Topic: Simultaneous Elections in India
Topic in Syllabus: GS Paper 2 : Indian Polity
Defining “Simultaneous Elections”:
The term “Simultaneous Elections”, ideally simultaneous elections should imply that elections to all the three tiers of constitutional institutions take place in a synchronized and coordinated fashion. What this effectively means is that a voter casts his vote for electing members for all tiers of the Government on a single day.
The term “Simultaneous Elections” would broadly mean structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronized together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time.
- It is interesting to note that the concept of simultaneous elections is in-fact not new to the country. Post adoption of the Constitution, the elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 till 1967 when the cycle of synchronized elections got disrupted.
- The first general elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held together in 1951-52. That practice continued over three subsequent general elections held in the years- 1957, 1962 and 1967. However, due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, the cycle got disrupted for the first time. In 1970, Fourth Lok Sabha was itself dissolved prematurely and fresh elections held in 1971. Thus, First, Second and Third Lok Sabha enjoyed full five year terms.
- The term of Fifth Lok Sabha was extended till 1977 under Article 352. After that, the Eighth, Tenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Lok Sabha could complete their full five year terms. Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Lok Sabha was dissolved prematurely. Various State Assemblies also faced similar issues over a period of time. As a result of all such premature dissolutions and extension, the cycle of simultaneous elections has been firmly disrupted. The table below presents the timelines of key milestones of various Lok Sabhas till date.
Relevant Constitutional and Statutory provisions:
- Article 83(2) of the Constitution provides for a normal term of five years for the House of People (Lok Sabha). Article 172 (1) provides for similar tenure for State Legislative Assembly from the date of its first sitting.
- Both Lok Sabha and State Assemblies do not have a fixed term and can be dissolved earlier than their normal terms. Various provisions in the Constitution and relevant directions laid down by the Supreme Court of India drive the stipulations (grounds leading to such dissolution, who has the power to effect such dissolution etc.) that may cause early dissolution of legislatures.
- Tenure of the House cannot be extended beyond 5 years except in emergency situation.
- Election Commission of India is empowered to notify elections to both Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies six months prior to the end of the normal terms of the Houses.
Countries conducting simultaneous elections:
- England has chosen to hold general elections and local government elections on the same day since 1997. But, in practice, local elections are delayed if polls to European Parliament have to be held.
- Italy, Belgium, and Sweden are some countries that conduct general and local elections together.
- In Canada, municipal elections are on fixed dates while provincial and federal elections take place at any time. The Canadian Prime Minister and provincial Premiers have a right to call elections at any time during their tenure of five years. This right could be used by them to prolong their stay in power by going to polls when their popularity is rated high. This led to the rise of “fixed election date” movement a decade ago. It succeeded in introducing set election dates in eight out of 10 provinces. At the centre, the Fixed Election Date Act was adopted in 2007.
- In South Africa, national and provincial elections are held simultaneously. Municipal elections are not linked with these.
- In India, the question of a fixed tenure has been discussed several times without arriving at any consensus. In 1999, the Law Commission recommended that the cycle of elections every year should be put an end to.
Why Should India have simultaneous elections?
It will ensure consistency, continuity and governance, which are integral to democracy:
- Free and fair elections are integral to democracy. Continuity, consistency and governance are also integral to democracy. And democracy, to my mind, also implies good governance. To achieve this, elections are held. But if the means (elections) become the goal, this will not serve democracy well. Holding simultaneous elections will ensure consistency, continuity and governance, and elections then will only be the means to achieve this and not an end in themselves.
- Implementing simultaneous polls would require a substantial shift from the status quo and would involve amendments to the Constitution and election-related laws. However, does that mean we stop this much-needed reform? Certainly not.
- Earlier, tax collections were separate for the Centre and the States. We introduced the Goods and Services Tax Council through a constitutional amendment and changed the pattern of taxation between the Centre and the States. If the purpose of amendments is to strengthen democracy and governance, they should be brought in. The Constitution has been amended in the past to achieve this goal.
- Let us look at the stumbling blocks in the current system of holding elections. In terms of governance and implementation of development programmes, enforcing the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is detrimental.
- Simultaneous elections can also be a means to curb corruption and build a more conducive socio-economic ecosystem. While the Election Commission’s efforts to curb illicit finances are laudable, elections continue to be a conduit for black money and corruption. Frequent electoral cycles disrupt normal public life by impacting the delivery of essential services. They also provide opportunities to unscrupulous elements to create tears in the social fabric of society.
- Then there is the administrative machinery to be taken into account and the expenses incurred. Frequent elections pose a huge burden on resources — both manpower and financial. Security personnel and government officials are effectively put on election duty for many months in a year. A case in point is the recurring engagement of teachers for election duty, as a result of which students suffer. The cost of elections runs into thousands of crores and has been rising steadily. The opportunity cost of these lost resources is too high to ignore as India is a resource-constrained developing economy. Simultaneous elections can bring the much-needed operational efficiency in this exercise.
- Holding simultaneous elections is not merely about elections; it is about stable governance. Such a sensitive and far-reaching reform requires unanimous support from all political parties. Parliamentary Committee reports have proposed implementable roadmaps for simultaneous elections.
