Thursday, Sep 20, 2018 | Last Update : 02:42 PM IST

One poll, and its pitfalls

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.
Published : Jul 15, 2018, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Jul 15, 2018, 6:05 am IST

India is one country, but we need to recognise the existence of 29 states within this country and each state having its own elected government.

 There is no denying the cost savings associated with simultaneous elections for the government. (Representational image)
  There is no denying the cost savings associated with simultaneous elections for the government. (Representational image)

The NDA had promised in its election manifesto last time the implementation of simultaneous polls to Lok Sabha and all state Assemblies. The Prime Minister has of late been calling for a national debate on the same. While there are some advantages such as costs and uninterrupted governance, the proposal could harm the federal structure of the constitution.

The prolonged debate on whether India should go for simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies has created a situation wherein people are expected to take sides, either for or against it. I have been branded as someone who is opposed to holding simultaneous elections.

Let me clarify. If the cycle of election is such that elections in some states falls due along with the Lok Sabha elections, there is every reason for them to be held simultaneously, on the same day.

However, what I am against is forcing, by law, to compulsorily hold elections to all states along with the Lok Sabha elections. This is neither desirable nor practically possible in a large country like India. Elections take place for the Centre and the state government in 29 states at an interval of every five years or earlier in case of premature fall of government.

The arguments put forth in favour of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies are reducing the cost associated with them and the possibility of being able to provide more effective governance with the likely provision of a fixed term for a government.

It is being argued that the two elections could be conducted with the use of same administrative machinery resulting in significant savings to the exchequer. It is also being argued that holding simultaneous elections would facilitate better governance as the model code of conduct, which comes into force before every election preventing new schemes from being launched, would come into effect only once in five years. This will allow government to initiate new schemes throughout the year except for few months before each election once in every five years.

There is no denying the cost savings associated with simultaneous elections for the government. However, this would hardly help reduce the expenses of candidates and political parties who foot most of the bill. The argument that the government is not able to function properly due to frequent elections seems to be weak as the model code of conduct is in operation only for a few months. Nothing prevents the government from carrying out developmental work for the four-and-a-half years it is in power. There is no reason for model code of conduct being in effect in other states apart from the state that goes to poll. Hence, there is a need to interpret the model code and if necessary make some modifications in it rather than hold simultaneous elections just to enable government to function more efficiently. One could present some more arguments against these rationales put forward by the proponents of simultaneous elections, but let me refrain from doing that at the very beginning and state my basic reservation on simultaneous elections.

My basic objections to making it mandatory by law is that there is a danger of compromising the federal character of the Indian constitution if we go ahead with simultaneous elections. If elections are held for both state Assemblies and Lok Sabah on the same day, there is possibility of voters voting for the same party both for the Lok Sabah Sabha and for the state Assemblies and in the process the smaller political parties would stand to lose. This is not a mere speculation. There is some evidence from past elections to prove that in many instances, the voters tend to vote for the same party for Lok Sabha and state Assemblies when elections are held together. It is more like a rule than an exception.

Since 1989 general elections, there were 31 instances of simultaneous elections for state Assemblies and Lok Sabha. Andhra Pradesh (in 1989, 1999, 2004 and 2014), Odisha (in 2004, 2009 and 2014), Karnataka (in 1989, 1999 and 2004), Sikkim (in 2009 and 2014), Tamil Nadu (in 1989, 1991 and 1996), Maharashtra (1999), Assam (in 1991 and 1996), Haryana (in 1991 and 1996), Kerala (in 1989, 1991 and 1996), Uttar Pradesh (in 1989 and 1991), West Bengal (in 1991 and 1996), Arunachal Pradesh (in 2009 and 2014) and Telangana (2014). When elections were held on the same day for electing the MLA and the MP, in 24 of these 31 elections, the voters voted in more or less the similar fashion, i.e. the dominant party polled more or less similar votes both for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Only in seven instances the voters were able to make a clear distinction between the state Assembly and Lok Sabha elections and voted differently. Voters were able to make such distinction only in states where regional parties are very strong, i.e. in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The regional parties manage to get decent votes in state Assembly elections, but not for the Lok Sabha elections. The fear is, if elections for state Assemblies and Lok Sabha are held on the same day, the regional parties may get further marginalised as large number of voters might tend to vote for the same party both for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

India is one country, but we need to recognise the existence of 29 states within this country and each state having its own elected government. The constitutional division of power gives the country a truly federal character. However, simultaneous elections would slowly and gradually hurt these smaller regional parties, and we might see them disappearing them from the political scene.

The regional parties are a symbol of expression for regional aspirations and issues, especially of marginalised people who feel left out of the developmental process in the country. The smaller regional parties get more votes from marginalised communities. Their disappearance would mean disenfranchisement of the marginalised sections of voters.

The idea of holding simultaneous could be compared with the big elephant. The elephant has two kinds of teeth. The two big ones, the trunks, are ornamental seen by everyone. We all appreciate them and even keep it in our houses as showpieces. However, we hardly know about the teeth that are inside which may be dangerous.

The argument put forth in favour of simultaneous elections of saving money is like the two big teeth of the elephant, which a large majority would definitely appreciate for its cost savings.

However, the fear of country moving from federal to unitary form of government with only few big political parties surviving and regional parties getting eliminated from the serious electoral contest may be compared with the teeth of the elephant within its mouth. We are unable to carefully consider the advantage and disadvantage of holding simultaneous elections. To my mind it would definitely save us money in the short run, but the damage it could cause to the electoral system, the federal character of the country, the party system may be enormous.

Tags: lok sabha elections, centre