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Simultaneous Elections – A Necessary Metamorphosis

After the Prime Minister and the President pitched for it recently, there has been a lot of discussion about simultaneous elections. So, let us explore its feasibility and find out if conducting  elections to Parliament and state legislatures together is mere rhetoric or offers some genuine benefits to the country and its citizens.

The concept of simultaneous elections is not new to the country since the elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 and 1967. The cycle got disrupted due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, followed by the dissolution of the fourth Lok Sabha in 1970. The term of the fifth Lok Sabha was extended till 1977 under Article 352. In the following years Lok Sabha was dissolved many times, as was the case with various State Assemblies.

Terms of the House of People and State Legislative Assemblies

Article 83 of the Constitution of India mentions the tenures of both Houses of Parliament (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha). Article 83(2)11 talks about a term of five years for Lok Sabha from the date of its first sitting, unless dissolved earlier. Similar provisions under Article 172(1) talk about a five-year tenure for State Legislative Assemblies from the date of its first sitting. Further, the proviso to Article 83(2) of the Constitution provides that when a proclamation of Emergency takes place, the term of the House may be extended for a period not exceeding one year at a time by Parliament by law and not extending in any case beyond a period of six months after the Proclamation has ceased to

operate. Under the proviso to Article 172(1) of the Constitution, similar provisions also exist for State Legislative Assemblies.

What the above provisions mean is that the tenure of the House cannot be extended beyond 5 years except under Emergency, but a premature dissolution is possible before the expiration of its tenure.

Simultaneous Elections: A Definition

As per the discussion paper issued by NITI Aayog, the term “Simultaneous Elections” means structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronized. In such a situation, a voter would normally vote in order to elect members of the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly on a single day and at the same time.

The Concerns with current Electoral Cycle

The major concerns associated with the existing electoral cycle are given below:

  • Huge expenditures incurred by the Government and political parties due to frequent elections
  • Due to imposition of Model Code of Conduct by the Election Commission, development programmes and governance are negatively impacted on a frequent basis
  • Brings out religious, communal and caste issues across the nation frequently
  • Inconvenience to general public before and during the elections
  • Shift of focus away from governance and policy-making
  • Engagement of security forces for a long periods of time on multiple occasions

Benefits of Simultaneous Elections

As per a report submitted by the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, holding simultaneous election would reduce:

  1. Massive expenditure incurred for separate elections.
  2. Policy paralysis due to the Model Code of Conduct during election time
  3. Negative impact on delivery essentials
  4. Burden on crucial manpower deployed during election time

Key Challenges & Concerns

Before we think of Simultaneous Elections, we need answers to some of these key questions. What can be done to synchronise the terms of State Assemblies and Lok Sabha for the first time? Looking at the logistics involved and security required, does the Election Commission of India (ECI) have the capability of undertaking such a massive task?

It is generally said that a majority of the Indian voters are not mature enough to differentiate between voting choices for Lok Sabha and the State Assembly in case of synchronised elections. So, this could result in national issues impacting voting patterns in State Assemblies and vice versa.  All of this could lead to a person voting for the same political party for both Lok Sabha and the State Assembly without being able to make adequate distinctions, if such distinctions need to be made. This could eventually defeat the whole democratic process.

As per a recent study published by the IDFC institute, on average, there is a 77 per cent chance that a voter in India will vote for the same party for both the State Assembly and Parliament when elections are held together. Analysing electoral data for the last four Lok Sabha elections, the study observed that in states holding their Assembly elections together with parliamentary polls, the trend of choosing the same party has increased from 68 per cent in 1999 to 86 per cent in 2014.

However, the concerns raised above were rebutted by the Union Minister for Urban Development. His recent statement notes: “The fears that holding simultaneous elections would affect the federal nature of the Indian polity appear to be completely unfounded. As a matter of fact, it would help in better coordination between the governments at the Centre and in various States, rather than moving the country towards becoming a unitary state. Did the holding of simultaneous elections between 1952 and 1967 (when this cycle was broken for politically motivated reasons) in any way make the country a unitary state at that time? Is there any evidence to this effect for anybody to draw such a conclusion? India’s parliamentary democracy, based on strong constitutional principles, is mature enough not to slip into a unitary model just because of simultaneou selections. The country will achieve progress and remain strong only when the Centre and States act as equal partners, irrespective of the political differences of those governing at the national and regional levels”.

Many critics believe that if politicians face the electorate more than once in 5 years, it increases their accountability and pushes them to perform. Some also argue that frequent elections also offer temporary employment opportunities to many at the grassroot level, which will not be the case, if simultaneous elections were held.

Nevertheless, the biggest argument remain whether the Election Commission is equipped to conduct polls on such a massive scale.

The Chief Election Commissioner of India, Nasim Zaidi supports the idea of conducting simultaneous elections. Recently, in an interview, he said: “To conduct these elections simultaneously we would need certain logistic arrangements in terms of procurement of more electronic machines, hiring of temporary workers, and staggering the election dates.We are on board with our proposal that elections can be held together provided there is consensus, unanimity of opinion among the political parties and also there are amendments in the Constitution.”

Way Forward

Recently, the Prime Minister has talked quite a few times about initiating a dialogue on Simultaneous Elections, which shows the current government’s seriousness about this idea. There are many compelling reasons in favour of simultaneous elections. When weighed against each other, the reasons in favour of synchronised elections prevail over those against the same.

With the Indian econony on a fasttrack and given the soaring expectations of the younger generation, it is important that the government make all possible efforts to provide governance to a superlative degree. On a recent public platform, the Prime Minister said:

“If India is to meet the challenge of change, mere incremental progress is not enough. A metamorphosis is needed….My vision for India is rapid transformation, not gradual evolution”

And for that metamorphosis, simultaneous elections would be a much needed step.