What is the ‘one nation one election’ controversy all about?

The idea of “one nation one election” caught the public attention again on September 1 when it emerged the Central Government had constitute a committee under the chairmanship of former President Ram Nath Kovind, to give a report on electoral reform to end the existing cycle of India being in poll mode throughout the year.

The committee has been asked to “examine and make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, State assemblies, municipalities, and panchayats, keeping in view the existing framework under the Constitution of India and other statutory provisions”. It would also suggest phases and timeframes within which simultaneous polls may be held if they cannot be conducted in one go.

What are the arguments in favour of this move?

Since 2014, Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister, has been espousing simultaneous elections to reduce wastage of public money, and to ensure the smooth flow of development work, which otherwise gets arrested when the model code of conduct is in force.

Perhaps, expenditure is one of the central arguments forwarded in support of the move.  According to an estimate deliberated in a parliamentary panel discussion, elections to the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies cost the Election Commission of India more than Rs 4,500 crore. This is besides the declared and undeclared poll expenses by candidates and political parties. 

Have the practice of a single, simultaneous election ever been followed in India?

This was the practice immediately after Independence, when the country held simultaneous elections from 1951-52 to 1967. But it was discontinued subsequently due to the premature dissolution of state assemblies, and at times of the Lok Sabha. Given the fixed tenure of houses, separate polls became a necessity.

Is a single election for State and parliamentary elections practical? What could the difficulties be?

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in its 79th report on “Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Assemblies, 2015” recommended holding of polls in two phases, which it said was a more practical method of approaching the subject. The first phase could be held in November 2016, said the report, which was tabled the previous year. Polls to all state legislatures whose terms end before or after a time period of six months to one year from the election date, could be brought together. So, the parliamentary panel was of the view that the term of some assemblies would have to shortened, while the remaining could be extended in order to hold simultaneous elections.

Among the challenges, is how uncertain political situations such as a fractured mandate, defections and no-confidence motions that would enforce sudden elections, be addressed by the talked about electoral system. Their fear is that it would stifle subaltern voices manifested through small regional parties, which is the essence of diversity of the country. It would lead to centralisation of the election process, which the party in power can exploit. 

Is the Election Commission equipped to handle single elections?

The Election Commission of India, in its own examination of the issue earlier, felt that side-by-side polls would demand massive investment in Electronic Voting Machines and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines. The infrastructure upgrade for conducting simultaneous polls would run up a bill of crores.

The latest committee would also look into the aspect of manpower and logistics required, including EVMs, VVPATs, etc, for holding such simultaneous polls; ascertain the modalities of use of a single electoral roll and electoral identity cards for identification of voters in polls to the Lok Sabha, assemblies, municipalities and panchayats.

Has any other country with a federal structure tried this?

Similar electoral arrangements are in place in South Africa, Sweden and the tenure of Parliament in the UK is determined by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011. In South Africa, national as well as provincial legislature elections are held simultaneously for five years. Sweden has a fixed date for holding polls to the ‘Riksdag’, the national legislature, ‘Landsting’, the provincial legislature/ county council, and ‘Kommunfullmaktige’, the local bodies/municipal assemblies. They have a common term of four years. In fact, some of the global practices have been examined previously by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in its 79th report.

What are some of the statutes which will have to be amended to make this a reality?

One of the onerous tasks that would need to be be fulfilled would be Constitutional amendments and fixing of tenures of the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. Legislature tenure extension is not permitted, but can be achieved by the declaration of an emergency. However, polls to the Centre and States can happen six months before their term ends by invoking Sections 14 and 15 of the Representation of People Act, 1951.

The Kovind panel has been asked to undertake legal scrutiny and recommend specific amendments to the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act, 1950, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and any other rules for holding simultaneous elections, reads the Ministry of Law notification. Other pointed legal examinations mandated for the panel is to let the Modi government know, if the amendments to the Constitution would require ratification by the States. In addition to that, the committee would have to analyse and recommend a possible solution in a scenario of simultaneous elections emerging out of a hung House, adoption of a no-confidence motion, or defection or any such other event.