It will save time and money, remove frequent election-mode governance gaps
Dnyanada Palkar | October 25, 2016
Since public memory is woefully short, it may not be common knowledge that general elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies were held simultaneously initially – in 1951, 1957, 1962 and 1967. The cycle was broken by the disruption of some state assemblies in 1967, advancing of Lok Sabha elections to 1971 by PM Indira Gandhi and the dismissal of six state assemblies in 1978 by the Janata Party.
The debate over the timing of the election cycles has revived after the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted its report on the ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’ on December 17, 2015. It was followed by the prime minister’s statement on September 15 in favour of the concept, and discussion on the MyGov web portal soliciting citizens’ views on holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
The benefits and drawbacks
Electoral reforms, especially simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies, are the need of the hour. As with any major change in policy and procedure, there are pros and cons involved in this. The cons in this regard are that (a) parties will use simultaneous elections as a platform to consolidate political advantage, (b) the logistical and financial obstacles seem insurmountable and (c) regional parties have expressed their concern regarding the constitutionality of conducting concurrent elections.
The pros, however, outweigh the cons. The most important argument in favour of simultaneous elections is that the ‘governance deficit’ will be bridged when both parties and administrators can focus on governing rather than electioneering. Being frequently in the election mode draws both time and resources away from efficient conduct of governance. This ties into the immense logistics and finances involved in trying to regularise election cycles. The management of finances and logistics may be unwieldy the first time around, but a uniform election cycle will ensure that logistics and finances are streamlined in future years. The constitutionality of holding concurrent elections can be addressed through a careful assessment of amendments required to be made to existing laws that set out the basis for elections in India.
The issues and solutions
Much of the discussion surrounding this issue veers towards politicking rather than carefully examining the logistics and legality of holding concurrent elections. The political, moral and administrative problems which necessitate electoral reform have been detailed in the following reports:
According to these reports and the extensive debate on this topic, certain Acts and parts of the constitution will require to be amended to re-establish the practice of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and assemblies. The Representation of People Act, 1951, provides the statutory basis for the Election Commission of India (ECI) to conduct elections and prescribes qualifications for candidates, procedures for conducting elections and resolution of disputes. The Act would have to be amended to build in provisions for stability of tenure for both parliament and assemblies. This should include the following crucial elements:
From an administrative perspective, factors of concern in holding simultaneous elections range from the expenses involved to the entire process being time-intensive. The ECI estimates a cost of '9,284.15 crore for procuring electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail machines for the purpose. (The current expenditure on annual cycles of elections has been pegged at approximately '4,500 crore. The amount quoted by the ECI is a one-time cost, with an added maintenance cost factor that will only come in every 15 years.) The financial feasibility of the entire exercise has been attested to by the ECI in the recommendations submitted by them. Coordination between the ECI and state election commissions will be the key in ensuring that financial issues do not remain an issue.
Centre-state ties and political issues
The issue of centre-state relations is one that has been generally left out of this debate. States generally control when and how local body (municipal and panchayat) elections are held. The states’ contention is that the President’s Rule is used as a tool to disrupt state governments. Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand’s situations from earlier this year have been used as examples to illustrate this. The central and state governments will need to have a joint meeting to discuss such differences of opinion and put concrete solutions that both sides can agree to on the table.
However, regulatory or even financial concerns are not as important as the political issues involved. This is because synchronising elections at all levels without curtailing the terms of sitting governments seems to be the main concern. Constitutionally, the extension of terms of sitting assemblies and houses is not possible unless under conditions of emergency. In most reports where the comments and suggestions of political parties have been sought, some parties have mentioned their aversion to the conduct of simultaneous elections quoting the constitutional restriction on extension of terms of assemblies.
Voter awareness and behaviour
Earlier this year, IDFC Institute published an analysis of voter behaviour during concurrent elections. Their conclusion was that voters are not as discerning when choosing state and national representatives, especially if done at the same time or in quick succession. That is, voters tend to vote for the same party if state and national elections are held concurrently or within six months. [‘Nudging the voter in one direction?’, Praveen Chakravarty, The Hindu, April 6, 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/state-assembly-elections-nudging-the-voter-in-one-direction/article8438114.ece] The analysis is that conducting concurrent or simultaneous elections potentially nudges voter preferences to the same political party which will have a huge impact on electoral outcomes. From a civil society perspective, this is an important point. However, unless the exercise of simultaneous elections is carried out at least once, a comparative event or sample will not be available to validate such an analysis.
It is a fact, plain for anyone who cares to notice, that simultaneous elections will help remove a lot of the inefficiencies that plague our democracy. Electoral reforms, which include legislative and constitutional amendments, require all-party consensus at all levels of government. This will need to be followed by regulatory and administrative cooperation between the ECI and state election commissions, in order to coordinate simultaneous elections. Electoral reform will provide optimum conditions for electoral efficiency – which should change the electoral scenario in the country for the better.
What the committee said
Palkar is senior research associate, Pahle India Foundation.
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