Breaking the cycle

| Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 30, 2017

Simultaneous polls can improve governance and save on spending, without compromising our federal structure

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a persuasive case for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State assemblies in order to reduce costs to the Government (₹4,000 crore in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls) as well as diversion of both security and teaching staff towards election duty. The Election Commission (EC) estimates the cost of holding simultaneous polls at ₹4,500 crore whereas each Assembly election would cost the exchequer about ₹300 crore. The proposal is neither original nor outlandish. Simultaneous elections to the Centre and the States were held between 1951 and 1967, after which the out-of-turn collapse of governments threw the cycle out of gear. Former EC officials, Supreme Court judges and the Law Commission of India, besides a recent report by an all-party Parliamentary Standing Committee, have endorsed, either wholeheartedly or with caveats, the idea of simultaneous elections. A NITI Aayog paper points out that in the last 30 years, there has not been a single year without an election to either the State assembly or the Lok Sabha or both. The Model Code of Conduct will be in operation for four months in a year till 2021 under the current election schedule, disrupting government functioning. Simultaneous polls may reduce the circulation of black money by lowering campaign costs and the corruption involved in recovering that sum.

The logistical convenience and economic merit of the move is beyond dispute; the issue is whether it undercuts federalism. An IDFC Institute study, cited by NITI Aayog, says that there is a 77 per cent chance of the voter choosing the same party at the Centre and the State if elections are held simultaneously, while others have suggested that regional parties are likely to suffer. However, the causation between simultaneous elections and such trends is yet to be established. The ability of the voter to differentiate between local and national issues should not be underestimated.

Opposition parties have raised questions about how the transition will be achieved since it entails extending or curtailing the tenure of State governments to synchronise their cycle with that of the Centre. Constitutional amendments will be required at least to allow for extending the tenure of governments, a situation that is permissible only in an emergency. At present, a premature election is possible if the assembly is dissolved by imposition of President’s Rule, or if the legislature opts for it. If a government loses confidence on the floor of the House before elections are due (which cannot be held in the event of simultaneous polls), it should not lead to a constitutional crisis. These issues should be resolved through consultation with stakeholders. It is possible for about 14 States to go to the polls in May 2019 with the general election and the rest in 2021, coinciding with the mid-term of the 17th Lok Sabha, without inordinate disruption of tenures. A gradual transition is possible.

Published on April 30, 2017

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