ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Indian Democracy and Simultaneous Elections

Electoral reforms ought to uphold the democratic values of federalism and an active citizenry.

The idea of “one nation, one election” has once again entered public discussion when it was revealed that the union government has set up a committee led by former President Ram Nath Kovind to study the feasibility of this idea and suggest necessary electoral reforms. The committee’s mandate is to “examine and make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies, municipalities, and panchayats, keeping in view the existing framework under the Constitution of India and other statu­tory provisions.” It would also propose stages and timelines for holding simultaneous polls if they are not feasible in a single round.

It is notable that, in 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice submitted its report on the “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies.” The report highlighted three main reasons against the current practice of holding separate or non-simultaneous elections in India. First, it entails a massive expenditure for the country. Second, the enforcement of the model code of conduct during the election period leads to a certain “policy paralysis,” implying adverse consequences for the formulation and implementation of crucial developmental activities. Third, it diverts valuable human resources towards the mammoth task of election duty. The report suggested a two-phase approach as a more realistic way to conduct simultaneous elections. The report advocated that some state assemblies could have their polls in the middle of the Lok Sabha’s tenure. The rest of the state assemblies could have their polls at the end of the Lok Sabha’s tenure.

It is not as if simultaneous elections are altogether new in the history of electoral politics in India. The first elections of India as a sovereign nation took place from 1951 to 1952, spanning more than three months. This was the beginning of India’s electoral journey regarding simultaneous polls, with elections for Parliament and state legislative assemblies being held at the same time. However, this arrangement did not last long, as states underwent reorganisation and assemblies were dissolved before their terms ended. The first disruption of this synchronised electoral cycle occurred in Kerala in 1959, when the union government invoked Article 356 of the Constitution and dismissed the state government led by the Communist Party of India within three years of its formation in 1957.

To conduct simultaneous elections, it would not be enough to merely secure the backing of various political parties and stakeholders. It would also likely require at least five changes to the Constitution and a huge number of extra electronic voting and paper-trail machines. The five likely changes to the Constitution would involve modifying Article 83 on the duration of the houses of Parliament, Article 85 on the President’s power to dissolve the Lok Sabha, Article 172 on the duration of the state legislatures, Article 174 on the governor’s power to dissolve the state legislatures, and Article 356 on the imposition of President’s rule in the states. In addition, specific amendments in the Representation of the People Act, 1951 might also be required. The committee is also tasked with exploring and pro­posing feasible solutions for situations where simultaneous elections result in a hung Parliament or assembly, a vote of no confidence, defections, and other similar events.

If India enacts the idea of “one nation, one election,” then it will join three other countries in the world that hold simultaneous elections. Currently, Belgium, South Africa, and Sweden hold simultaneous elections at the federal and provincial levels. The 2015 report mentions the examples of South Africa and Sweden as precedents for pursuing simultaneous elections in India. For example, both national and provincial legislatures in South Africa are elected for five-year terms at the same time. Sweden also has a fixed date for electing its national, provincial, and local representatives, who serve for four-year terms simultaneously. However, South Africa and Sweden use variations of proportional representation in their elections, while India uses the first-past-the-post system.

Two broad implications of this idea could be mentioned at this stage. First, it is true that non-simultaneous elections started as a result of the interference of the union government in state legislatures in the past. However, with the emergence of multiple regional parties, it has gradually become a factor that supports federalism. Frequent and non-simultaneous elections allow more space to regional parties as well as regional issues to garner national limelight. This is because the state-level issues and the regional forces that address them have more opportunities to highlight their specificities when the elections are focused on particular states. “One nation, one election” risks to overshadow these regional specificities by privileging a more uniform narrative at the time of the elections, thus giving a clear advantage to national parties, especially parties that have disproportionate money and media influence. Moreover, elections held at different times can potentially compel the union government to revise its policies that are detrimental to the people.

Second, this idea looks at elections with a certain instrumentalist perspective, obscuring the normative content of parliamentary democracy. Periodic elections are not a mere technical or procedural instrument for electing our political representatives, they are also constitutional channels for expressing popular sovereignty, which lie at the core of our democracy. While debates about how to channel the people’s mandate more effectively and efficiently at all levels of government are welcome, our starting point ought to be more, and not less, of people’s involvement in the affairs of the government.



Updated On : 18th Sep, 2023
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