Simultaneous polls for States and Centre? An idea as bad as demonetisation

The Prime Minister and other members of the government have spoken about the desirability of holding elections to the state assemblies and the parliament together. Their view is that this will aid governance and help save expenditure on holding elections. In this Business Standard special, the authors take a closer look at the idea and whether it is constitutionally sound or not. A nation that has an election ocurring every six months or so, in some constituent state or the other, has now got used to a semi-annual IPL, the Indian Political league. Every campaign has seen its soldiers, generals and camp followers, celebrating victory or swallowing defeat, with an attendant host of television talking heads spinning explanatory narratives. In fact one could safely postulate, that along with films and Cricket, few things bind India together as much as a political discussion on electoral prospects and results.  Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto from his death cell in prison had written “India is more heterogeneous than Pakistan.....but it has been kept together by the noise and chaos of its democracy”. The question is whether this noise and chaos, needs to be re-set into  five year orderly intervals, between which  no noisy elections intervene.

In 1999 a proposal for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and State   was first mooted by the Law Commission of India. Over the past few months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken of the need for widespread discussions on the subject.  President Ram Nath Kovind, was also quick to endorse this proposal. Members of the government as well as its supporters have added to the chorus. Like many of the Prime Minister’s grand declarations, the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’ sounds attractive. But God, as ever, lives in the details. A nation still recovering from the effects of the grand but ultimately futile exercise of demonetisation, is now wary of any big idea that destabilises the established norm.

Perceived Advantages

A discussion paper published by the Niti Aayog estimates the expenditure on the Bihar assembly elections of 2015 to be Rs. 300 crores. This works out to Rs. 60 crore per year, on the assumption that the assembly completes its full term of five years. In the Budget that was presented last week, the total expenditure of the Bihar Government, in 2017-18 is estimated to be Rs 1,60,086 crore. By comparison, theexpenditure on the conduct on elections is miniscule by any estimation.

The model code of conduct prohibits certain expenditure and announcements by the Government. This code kicks in when elections are announced and generally lasts for around a month. Nothing precludes a government from working throughout the rest of its term. In any event, the model code of conduct has been drafted after a consensus between political parties. It can be suitably amended to ensure that governance is not hindered.

Demerits of a Simultaneous Election

The demerits of simultaneous elections far outweigh any perceived advantages. Foremost amongst these is the impact simultaneous elections have on voter behaviour. Since 1989, there have been 31 instances of elections being conducted simultaneously. Research by the Center for Study of Developing Societies and the Association of Democratic Reforms shows that in 24 of these elections, major political parties polled a similar proportion of votes both for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. A study published by the IDFC concludes that “on average, there is a 77 per cent chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the state and centre when elections are held simultaneously.”

On most of these occasions, larger national parties stand to benefit. Smaller or regional parties will struggle to generate the financial resources or the manpower to fight elections in multiple states as well as the centre at the same time. The real loser thus is the idea of democracy.

The Election Commission has seemed receptive. However, the Commission is also reported to have informed the government that five constitutional amendments would be required to implement the proposal.

Constitutional Provisions

Article 83 of the Constitution provides for a term of five years for the Lok Sabha, from the date of its first sitting, unless dissolved earlier. The term of the house can be extended by a year in case of a proclamation of emergency. However, this shall not extend beyond six months after the proclamation ceases. Similar provisions are made for the State Legislative Assemblies under Article 172. Articles 85 and 174 empower the President and the Governor to dissolve the Central and State Legislatures respectively (Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha). Under Article 356, a State Government may be dismissed in case of ‘failure of constitutional machinery’. These powers are exercised within the contours of judicially recognized principles.

What emerges is that the tenure of the House can only be extended during an emergency. It can be dissolved in case no party has the majority to form a Government, or in case there is a breakdown of the constitutional machinery. Under the law as it stands today, legislature cannot be dissolved to suit an election schedule. If simultaneous elections are to be held, terms of some of the state assemblies will have to be extended, while some would have to be prematurely dissolved. For example, if elections are to be held simultaneously in 2019, the Assemblies of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, both elected in 2017, will have to be dissolved within two years.

An anomalous situation might yet arise. Even if elections are held simultaneously, there may be a situation when some of the state assemblies do not have a clear majority. Does that mean that President’s rule is invoked in these states for the next five years? What happens when the central, government falls mid-term, as a result of a passage of a no-confidence motion? Does the country go without a central government till the completion of the term? Or will simultaneous elections be held once again?

The problems envisaged are not in the realm of conjecture. Elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 till 1967. This was more by coincidence than design. The cycle got disrupted due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969. In 1970, Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections held in 1971. Out of sixteen Lok Sabhas since Independence, as many as seven Lok Sabhas, i.e. the ones elected in 1969, 1977, 1980, 1984,1996,1998 and 1999 witnessed pre-mature dissolution. Invocation of Article 356 to dismiss a state government, though not as commonplace now, is not entirely unknown. How will elections be simultaneously conducted in these situations? No answers are forthcoming.

Any attempt at simultaneous elections will require wholesale amendments to the Constitution.  These must withstand judicial scrutiny and the ‘basic structure’ test. With not even a whiff of sense to it, the idea of simultaneous polls is as bad as demonetisation. The authors are lawyers who practise in the Supreme Court. They tweet @sanjayuvacha & @parahoot

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel