One Nation One Election

Electoral history of India as we know today begins in 1951. It has been a journey of rising aspirations, struggle against tyranny of emergency and most importantly as an expression of the voice of poor and marginalized. It is a journey which began with the revolutionary idea of Universal Adult Suffrage guaranteeing vote to every adult who was 21 years of age and above. India embarked on a journey where despite economic and social disparities, a vote was the equalizing factor. It is a story of a nation confronted with 176 million eligible voters, 85% of whom lacked elementary education. The first general election saw candidates being chosen for 4,500 seats for the Lok Sabha as well as the State Assemblies; two million ballot boxes, sites were chosen to set up 2,24,000 polling booths and millions of human resource were deployed administration of the polls. All India Radio and other mediums like films were used to educate the public about the elections. Around 3000 films were shown around India. In mountainous areas bridges were specially built and for small islands boats were used to ensure people’s participation. Voter turnout then was 45.7%. From that time we have now come to the age of Electronic Voting Machines. In the last general elections for 16th Lok Sabha average election turnout over all phases was around 66.38%, the highest ever in the history of Indian general elections. For India it has been a long and arduous journey but elections are the strong bedrock over which our democracy stands and thrives.

India till 1967 mostly had simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. Congress was the single largest force at that time. It was only in the 1967 elections that Congress started losing ground. It suffered a major setback as non-Congress ministries were established in Bihar, Kerala, Orissa, Madras, the Punjab and West Bengal. Until 1967, the grand old party had never won less than 60 per cent of all seats in most Assembly elections. It started to interfere with and topple state governments. Blatant use of President’s rule became the norm. Another major setback to election cycle came when Indira Gandhi decided to call for early elections in 1970 due to internal crisis in the Congress party. Hence began the phase of coalition governments in India. An era which saw unstable governments. Corruption, criminals and black money became synonymous with the elections in India.

It is not that the wise men and women who framed our Constitution had not seen it coming. Prof Shibban Lal Saxena in one of the Constituent Assembly debates said, Our Constitution provides for the dissolution of the Legislature when a vote of no-confidence is passed. So it is quite possible that the elections to the various Legislatures in the provinces and the Centre will not be all concurrent. Every time some election or other will be taking place somewhere. It may not be so in the very beginning or in the very first five or ten years. But after ten or twelve years, at every moment some election in some province will be going on.’ But they for sure had not imagined the scale at which future political leaders would use money and muscle power for electoral gains.

Today the reality is that there are elections happening every year in some part of country or the other. The next Lok Sabha election is scheduled for 2019. Elections to the Assemblies of five States are scheduled for 2017, for 7 States in 2018, 10 States in 2019, 3 States in 2020 and one in 2021. India is perennially on the boil and our political leaders in perpetual election mode. So it did not come as a surprise when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his interviews early this year suggested ‘if we wish to get rid of the black money we need electoral reforms and one aspect of reform is simultaneous elections.’ It was not the first time that such an idea was discussed. Electoral reforms and simultaneous elections have been recommended by various committees and commissions, but coming from a serving Prime Minister in office the suggestion carried significance and initiated widespread debate and discussion. President Pranab Mukherjee later endorsing the idea said, “This is an idea the political leadership should think of. If political parties collectively think, we can change it….The Election Commission can also put in their idea and efforts on holding the polls together and that will be highly beneficial”.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice which was chaired by Congress MP Dr. E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan submitted its report on the ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’ on December 17, 2015. It said that “a solution will be found to reduce the frequency of elections which relieve people and government machinery, tired of frequent electoral processes.” The report also said that it is “important for India if it is to compete with other nations in developmental agenda on real time basis as a robust, democratic country.” The committee further noted that holding simultaneous elections would reduce massive public expenditure, policy paralysis caused due to imposition of Model Code of Conduct, impact on delivery of essential services and the burden on crucial manpower deployed during the election time.

The Law Commission, in its 107th Report in 1999 (Reform of Electoral Laws), said, “The rule ought to be one election once in five years for the Lok Sabha and all Legislative Assemblies”. The Election Commission on its part has said that if there is political will for such a move, the practical obstacles are not insurmountable providing that necessary resources are made available for voting machinery and security personnel. NITI Aayog member and Economist Professor Bibek Debroy has also co-authored a discussion paper with Kishore Desai where he analyzed the case for holding elections simultaneously in the country.

Former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi in a recent article had suggested that the idea of simultaneous elections was “good in principle” but was “fraught with constitutional issues and administrative problems”. He remarked that frequent elections had some benefits too, like they brought politicians back to the voters, boosted the economy and created more jobs. But more importantly, he pointed out that such elections prevent local and national issues from getting mixed up in the minds of the voters. Certain other commentators have also suggested positives of holding frequent elections. Like Congress leader Manish Tewari in one of his articles argued that ‘A staggered electoral cycle gives people a chance to distinguish between the national, state and local interests, rather than being swept away in a wave’.