Negative aspects of Simultaneous elections:
It implies a disdain for the parliamentary system and the federal arrangement:
- The so-called simultaneous elections to Parliament and State legislatures till 1967 were less by design and more due to the stable majorities thrown up by the electorate then. When that neatness was lost in the 1960s and later in the 1990s, it owed much to the dismantling of the dominant party system. Since then, coalition politics has brought stability, added to the vibrancy of democracy, and ensured an active role for State parties and greater power-sharing among parties. Of course, the electoral cycle became staggered and has remained so over the past 50 years. Then comes the proposal to convert elections into a disciplined affair with a grand idea of simultaneous elections.
The question of burden:
- Grand proposals are not necessarily welcome proposals. Democratic politics has a tendency to be chaotic, but there are limits to the corrective abilities of formal legal provisions. On paper, it looks like a nice idea to streamline the staggered electoral cycle where there is an average of more than five State elections every year. A specious argument is made that such an electoral cycle overburdens parties and the electoral machinery.
- Even if elections were to take place simultaneously, parties contesting in only one State would anyway be similarly burdened. So, the complaint probably takes too much care of only ‘national’ parties. And as for the electoral machinery, why do we have a lengthy schedule? This is necessitated by the logistic requirement of movement of the requisite security forces. That constraint would remain even if simultaneous elections were held. So, what is the benefit of holding all elections simultaneously?
- Then it is argued that a staggered cycle puts policymakers at a disadvantage because of the constraints of the code of conduct. This problem emerges mainly because parties and governments fail to arrive at a consensus on the scope of the code of conduct and the meaning of what constitutes policymaking and what constitutes distribution of patronage. So, where exactly are the serious disadvantages of staggered elections?
The power of the legislature:
- If we enforce the system of simultaneous elections, we would need to curtail the legislature’s power to unseat a government. It would be mandatory to have a ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’. This means that no opposition party would be able to table a no-confidence motion unless it has the capacity to also simultaneously form a new government. The fundamental instrument of the no-confidence motion would thus be effectively taken away. Instead, the life of the legislature would depend on the cycle of a fixed term.
- Both the purpose and the procedure imply a disdain for the parliamentary system and the federal arrangement. Because, as is currently proposed, when everything else fails, democratic government would be sacrificed at the altar of simultaneous elections, and at the State level at least, the President would carry on the government for the remainder of the period or the new legislature shall have only a truncated term instead of the full five-year term. So, States would be penalised if the legislature is unable to produce a majority government.
- Such far-reaching changes would bring back memories of the 42nd Amendment Act. And like that amendment, this one too would undoubtedly seek to tinker with many basic principles that the Constitution upholds. So, a grand design indeed, albeit with an uncertain outcome and dubious intent.
Standing Committee Report Summary on Feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies:
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‟.
Followings are key findings from the report:
Need for holding simultaneous elections: The Committee noted that the holding of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies would reduce:
- the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections;
- the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; and
- impact on delivery of essential services and
- burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time.
Term of Lok Sabhas: The Committee noted that of the 16 Lok Sabhas that have been constituted so far, seven were dissolved pre-maturely due to coalition governments. However, it observed that lately, the legislatures have been completing their full term.
Anti-defection law and President’s power to proclaim emergency: The Committee observed that the introduction of the Anti-Defection Act, 1985 has prevented political defection in the ruling party. This has had a direct bearing on the term of the legislature.
Recommendations of the Law Commission: The Committee referred to the recommendations of the Law Commission of India, which had suggested that elections of legislative assemblies whose term ends six months after the general elections to Lok Sabha can be clubbed together. However, the results of such elections can be declared at the end of the assembly‟s tenure.
Holding of elections in two phases: The Committee recommended that elections could be held in two phases. It stated that elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the midterm of Lok Sabha. Elections to the remaining legislative assemblies could be held with the end of Lok Sabha‟s term.
Schedule of next cycle of elections: The Committee suggested that the proposed first phase of assembly elections could be held in November, 2016. Elections to all state assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year before or after the appointed election date can be clubbed together. Similarly, the second phase of elections can be held in 2019 with the General Elections to Lok Sabha.
Schedule of Bye-elections: The Committee also recommended that bye-elections to all seats that become vacant during a year may be conducted together during a pre-determined time period.
Despite all the difficulties and occasional setbacks that we face, one of the admirable features of Indian democracy is the consistent and fairly high voter participation in elections. This undoubtedly reflects the deep entrenched belief of Indian people in the democratic traditions of this country. We should not return this favour by burdening our citizens with sky-rocketing electoral expenditure and the ill-effects that comes with it. India, being a developing country, cannot ill afford to bear the huge expenditure involved in electoral exercise. From the above discussion it is evident that the issues that we are facing now in terms of spiraling costs of elections, administrative burden on government and Election Commission and governance deficit resulting from these can be better resolved if we revert back to our earlier electoral system whereby we had simultaneous elections for both parliament and state assemblies.
Discuss the Pros and Cons of Holding Simultaneous Elections in India?