One Nation, One Election: Here’s How We Can Synchronise Centre And State Polls By 2021
A recent NITI Aayog paper discussed the idea of holding simultaneous elections.
This is a close examination of the proposals outlined in that paper, and a possible way forward.
Economist and NITI Aayog member Professor Bibek Debroy has co-authored a discussion paper with Kishore Desai, officer on special duty at the Aayog, analysing the case for holding elections simultaneously in the country.
The note broadly answers three main questions. What does the phrase, ‘holding simultaneous elections’ mean? Why is there a need to hold elections simultaneously? How can this idea be brought to fruition?
The paper notes that ideally “simultaneous elections should imply that elections to all the three tiers of constitutional institutions take place in a synchronized and co-ordinated fashion”. But, given the fact that the third-tier institution is primarily a State subject, and elections there are directed and controlled by the State Election Commissions, it would be “impractical and possibly impossible to synchronize and align election schedules to the third tier with that of Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections”.
So, the note limits the idea of simultaneous elections to structuring the Indian election cycle in such a way that voters can vote for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies on a single day and, at the same time, elections continue to take place in various phases on different dates, as is the practice today.
This looks like an uphill task but certainly not impossible to achieve. After all, elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 and 1967. This was disrupted later, after many State assemblies were dissolved prematurely.
There are many reasons to support a synchronised election cycle in the country. Debroy’s paper gives us four:
1. Holding elections in multiple states throughout the year is a drain on public money. The paper notes that the cost of holding elections for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies together is pegged at Rs 4,500 crore by the Election Commission of India (ECI). Now, compare this to the Rs 3,870 crore spent on the 2014 Lok Sabha election alone and Rs 300 crore on Bihar Assembly elections. Simultaneous elections will, therefore, help the government save a lot of taxpayer money.
Large expenditures, as is the case now, means parties and politicians scramble to hoard black money. Recently, Dr S Y Quraishi, former chief election commissioner, remarked that “…elections have become the root cause of corruption in the country...after winning elections, the politician-bureaucrat nexus indulges in “recovering the investment” and that is where corruption begins”.
2. Frequent imposition of the ‘code of conduct’ paralyses day-to-day governance and development projects. Also, parties remain in campaign mode all year, which means more populism in return for votes rather than pragmatic policy-making.
3. A significant section of the armed forces is engaged in making sure that elections take place in a free and fair manner for prolonged periods. This pulls them away from their basic duty, which is to ensure the security of the country’s people as a whole. Heavy deployment of State police forces and home guards during election times also means that the state’s capacity in ensuring internal security is dented.
4. Frequent elections perpetuate caste, religion and communal issues across the country. Recently, Quarishi had this to write about it.
…elections are polarising events which have accentuated casteism, communalism, corruption and crony capitalism. If the country is perpetually on election mode, there is no respite from these evils. Holding simultaneous elections would certainly help in this context.
The paper discusses two options.
1. Holding elections to Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies together in 2019 in one go
This would mean curtailing the terms of some State Assemblies to up to two years or more (Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Puducherry) and extending the terms of many others by two years (Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand, Goa).
Needless to say, this idea is dead in the water. The political consensus needed to pass the required amendments (to extend or curtail the terms) to the Constitution cannot be achieved.
Which is why the paper suggests another, more practical way.
2. Implement the idea in a phased manner
The Aayog paper seconds the Parliamentary Standing Committee report which recommended a two-phase approach. “The Committee has envisaged holding of elections of some Legislative Assemblies at midterm of Lok Sabha and remaining with the end of tenure of Lok Sabha.”
Taking a cue from the committee’s recommendations, the paper suggests timing the Phase I elections from April-May 2019. Elections to the remaining State Assemblies under Phase II can take place mid-way into the Lok Sabha term, around October-November 2021.
This means elections can take place every two-and-a-half years (30 months) once the electoral cycles of Lok Sabha and all State Assemblies are synchronised.
Under the second option, the need for curtailing or extending terms is considerably lower. In Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura and Nagaland, implementing this proposal will require curtailing Assembly terms by not more than 15 months. It is only Karnataka that would require an extension by 12 months. Although this too is inconvenient, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
To soften the blow, this can be implemented right away, and the State Assemblies that need a curtailment of term by 15 months can do this in two phases: curtail by seven months during 2017 and another eight months in 2021. (The Aayog paper doesn’t suggest this, however.)
But the paper rightly notes that these proposals are incomplete without addressing how to make simultaneous elections sustainable over the longer term.
Sustaining synchronised cycles in the long run
Let’s say that the election cycles are synchronised. What could come in the way? There can always be, for instance, a no-confidence vote against a government, leading to its fall and, therefore, a break in the cycle. Besides, there is also the issue of premature dissolution.
To avoid premature dissolution, the paper seconds EC’s proposal. It suggests that any 'no-confidence motion' moved against the government in office should also necessarily include a 'confidence motion' in favour of a government to be headed by an individual as the future Prime Minister. Essentially, voting should take place for the two motions together.
To deal with premature dissolution, the paper suggests the following, as summarised in the table:
Obviously, this would entail amending the Constitution. But it will ensure sustainability of simultaneous elections over the longer term.
There are other ways too. We can, for instance, move towards a presidential system of governance where the majority in Parliament can be from Congress while the Prime Minister can be from the Bharatiya Janata Party (or vice versa). We can then have a long succession line in place in case the Prime Minister is unable to discharge his duties. This will not only ensure stability of the executive but also remove any possibility of a no-confidence vote or premature dissolution.
However, these suggestions are too radical to implement in our imperfect democracy. The paper has, for that reason, presented workable solutions under the current system.
Democracy is not just about holding elections regularly. The ultimate goal is to put in place a framework which puts governance above politics. In the current system of perpetual campaigning and elections, it’s unfortunately not the case. We can and must change this.
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