Let me begin first and foremost with a very candid confession: I don’t believe that we should rush straightaway into a hasty conclusion on the moot subject of whether there should be simultaneous Lok Sabha and State Assembly polls or not. We must discuss it thoroughly and weigh all the pros and cons before coming to any conclusion. Only then should we decide on should there be simultaneous Lok Sabha and State Assembly polls or not because that would certainly be the right approach to it.
It is not hidden from anyone that Narendra Modi is the biggest proponent of simultaneous Lok Sabha and State Assembly polls. He has in the recent past time and again harped on the nation returning once again to the simultaneous national and state elections that prevailed in India till 1967. He very strongly bats in its favour as he feels that the nation will stand to gain in more ways than one and the most prominent being reduction in the money expenditure during elections. It may be recalled that it was way back on August 12, 2012 that in his blog, BJP veteran and former Deputy PM LK Advani had floated the idea of holding simultaneous polls saying he had discussed it with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee and found both of them were “receptive” to the idea. This again is not a small thing.
It was in April 2017 that the NITI Aayog had suggested synchronized two-phase polls for both the State Assembly and the Lok Sabha. It may be recalled that prior to that even a Parliamentary panel had recommended it. In 2015, the Standing Committee on Law gives a report on holding simultaneous election saying that it will save expenditure on polls, stop policy paralysis that results due to imposition of model code of conduct during frequent polls. There is certainly a lot of merit in this valid point. The former President Pranab Mukherjee too had himself voiced his full support to this and had waxed eloquent on this during this year’s Republic Day address to the nation saying that, “The time is also ripe for a constructive debate on electoral reforms and a return to the practice of the early decades after independence when elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies were held simultaneously.” Definitely when a person of the eminence of a former President who had earlier even held important portfolios in Centre like Defence, Finance among others says something on such a vital topic, his views have to be given due deference.
Most recently, the Election Commission while favouring simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls said all political parties need to be brought on board before such an exercise was carried out. An Election Commission official made it clear that, “The Election Commission in its earlier responses to the government has underlined the need for political consensus. All parties have to be on board, following which a constitutional amendment will have to be made. Articles 83(2) and 172(1) do not allow the Lok Sabha and State Assembly terms to extend beyond five years and Article 356 allows the Union Government to dismiss a State Government in case of law and order failure.” The government will also have to address the key issue of what happens if a State Government does not complete a term.
None other than the Election Commissioner OP Rawat has himself said that, “The Election Commission has always been of the view that simultaneous elections will give enough time for incumbent government to formulate policies and implement programmes continuously for a longer time without interruptions caused by the imposition of the model code of conduct.” He too said that the step would be possible only when necessary changes in the Constitution and the Representation of the People Act were carried out. He claimed that the election watchdog would be ready to hold Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously after September next year that is 2018.
Needless to add, this move could cut poll costs by hundreds of crores of rupees which is quite a significant amount. Existing legal and constitutional provisions mandates that elections are to be held within six months ahead of the end of the term of an Assembly or the Lok Sabha. Rawat added that, “The Commission may conduct such elections after six months [after constitutional and legal changes are made]”. The Assembly elections for Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha are due in mid-2019, along with the next general polls.
To say the least, Rawat said that the Election Commission was in 2015 asked to give its view on the synchronized polls. He also went on to say that, “The Commission gave its views on the matter in March that year. It had suggested a few steps that need to be taken before such elections are made feasible.” He said it would be logistically possible to hold the elections together if sufficient time was given to the Commission.
Besides, it needs 24 lakh each Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) Machines. Rawat added that, “We need two sets of EVMs – one for the Lok Sabha and another for the Assembly polls.” He said orders had already been placed for more number of EVMs and VVPAT machines and new inventory had started coming in. He also revealed that, “The Commission would be able to get the required number of EVMs and VVPAT machines by mid 2019 or before if need be.”
Truth be told, while parliamentary polls are scheduled for 2019, assembly elections will be due in eight states by September 2018. Polls in Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are slated for the end of 2018 and early 2019. Polls for the remaining four states are slated to be held with the general elections. The Election Commission dubbed the idea of simultaneous polls as not “insurmountable” but pointed out that it would need over Rs 9,284.15 crore for procuring the additional EVMs and VVPAT systems.
At the moment, we see that most opposition parties have responded negatively to Election Commissioner OP Rawat’s assertion that the Election Commission would be ready to hold simultaneous elections by September 2018. They said it was neither feasible nor realistic, besides being anti-democratic. They pointed out that there had been no consensus among the parties.
Truly speaking, many of the opposition parties have said that it would be impracticable as long as Article 356 which allows the Centre to dismiss a State government if law and order fails is on the statute books. The Congress, as the largest opposition party did not seem to favour simultaneous polls but its response was measured. Senior Congress leader and eminent as also senior Supreme Court lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that, “It seems to be an off-the-cuff statement. There are so many constitutional, legal and factual imponderables. Neither all parties have arrived at consensus, nor has the government taken an official stand yet, nor has the vexed issue of a full five-year term being interrupted by diverse, involuntary or external factors been taken into account…” Centre must take into account all these factors before proceeding ahead.
As it turned out, Manoj Jha of the RJD while strongly opposing it said that, “At the moment, the Election Commission can’t even hold a single-phase election in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Indian federal structure was fundamentally different from other democracies. If you insist on oneness, you will kill the diversity of Indian federalism. Some States had elections last year. Will you dismiss the governments there in 2018?” The last point certainly has merit even though I strongly disagree with the questioning of Election Commission’s capability to conduct elections. It is a very competent institution and it is not fair to question its impeccable credentials.
Going forward, CM Ramesh of the TDP said his party backed the BJP’s idea of simultaneous elections. Senior JD(U) leader KC Tyagi while taking a more nuanced stand said that while his party favoured simultaneous elections because they would lead to administrative efficiency, cut expenses and help smaller parties, an all party consensus was essential. Nothing will be possible as long as Article 356 is on the statute book. That will require a constitutional amendment. The government must call an all-party meeting”. There is certainly a lot of merit in what KC Tyagi has said to which the Centre must pay heed to and immediately call an all-party meeting to discuss in detail on this!
It cannot be lightly dismissed that in 1999, the Law Commission of India, headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy had called for an end to “this cycle of elections every year and out of season”. It also has to be appreciated that Niti Aayog has released a detailed paper prepared by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai on this key issue. It advocated simultaneous polls saying this will reduce disruption in governance and public affairs and cost less in terms of money and resources. There can be no denying this!