Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been arguing persuasively of late that elections to the Lok Sabha and to all the various state assemblies should be held simultaneously once every five years. Other voices have joined Mr Modi’s, all of them pointing out the many benefits, as they see it, of a such a system and how much it would be an improvement over the somewhat chaotic timing that is currently in place. Mr Modi has claimed that elections held only once every five years will allow politicians to focus on governance in the interim instead of constantly seeking to pander to the whims of the electorate. At the moment, elections can, of course, be held before the expiry of a legislature’s five-year term, on the directions of the President or the state governor. India started out with simultaneous elections, but over the decades the terms of various legislatures have moved out of sync with each other, and now one or another part of India is constantly going to the polls. This is, according to the votaries of simultaneous elections, a major distraction from governance.
However, the logic buttressing the arguments in favour of simultaneous elections is fatally flawed. There is, for example, the basic point that elections in, say, Punjab are hardly likely to distract the politicians of Tamil Nadu from the business of governing that state. Nor is the political pressure underlying the arguments any less puzzling. Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party might feel, for example, that simultaneous elections might mean that it can cash in on a positive mood overall that its leader’s prime ministerial candidature might achieve. But there is much evidence that voters are smarter than that – they vote in state and national elections differently, keeping in minds their very different expectations from state and national legislatures and leaders.
Above all, however, enforcing simultaneous elections would amount to undermining democratic accountability. There can be genuine democratic problems that can only be dealt with by an “out-of-turn” election. Sometimes hung legislatures can fail to come up with a viable alliance, and the only recourse is to go back to the people to seek a fresh mandate to govern. Or a cabinet can lose the confidence of the house, and no other can be formed to take its place. Or, perhaps, the constitutional machinery overall can break down in a state and there is no alternative but to seek the corrective accountability provided by a free and fair election. India has been faced with all these circumstances in the past. A system of enforced simultaneous elections, however, would struggle to deal with them. It would thus necessarily reduce democratic accountability.
Some countries have indeed come up with rules that have the same spirit as the notion of simultaneous elections — sometimes leading to situations such as in Belgium, which has gone without elections for three years. But, in India, the argument is a distraction in any case. Any such move would require a constitutional amendment, and the BJP does not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha to arrange for it. Few regional parties will line up behind a move designed to reduce their power. In short, this is not an idea whose time has come.