put on the value of stability and continuity while advocating the fixed tenure, and the positively disruptive destabilising (for the status quo) of the quality of democracy is sought to be willy-nilly sacrificed. Ideas such as the constructive vote of no-confidence dilute the accountability to legislature and raise the question as to whether, in a democracy, stability can be given precedence over accountability. Such dilution would also entail further entrenchment of the ongoing process of the Presidentialisation of the polity by stealth. This process also gets a boost as the simultaneous elections would unduly favour the big national parties—better endowed with resources and reach—and make the political contest increasingly bipartisan and centred on personalities of leaders.

The aforementioned “managerial instrumental” conception is fundamentally at odds with the normative content of democracy, embodied in the idea of popular sovereignty. Such a conception looks at elections as a mere procedure or method to elect the government to govern the people-nation. (Extreme forms of such managerialism would see elections itself as a hindrance in governance.) It imagines that people are passive voters who have to vote every five years and then withdraw from public activity, entrusting it to the executive. However as Ram Manohar Lohia used to argue, “Zinda kaume paanch saal intezaar nahi kar sakti” (Active masses cannot wait for five years). Along with popular extra-parliamentary agitations and movements, elections in various states also provide a scope for the expression of this activity of the masses which is essential for the health of democracy. After all, elections are an exercise whereby the principle of popular sovereignty is put into practice. One can debate how far such popular activity is possible in money- and media-dominated elections, but the underlying logic of simultaneous elections seeks to foreclose such a possibility itself.

Updated On : 15th Jul, 2019

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