On Sunday, the Election Commission of India made an announcement that drew little media attention but holds the prospect of deep changes for India. Election Commissioner OP Rawat said the poll body was willing to carry out simultaneous elections for state Assemblies and the Lok Sabha.
This is not a new idea. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been talking about synchronising state and national elections for some time now. Its manifestos for the 2009 and 2014 general elections promised to evolve a method for simultaneous polls. The Niti Aayog, the Union government’s think tank, has also argued at length in favour of it. In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed the idea while speaking in the Lok Sabha. He said, “Political parties should not look at the idea through the narrow prism of politics.”
If there is ever a red flag in Indian politics, it is when politicians claim they are somehow transcending politics. The idea of simultaneous elections might have great appeal from the point of view of the BJP, but it would be disastrous for Indian democracy.
Time lost to model code
One of the most commonly cited arguments against the present system of elections is the time lost because of the implementation of the model code of conduct – which lays down how parties and candidates should conduct themselves during the electoral process. A parliamentary standing committee report on the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections, which was presented in Parliament in December 2015, argued, “The imposition of the MCC [model code of conduct] puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and state governments in the poll-bound states. It even affects normal governance. Frequent elections lead to imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time.”
But it is erroneous to assume the model code remains in force for “prolonged periods of time”. In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, the code was in place for a month before polls. This is not a “prolonged period”, considering that a state government is elected for 60 months. The period during which the model code is in place is usually longer for Lok Sabha polls – but, of course, simultaneous elections will not eliminate that. Moreover, all that the model code does is prevent the government from announcing new schemes. The old ones can continue. In fact, many politicians now announce a slew of schemes just before the code comes into play.
So, not only does the model code not take up a long period of time, it is incorrect to say it “puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and state governments in the poll-bound states”.
The cost of polls
The other common argument is cost. This is also the weakest argument. For example, the Gujarat Assembly elections scheduled for later this year are expected to cost Rs 240 crores to conduct, according to a discussion paper by the Niti Aayog. With state elections held once every five years, that works out to less than Rs 50 crores a year, barely a drop in the ocean for the state. To benchmark this number, the annual budget for Gujarat in 2017-’18 was Rs 1,72,000 crores.
One must remember that not only are elections a necessary condition for democracy, they are by far the single biggest component of a democracy. To fiddle around with a system that has worked for India for seven decades just to save a small amount of money is a case of missing the forest for the trees.
That proponents of simultaneous elections are willing to put India’s democracy at risk for matters as small as saving a few crores is not a flaw in their plan, it is a feature. The proposal is, from the start, highly undemocratic.
For example, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice brought up the fact that political rallies “disrupt traffic and also leads to noise pollution” as an argument in favour of simultaneous elections. With Pakistan as its neighbour, Indians should be familiar with the rhetoric of elections being messy. It is the same argument used in Pakistan to justify the frequent suspension of democracy in favour of the supposed efficiency of Army rule. A watered-down version of the efficiency argument was even used by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency – a 21-month period in the 1970s when elections were suspended and civil liberties curbed.
Political rallies are not a nuisance a democracy has to put up with – they are the lifeblood of a democratic system. In the United States, as a Far-Right authoritarian president, Donald Trump, threatens to overturn the country’s democracy, many of his opponents – from scientists to women to people opposed to his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries – have come out on the streets to show their displeasure. Commentators see this popular resistance as the best defence against Trump’s actions. And this is not limited to the Left. The Right had its own mobilisation, the Tea Party movement that sought lower government spending and taxes, under Barack Obama’s presidency. That a mature democracy such as the United States sees street politics as vital tells us how anti-democratic it is of people in India to look down on political rallies because they disrupt traffic.
Elections are a check on power
Moreover, in a country with underdeveloped institutions like India, elections take on the extra burden of acting as a check on governments. Unlike in nearly every other democracy, in India, the anti-defection legislation outlaws any dissent from the legislature. During the Emergency, both the judiciary and most of the press folded in front of the Union government. It was only the process of elections that acted as an effective check, unseating Indira Gandhi from office in 1977. Any mechanism that tries to attenuate this check would be severely harmful for Indian democracy.
Another problem with holding simultaneous elections is the coordination of widely varying Assembly and Lok Sabha cycles. India’s parliamentary system means Assemblies and governments do not have fixed terms. The Niti Aayog’s solution for this is to curtail Assembly terms. This would lead to a system where the president would rule directly if the Lok Sabha were to be dissolved early. It also proposes curtailed terms for the Lok Sabha.
These are problematic proposals. Allowing the natural life span of Assemblies and the Lok Sabha to be cut short by the diktats of the Election Commission would mean reducing the value of each vote. Moreover, giving the president direct powers is unusual as he is a near figurehead in the current system. To curtail the powers of a directly elected Lok Sabha and hand over power to an indirectly elected president would be a significant step back for Indian democracy.
National parties stand to gain
Given the deleterious effects of simultaneous elections, why is the BJP so keen on them? As it so happens, the BJP – to use Modi’s words – is looking at the matter through the “narrow prism of politics”. With deep pockets and large workforces, national, multi-state parties would benefit greatly from simultaneous elections. This is not conjecture, it is a point that multiple empirical studies have backed up.
A study by the public-policy think tank IDFC Institute parsed electoral data from four Lok Sabha elections – 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. The data analyses shows that “on average, there is a 77% chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the state and Centre when elections are held simultaneously”, a trend that the study calls an “undesirable impact on voter behaviour”.
This inference is backed by another study by Jagdeep Chhokar, a former professor, dean, and director in-charge of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. Chhokar and Kumar analysed 31 instances of simultaneous state and Lok Sabha elections since 1989. The result: “In 24 of those 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.”
Thus, not only are simultaneous elections undemocratic but they are a direct attack on India’s federal structure. India is a rare democracy in its neighbourhood. Elections are the lifeblood of this system. Weakening them in any way would be a disaster for India.