An idea whose time may not have come

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An idea whose time may not have come

But the debate on simultaneous elections is useful — it could throw up other reforms to cleanse the electoral process


Why in news?

  • The BJP’s 2019 manifesto also mentions that simultaneous elections for Parliament, State Assemblies and local bodies to “ensure efficient utilisation of government resources and security forces and… effective policy planning”.
  • It goes on to say that the party “will try to build consensus on this issue with all parties”.
  • It is in this spirit of reform and consensus building that the Prime Minister has revived this debate, calling an all-party meeting for discussions on June 19.

History of simultaneous elections

  • The Election Commission had suggested as early as in 1983 that a system should be evolved so that elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies could be held simultaneously.
  • The Justice B P Jeevan Reddy-headed Law Commission said in its 170th Report in May 1999 that “we must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once”.
  • The Law Commission had recommended simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and the local bodies as far back as in 1999.
    • The BJP’s L.K. Advani also supported the idea back in 2010 in an eloquent blog post.
  • In its December 2015 report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People and State Legislative Assemblies’, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice recommended “an alternative and practicable method of holding simultaneous elections which involves holding of elections in two phases” —
    • halfway into the term of the current Lok Sabha, i.e., in November 2016, for some Assemblies, and
    • at the end, i.e., in June 2019, for the rest.
  • The Committee suggested that “elections to all state Assemblies whose terms end prior to or after a time period of six months to one year from the appointed election date can be clubbed together”.
  • It proposed that terms of current Assemblies be curtailed or extended to align with the new simultaneous elections cycle, and presented the proposal as a “representative table” in its report.

Genuine concerns

  • The concerns raised are indeed genuine, and the idea is worth debating.
  • First, it is becoming more and more difficult to contest elections.
    • The 2019 general election was the most expensive on record; a whopping 60,000 crore was reportedly spent on the whole exercise.
    • Given that there is no cap on the expenditure incurred by political parties, they spend obscene amounts of money in every election.
    • It is argued that simultaneous elections would help reduce this cost.
  • Second, frequent elections hamper the normal functioning of the government and disrupt civic life.
    • This happens because the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) comes into operation as soon as the EC announces the election dates.
    • This means that the government cannot announce any new schemes during this period.
    • This results in what is often referred to as a policy paralysis. The government cannot make any new appointments or transfer/ appoint officials. The entire government manpower is involved in the conduct of elections.
    • Frequent elections mean that there is no respite from these evils at all. This has directly resulted in the souring of the political discourse, something that was on full display during the 2019 general election.

The hurdles

  • The idea, however, has some hurdles.
  • First, how will “one nation, one election” work in case of premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha, for instance, as happened in late 1990s when the House was dissolved long before its term of five years was over?
  • Second, as for the implementation of schemes of the government during the MCC period, only the new schemes are stopped as these could be tantamount to enticing/bribing voters on the eve of elections.
    • All ongoing programmes are unhindered. Even new announcements that are in urgent public interest can be made with the prior approval of the EC.
  • Additionally, frequent elections are not so bad for accountability after all. They ensure that the politicians have to show their faces to voters regularly. Creation of work opportunities at the grass-root level is another big upside. The most important consideration is undoubtedly the federal spirit, which, inter alia, requires that local and national issues are not mixed up.

Way ahead

  • First, the problem of uncontrolled campaign expenditure can be remedied by introducing a cap on expenditure by political parties.
    • State funding of political parties based on their poll performance also is a suggestion worth considering. Private and corporate fund collection may be banned.
  • Second, as I have suggested elsewhere, the poll duration can be reduced from two-three months to about 33 to 35 days if more Central armed police forces can be provided.
    • The problems associated with a multi-phased election have been getting compounded, with more issues being added to the list with every election.
    • Violence, social media-related transgressions and issues related to the enforcement of the MCC which are unavoidable in a staggered election will vanish if the election is conducted in a single day.
    • All that needs to be done is to raise more battalions. This will also help in job creation.

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