Though Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections started simultaneously in the fifties, in time they developed a natural rhythm of their own, responding to their specific contexts.
Thus mid-term elections for state assemblies as well as the Lok Sabha, various periods of President’s Rule, and other political contexts decoupled the state elections from the national elections, and the various Assembly elections from each other.
Push for simultaneous polls
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi floated the plan of holding simultaneous Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections. Earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani had argued for this too.
However, Modi has followed up the proposal in various ways, underlining his determination to see it through. He has raised this demand in at least two interviews and sought the “people’s opinion” on the issue. People have till October 15 to put in their suggestions at the mygov.in portal. The law ministry has also set up a committee to study the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections, and has sought the Election Commission’s comments on the issue. And, when President Pranab Mukherjee held a class in a government school on Teacher’s Day earlier this month, he endorsed the idea too. What Mukherjee left out was for whom it would be beneficial and how.
While the Opposition Congress has not opposed the plan as such but has called it impractical, the Trinamool Congress has clearly said that it was anti-democratic and unconstitutional.
As far as the sanctity of electoral democracy and federalism are concerned, the proposal is dangerous at many levels.
In order to hold simultaneous national and state elections, all state Assembly polls have to be brought in sync from their present temporal offsets. Thus, certain state assemblies will have to be elected way before their normal term ends while others will last longer than their mandated term of five years. That in itself is unfair to the sovereign democratic mandate given to states in the first place. And all this for reasons of cost-cutting and vaguely expressed sentiments about governance efficiency and stability.
What is lost in the process is the fact that elections are primarily about democratic representation. Everything else is secondary. If expenses were a paramount consideration, then why have law courts or other institutions that are supposed to uphold citizen’s rights? Are those rights negotiable due to expenses?
Even if India was able to sync all Assembly and parliamentary elections in the future, how does one stop the decoupling cycle from starting once again, as it did after the initial synced start in 1951-’52?
The deceased BJP leader and former vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat proposed a so-called solution. At present, a government falls when a no-confidence motion wins in the house. If no alternative government can be formed, new elections are held.
According to Shekhawat’s so-called solution, a no-confidence motion must mandatorily be accompanied by an alternative government formation plan so that the lack of an alternative does not lead to the dissolution of the House.
According to this preposterous, anti-democratic idea, the people’s representatives, and hence the people, have no right to pull down a government if there is no alternative at hand even if the incumbent government has lost the confidence of the House. This takes away the people’s sovereign right to choose and dismiss a government how and when they want.
The lack of confidence in a government by itself is a political reality. Shekhawat’s so-called solution rides roughshod over the sovereign right of the people to express that lack of confidence in a government.
An anti-people proposal
No yearning for stability can override the representative character of a government and hence, democratic opinion. Prioritising stability over democracy is not only anti-people but also deeply authoritarian.
The anti-defection law, which puts parties before people’s representatives, has hugely compromised the representative character of those elected. Simultaneous elections along with Shekhawat’s so-called solution will erode representativeness even further.
The simultaneous election plan – where people will be deliberately made to vote simultaneously to elect assemblies that are autonomous and different, in the same campaign cycle – is a direct blow to democracy.
This is against federalism and in support of pan-Indian parties whose national agendas would typically dominate in an election cycle. The inevitable dominance of national issues, due to the greater amount of media focus and money power in play, will seriously hurt the breadth of debates on people’s issues that happen around an election.
The Indian Union
Syncing all elections to the parliamentary election stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the Indian Union. For instance, Centre, the widely-used term for the Union government, is a misnomer. India is a Union.
The Union and the states do not have a spoke-and-wheel relationship. There is no Centre. The Union is a round-table with certain powers. The Lok Sabha, which represents the Union government and manages subjects under Union control, and the Vidhan Sabhas, which represent the state governments of the constituent states of the Union and manage subjects under state control, do not share any hierarchical relationship. Both are equal and sovereign with respect to the subjects under their exclusive jurisdiction. They represent different concerns and more importantly, different distances from the lived reality of the people.
Thus, the relegation of state issues to the background will make elections more about distant issues and less about everyday realities that are typically addressed in state elections. This obviously will selectively hurt state-based pro-federalism parties who fight pan-Indian parties in their states.
Empirical evidence shows that in states where simultaneous Assembly and parliamentary elections have been held since 1999, voters opted for the same party in both elections in 77% of constituencies.
Very different issues held sway during the two recent elections in Bihar. The hugely divergent results in Bihar for the Assembly and parliamentary elections that were held more than a year apart show why the non-simultaneity is important: people’s opinion changes with time.
Thus, when the ruling party of the Union government loses non-synced state elections, it provides a signal to the rulers, and a necessary counterweight to the people. It makes the political scene more representative.
More than the cost of holding elections, the greater danger to democracy is the role of money power during elections. Parliamentary elections have increasingly witnessed massive corporate funding during the election, thus skewing outcomes.
Non-simultaneous elections reduce the amount of available dirty money that can be used to determine the issues and change the outcome of a particular election, while simultaneous elections hugely multiplies the bang that can be obtained for the election cycle’s dirty buck.
It is no secret that big money influence is more entrenched in “pan-Indian” parties that are typical Lok Sabha winners. It is understandable why corporate-funded political think-tanks that abhor the possibility of a Third Front or Federal Front dispensation for reasons they attribute to stability are also writing long position papers and holding discussions in support of simultaneous elections.
It is not accidental that the BJP not only supports simultaneous elections but has also toyed with the idea of a presidential form of government. Any move towards centralising the election process in a pluralist nation of nations like the Indian Union is unhealthy for democracy.
A comparable large, multi-state entity, like the US, which has a strong federal structure, has no concept of simultaneous elections. Such elections will reduce the complex realities of a billion plus people into a referendum on the incumbent Union government. That will hugely disempower citizens. It will be a move towards a shallower and not a deeper democracy.