Former Union minister Arun Jaitley in 2016 told a group of ministers that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of simultaneous national and state elections was “fraught with many pitfalls”, The Indian Express reported on Thursday. Jaitley, who died last month, was then the Union finance minister.
Jaitley opposed the idea during a meeting of a Committee of Ministers on April 11, 2016, weeks after Modi first talked of the concept in front of workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, suggesting it would give them more time for grassroots work.
The committee’s purpose was to examine the Election Commission’s proposal to purchase new equipment for the 2019 elections, but the Prime Minister’s Office later asked the ministers to also discuss simultaneous elections.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Jaitley “averred that this is a sphere which is fraught with many pitfalls and we should tread with abundant caution in the matter”. The Indian Express obtained the minutes of the meeting through a query under the Right to Information Act.
Sushma Swaraj, who was the external affairs minister at the time and who also died in August, said during the meeting that “we should not summarily dismiss the idea and there is a need to give a serious thought to it”. “She further added that the Hon’ble PM is keen to examine this issue and that in an all-party meeting held recently, political parties were favourably inclined to the idea,” the minutes noted.
The meeting was chaired by Rajnath Singh, who was home minister at the time and is now the defence minister. The ministers concluded that the committee was not the forum to discuss the matter and an expert committee should be assigned to examine its various nuances, The Indian Express reported. Two deputy election commissioners were also present at the meeting.
Opposed in 2016, supported it later
Jaitley later appeared to have changed his stance. In March 2017, he said at an event that simultaneous elections would “hugely reduce the quantum of expenditure”, because parties would spend much less money campaigning for both elections simultaneously.
In February 2018, Jaitley, in an interview to News18, ruled out the possibility of the Lok Sabha elections being held along with some state Assembly polls that were due later that year. The Lok Sabha elections were otherwise due by May 2019.
He said: “Till the time the Constitution is changed, and there is consensus on the issues, the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections will not overlap. And going by the reaction the issue has evoked, it seems people [the Opposition] are not in favour of any such move.”
Simultaneous elections debate: A timeline
Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party believe simultaneous elections will help save money and allow the government to focus on development work. The country had simultaneous national and state elections for several years after Independence, but they later fell out of sync for several reasons such as governments collapsing mid-term. As a result, each year now sees some states going for elections.
Here is a timeline of the debate during the Modi government’s tenure:
April 2014: The BJP says in its election manifesto that it will, in consultation with other parties, evolve a method to conduct simultaneous polls.
December 2015: A parliamentary standing committee recommends a move in this direction by streamlining elections into two phases – one concurrent with Lok Sabha elections, and the second in the mid-term of the Lok Sabha.
March 2016: Prime Minister Narendra Modi floats the idea at a meeting with BJP workers, says he discussed it at an all-party meeting earlier.
January 2017: In his annual address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, President Pranab Mukherjee calls for simultaneous state and general elections.
April 2017: At a NITI Aayog meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asks all chief ministers to consider conducting simultaneous elections across the country.
April 2018: The Law Commission releases a draft white paper, recommending that elections to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies be held simultaneously. The commission seeks opinions and suggestions from the public.
August 2018: The Congress conveys its “vehement opposition” to the Law Commission against the Centre’s proposal to hold the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections simultaneously. The party says the proposal is against federalism, and “unconstitutional, undemocratic and forbidden by law”.
August 2018: The BJP writes to the Law Commission, claiming that the opposition to the idea of simultaneous national and state elections is “politically motivated and inappropriate”.
August 2018: The Law Commission suggests to the Centre that certain inevitable constitutional amendments are required if it wants to hold simultaneous elections to Parliament and the state Assemblies.
June 2019: Soon after getting re-elected, Narendra Modi holds an all-party meeting with a discussion on simultaneous elections on the agenda. Several political parties supported the idea of “One Nation, One Election” during the meeting, while others expressed the need to examine all aspects of the proposal carefully, according to the government. Modi says at the meeting that a committee will be set up to provide “time-bound suggestions” on the proposal. The Congress, Trinamool Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam boycott the meeting.
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