CHENNAI: The dust raised over demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes is yet to settle. But the next “big idea” that the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be actively considering is streamlining of election schedules in the country. The main objective is to confine the elections to once in five years, when the citizens would vote for government from local panchayat level, state assemblies up to Lok Sabha.
This is not a new idea, but at least a few decades old. The common reason is the frequent “election mode” the country undergoes affecting functioning of governments either due to statutory restrictions during poll period or the ruling regime’s hesitation to carry out unpopular moves with electoral considerations.
A few numbers are a must to understand exactly how frequent India faces elections. According to information from the Election Commission’s website, the country has undergone 38 phases of elections for State Assemblies and Parliament since 1998. Even by excluding local body polls, this means at least once in six months, some part of the country goes to polls.
The hazards popularly attributed are: (i) Making the governments incapable of implementing long-term measures that may be unpopular in the short term, (ii) The huge expenditure by both the Election Commission and political parties (iii) The frequent elections affect routine lives due to imposition of code of conduct (iv) Huge manpower wasted for conducting the elections could be saved.
The Prime Minister had spoken about the idea of holding simultaneous elections to Parliament and all state assemblies at least four or five times. But unlike demonetisation, this is something that the Union Government cannot announce overnight. Building consensus among all political parties in the country would be key before it can be made a reality.
The opposition to the idea mainly comes from the regional parties. The crux of their fear was holding polls for the state assemblies and Parliament simultaneously would tend to favour the national parties by affecting the voting pattern. The reason for the fear was when the first four elections after the Independence were held simultaneously for both Parliament and all state assemblies, the regional parties could not even think of getting a share in the Union government.
“Then the regional parties could focus only on winning the state polls. Now the situation has changed and a regional party could win a good number of Lok Sabha seats and manage to get a place in the Union Cabinet in coalition governments. But the BJP now wants single-party rule in the Centre and hence is pushing for simultaneous elections,” said D Ravikumar, general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi, a party that mainly represents Dalits.
He said the simultaneous elections is a backdoor means to achieve Presidential type of government that BJP leader L K Advani proposed during the Vajpayee regime. The simultaneous elections may help the national parties bargain for Lok Sabha seats for them in alliances, thus pushing out the regional parties from getting a share in the Union government.
The most important argument of those who support the simultaneous elections is that the first four elections the country faced were held for both Parliament and all state assemblies simultaneously. This includes the 1967 elections in which many regional parties, including the DMK, broke the domination of Congress by winning majority of both State Assemblies and Parliament seats in Tamil Nadu.
The cycle got disrupted when a few state legislative assemblies were dissolved prematurely in 1968 and 1969. Further, in 1970, the Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections were held in 1971. “As a result of premature dissolution and extension of terms of both the Lok Sabha and various State Legislative Assemblies, there had been separate elections to Lok Sabha and states assemblies for the last 48 years,” said Congress MP Sudarsana Natchiappan, who headed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the issue and tabled a favourable report on the idea in the Parliament December last. He said the separate elections to Parliament and state assemblies happened only because of circumstances, not a recognised policy.
But over the decades, the separate polls have become the norm. The Lok Sabha polls are now fought on national issues, the state assemblies on state-level issues and the local body polls on micro issues. Would reverting back to simultaneous polls affect the ability of people to distinguish issues at various levels?
Former Chief Election Commissioner R Gopalaswami said such a thought would be tantamount to belittling the distinguishing capacity of voters. “On the contrary, there were occasions when people had voted differently for Lok Sabha and state assemblies even when elections for both were held together. And now, youth makes the crux of the voters and in the communication era, they can very well distinguish between candidates of different parties,” he said. Analysts have dissected the polling data in different ways -- either supporting or disputing the theory that simultaneous would favour the voting pattern towards national parties. But there are still no clear answers to this question.
Beyond the question of bias, another more practical question posed is how feasible is conducting the Lok Sabha and all assembly polls simultaneously given the huge electoral base the country has now, when compared to the 1950s and 60s. Even the assembly polls in states like West Bengal has be held in six to eight phases due to security reasons. Hence trying to hold both Parliament and State assembly polls would surely make it a mammoth task.
“Theoretically it is possible. But it needs many administrative arrangements and Constitutional amendments. First, we have to amend the Constitution to give fixed tenure for Lok Sabha and Assemblies. Second, for conducting simultaneous elections, basic requirements such as manifold increase in number of Electronic Voting Machines, deployment of paramilitary forces to maintain law and order have to be done. But these issues are not insurmountable,” said T S Krishnamurthi, also a former Chief Election Commissioner.
Major General Anil Verma, head and national coordinator, Association for Democratic Reforms, said if not once in five years, the elections may be confined to just twice in five years. This is also one of the suggestions made by the parliamentary standing committee headed by Congress MP Sudarsana Natchiappan. “But above all, before stepping into this major electoral reform, a very detailed discussion is needed at the national level,” said Verma.
Another former Chief Election Commissioner Y S Qureshi supported the idea mainly because it would save huge money and time spend on the elections. “It is very very desirable. It is feasible. But it is not easy to implement. A big political consensus must be arrived for realising this goal. A lot of logistical issues are involved in the process while legal issues such as extending and curtailing the tenure of Assemblies have to be dealt,” said Qureshi.
But there are many who believe these practical difficulties are insurmountable. “Many times, Parliaments were dissolved prematurely. So in such cases can we dissolve all the State governments also just for conducting simultaneous polls again? This is not possible in a multi-party democracy like ours. In a nutshell, simultaneous elections for state assemblies and Lok Sabha is a wish. But realising the wish will be very difficult,” said DMK spokesperson T K S Elangovan.