Dr Louise Tillin, a senior lecturer at King’s College London who has worked on electoral politics, federalism and the politics of development in contemporary India writes that ‘one of the political incentives for aligning elections is to increase the extent to which national politics dominates state-level electoral contests, or in other words to centralise political life’. In addition she argues that ‘simply aligning the timing of elections is unlikely to address the real challenges of governing in a multi-level political context. A consideration of the dynamics of voter choice in multi-level political systems is much needed, since the real challenges to “governance” arise from the need to navigate these complexities — rather than reducing the amount of time spent electioneering.’ She suggests that ‘voters behave differently in state elections and respond to the parties, identities and policy issues that are important at that level of government. This in turn produces regional governments that may be governed by parties that do not stand a chance of coming to power at the national level, which pursue different policy agendas and may attempt to stall the implementation of national policy changes that diverge from their preferences. Her concerns are not entirely unfounded. In a study done by Praveen Chakravarty, a fellow at IDFC Institute suggests that on an average, there is a 77 per cent chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party in both the State and Centre when elections are held simultaneously and this gives rise to centralized tendencies. But in a different research done by Ailsa Henderson, Professor at University of Edinburg and Valentyna Romanova, Senior Expert, Institute for Strategic Studies “New Ukraine” finds that ‘in Ukraine, where national and regional elections have been held simultaneously in the 2000s shows the persistence of differences between outcomes at the two levels, with national elections more “nationalised”, and regional elections showing greater variation across space especially as smaller parties do better at this level. Such incongruent outcomes are more likely where regions have more autonomy, and where there are stronger linguistic and cultural differences.’ In India too we have had examples of states which have voted differently for state and central governments when elections were held simultaneously.

A common criticism against simultaneous elections is that it violates the constitution and the federal structure of the country. The argument put forth is that the Article 83(2) and Article 172 which deal with Lok Sabha and State assembly elections respectively mention that normal duration of elected bodies is five years “unless sooner dissolved”. So if we have simultaneous elections many governments won’t be finishing their full tenure. Another argument is that what if a government falls when a no-confidence motion is brought against it after simultaneous elections are held or any other similar scenario. To this some prospective solutions have also been suggested. NM Ghatate, former vice Chairman of the Law Commission of India argues that ‘it is pertinent to note that a no-confidence motion is not mentioned in the Constitution or any law, for that matter. It finds place in Rule 198 of the Rules and Conduct of Business of the Lok Sabha, which states that 50 or more members can move a no-confidence motion.’ Further, the Law Commission of India in its report of 1999 has dealt with the problem of premature and frequent elections. It had recommended an amendment to Rule 198 on the lines of the German Constitution, which provides that the leader of the party who wants to replace the chancellor has to move the no-confidence motion along with the confidence motion. If the motions succeed, the President appoints him as the chancellor. The same can be contextualized in accordance with Indian polity.

Another solution can be a fixed term of our Parliament and Assemblies. A typical case in point is the Parliament of United Kingdom on which Parliamentary system of India is based had in 2011 passed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Important question to ask therefore is, hasn’t India after 70 years matured enough to give its elected representatives a fixed tenure to perform!

Second criticism of violating federal structure doesn’t carry much emphasis as the Article 1 of the Constitution clearly mentions that ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States’. Also it would be interesting to read Dr. BR Ambedkar’s argument in favour of a Central Election Commission which can be extrapolated to elections in India. He says, ‘the original proposal under article 289 was that there should be one Commission to deal with the elections to the Central Legislature, both the Upper and the Lower House, and that there should be a separate Election Commission for each province and each State, to be appointed by the Governor or the Ruler of the State. Comparing that with the present article 289, there is undoubtedly, a radical change. This article proposes to centralise the election machinery in the hands of a single commission to be assisted by regional Commissioners, not working under the provincial Government’. The founding fathers and mothers clearly wanted a unified approach towards elections in India.

To get an idea of the direction in which the Central Government is thinking with respect to holding simultaneous elections, it would be advisable to see the discussion questions on the MyGov platform. It invites suggestion on five indicative questions which include:

  1. Is it desirable to hold simultaneous elections? What are the pros and cons?
  2. If simultaneous elections are held, then for the first time what happens to Assemblies whose scheduled tenure either ends before or after the proposed date of holding elections?
  3. Should the term of the Lok Sabha and Assemblies be fixed?
  4. What would happen in case by-elections are necessitated in between terms?
  5. What happens in case the ruling party or coalition loses majority in between term, either in the Lok Sabha or in Assemblies?

These are very pertinent process related questions and show government is aware and is ready to explore various dimensions of holding simultaneous elections.

There is a saying that just like the currency in the economy, a political system is as valuable as people think it to be. Quoting Democracy, US President Franklin D Roosevelt said, “It cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” This also includes keeping the enthusiasm of people in election and democracy alive. One Nation One Election is One right step towards ensuring transparency and accountability in our democracy.

(The article was originally published in the Organiser Magazine as a Cover Story http://organiser.org//Encyc/2016/11/28/Cover-Story-Electoral-Reforms---One-Nation,-One-Election.aspx )

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