The idea of simultaneous elections is captured in the slogan one nation, one poll. The concept of one nation, one poll is, however, confronted by the many poles of opinion.
Since 1967, India has witnessed five to six polls every year—and this is just states and Lok Sabha. These elections trigger a code of conduct which stalls governance for at least 45 days—Karnataka polls were announced on March 27 and the code will be in force till May 15. In 2018, elections are staggered in three episodes—February, May and November. Annually, governance goes into poll mode for roughly 100 days.
The idea of simultaneous polls is not unique – though uniquely the urge surges during NDA regimes. It first appeared in the 170th Report of the Law Commission in 1999. The report mooted an end to the “cycle of elections every year” and simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and Assemblies. The dormant idea was energized in 2003 by former vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who said “governance had become a casualty due to frequent elections”. Elections for democracy, it would seem, had been turned into democracy of elections.
The issue resurfaced in January 2017 in a Niti Aayog paper authored by Bibek Debroy, Chairman of the PMEAC and a Niti Aayog member, along with Kishore Desai. The political process was kicked off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking the question in meetings and in his radio broadcast. At the meeting of the Niti Aayog Governing Council in April 2017, he said, “a constructive discussion has begun” on holding Union and State elections simultaneously.
Opposition parties have, well, opposed the ideas with varied critiques. Among other factors, one data point influencing criticism is an IDFC Institute study which stated that “77 per cent of the voters tended to choose the same party” when elections were held simultaneously to states and the Centre. There are many variables which inform the choice of the button, but obviously the threat of electoral outcomes has stimulated concerns among political parties. Predictably, the parties also raised the flag of federalism.
This week, the Law Commission has come out with a draft paper on simultaneous polls—and some of the suggestions made public are problematic. On Wednesday, former Chief Justice of India MN Venkatachallaiah, who chaired the Committee to Review the Constitution in 2000, weighed in on the issue to state, “Simultaneous polls will drown key local issues.”
The questions leading to the quest are complex. The debate on simultaneous elections has thrown up an array of simultaneous equations. As with simultaneous equations, the decision for simultaneous elections must pass the test of producing a solution that satisfies the number of unknowns. Ergo, the acceptance of the idea or its rejection calls for a constructive deconstruction of the desirability of the idea and the doability of the idea.
The quest for simultaneous elections is an urge to end the annual poll parade—the urge is political in terms of synchronization and economic in terms of the cost of holding elections and opportunity costs. The desirability stems from the widely sensed perception that policymaking and administration are preoccupied with politics.
Critics believe there are embedded positives in a non-synchronized electoral calendar as it calls the regimes to account, and as Justice Venkatachallaiah has observed, enables “democratic and appropriate expression” on issues that matter. It is true that the changes in the GST regime, for instance, came out of ballot anxiety. It is equally true that the Uttar Pradesh elections gave the BJP the opportunity to claim the poor supported demonetisation.
The story is far from linear, so the issue deserves more than binary bytes as responses. The argument that governance is stalled-by-code is materially relevant but raises follow-up questions which call for further validation—and intellectually robust papers and evidence on cost of policy delay, lost opportunities and costs beyond the cost of holding elections.
Votaries point out that elections were held simultaneously from 1951 to 1967. True, but did that deliver governance that was needed—for years India grew slower than Malawi. Again, the known and unknown variables need to be addressed. Secondly, the disruption occurred post-1967 as regional parties which came to power could not survive their terms. Pertinently, the disruptive factor continues to be relevant—across many states regional parties are in power and a majority cannot be mandated by legislation.
That begs the question on the doability and sustainability of the concept. What happens if a government falls mid-term? Some of the proffered solutions are problematic. These include a fixed term for Parliament and Assemblies, the return to Aaya Ram Gaya Ram politics by changes in anti-defection laws, a no-confidence motion to be accompanied by a for confidence motion, elections for half the term in case of mid-term polls. And these ideas will require amendments to the Constitution that will be hard to enact.
It does seem, simultaneous polls, a thought-worthy proposal, runs the risk of being buried by bluster. The issue of the annual poll parade deserves attention. The ideal first step would be to bunch the elections in two tranches—in the summer of 2019 and the summer or autumn of 2021 by bringing forward polls to some states. This necessitates cooperation and consultation across the political spectrum. The timing of the second tranche, around the halfway mark, could serve as a mid-term review of governments and deliver the opportunity to call governments to account through democratic expression on issues.
The success of the first step can serve as the template to build a campaign on. Attestation of achievement will legitimize and enable mass mobilization for the next steps. The idea of democracy is an ongoing project and calls for consensual baby steps.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution,and Accidental India