The case against simultaneous polls
If concurrent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were to be a reality, it would go against the political diversity essential for addressing the social diversity of India.
Though spoken about for quite a few years, simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies seem to be fast on their way to becoming a matter of national concern. This proposal is not only being discussed in the television studio, but even the Central government is seeking inputs from ordinary citizens through a website about its desirability and related questions.
The online public consultation will last till mid-October, and it is likely that there will be overwhelming support for this proposal because of the argument put forward in favour of it: simultaneous elections will save a lot of money and will help the government carry forward the developmental project without many hindrances. The real question, however, is not of desirability; it is one of feasibility. Can simultaneous elections for both the Central and State legislatures be implemented given the federal nature of Indian democracy guaranteed by the Constitution?
The question of cost
No one can deny that a huge amount of money is spent in conducting elections in India, both by the candidates themselves and political parties as well as the government (the Election Commission of India). Though there is a legal limit on how much money a candidate can spend on his campaign from his own sources, most spend as much as they can in the belief that this would help them reach out to a larger number of voters, thereby increasing their chances of winning.
However, the argument in favour of simultaneous elections does not seem to be based on saving the money spent by political parties and candidates, but by the Election Commission. There is hardly any doubt that the fewer the number of elections, the lesser would be the expenses. But then, elections are the lifeblood of democracy. If Lok Sabha and Assembly elections happen to coincide, it is a natural process. But if it is imposed only to reduce the number of elections and cut costs, it is highly undesirable, because it privileges monetary concerns over democratic principles.
Simultaneous elections resulting in better governance is another argument that has been put forward. The contention is that with multiple elections, the Model Code of Conduct is in force for much of the time, which prevents the government from initiating new projects and ultimately slows down development work. While this is true, in order to overcome this problem, it may be more useful to make changes in the Model Code of Conduct to allow the government to initiate projects and programmes till a reasonable period (maybe till the notification of elections) instead of the existing scenario where the code comes into force the day the elections are announced. One should not also forget that there is a provision in the Model Code of Conduct that the government can consult the Election Commission about policy decisions and if the decisions are not likely to have any implications for the electoral outcome, the Commission can permit the government to take those decisions.
Also, in the normal course, the code should apply only to the State where Assembly elections are to be held. There is no logical reason why governance in the rest of the country, and at the Centre, should come to a standstill, unless the so-called policy decisions are intended to be taken to influence the electoral outcome in the State where elections are to be held. In this case, it is not the holding of the election that stops governance, but the suspect intentions of those who are supposed to govern.
Undermining the federal structure
The argument, or slogan, of “one country, one election” is misleading. What this label overlooks is that while India is undoubtedly one country, the Constitution also recognises the existence of 29 States which have a constitutional status of their own in matters of elections and government formation. “One country” does have “one election”, and that is for the Lok Sabha. The seeming intention to force all States, and sometimes it has even been mentioned all panchayats, not only seems impractical but also a step in the direction of moving the country towards becoming a unitary state rather than a federal one that the Constitution envisages. India has a federal structure and a multi-party democracy where elections are held for State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha separately; the voters are better placed to express their voting choices keeping in mind the two different governments which they would be electing by exercising their franchise. This distinction gets blurred somewhat when voters are made to vote for electing two types of government at the same time, at the same polling booth, and on the same day. There is a tendency among the voters to vote for the same party both for electing the State government as well as the Central government. This is a rule rather than an exception, not based on assumption but on evidence.
The empirical evidence
If we consider elections from the 1989 general election onwards, there have been 31 instances of holding simultaneous elections for State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha in different States: Andhra Pradesh (1989, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014), Odisha (2004, 2009 and 2014), Karnataka (1989, 1999 and 2004), Sikkim (2009 and 2014), Tamil Nadu (1989, 1991 and 1996), Maharashtra (1999), Assam (1991 and 1996), Haryana (1991 and 1996), Kerala (1989, 1991 and 1996), Uttar Pradesh (1989 and 1991), West Bengal (1991 and 1996), Arunachal Pradesh (2009 and 2014) and Telangana (2014).
When simultaneous elections for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha were held in these States, in 24 elections the major political parties polled almost a similar proportion of votes both for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha, while only in seven instances was the choice of voters somewhat different. It was noticed thrice in Tamil Nadu (1989, 1991 and 1996) when the votes polled by the Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were different for the Assembly and Lok Sabha. The other similar examples are from Arunachal Pradesh during the 2004 and 2014 elections (when the Bharatiya Janata Party polled more votes for its Lok Sabha candidates compared to those for its Assembly candidates), in Haryana during the 1996 elections and in Andhra Pradesh in 2014.
During the same period, when in many States the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections were held at different times, the electoral outcome (votes polled by different parties) of the two elections has been different.
While there are various ifs and buts before this may be finally implemented — including the feasibility of constitutional amendments of the kind which this may require, State governments agreeing to the untimely dissolution of the Assemblies, the question of what happens if a government falls without completing its term, and several such issues — if simultaneous elections were to become a reality, it would go against the political diversity which is essential for addressing the social diversity of India.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Sanjay Kumar is a Professor and currently Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.