The Union government began a public discussion on holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies on its MyGov web portal last Wednesday (7 September). President Pranab Mukherjee, during his lecture to school students on the Teachers’ Day (5 September) had endorsed the idea of holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies elections. President Mukherjee had said that with some election or other throughout the year, normal activities of the government come to a standstill because of the model code of conduct. “This is an idea the political leadership should think of. If political parties collectively think, we can change it”, he had said.
It may be noted that that this idea entered the mainstream debate since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong pitch for it during an all-party meeting in March this year. The prime minister had said that holding simultaneous elections to elected bodies at various levels would give political and social workers more time to take people-oriented programmes to the grassroots level.
It could be argued that the prime minister has mooted this idea because it would be advantageous to the BJP which has emerged as the biggest national party replacing the Congress. But despite this political angle, the idea merits attention. After all, LK Advani had mooted the same idea when the BJP had not become an all-India party. Even the Law Commission of India had seriously deliberated on it and had come up with specific recommendations way back in 1999.
Let us not forget that the first four elections in independent India – in 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967 – were a joint affair; elections to central and state legislatures were held simultaneously. It was only in 1971 when Indira Gandhi dissolved Lok Sabha and advanced the Lok Sabha elections by a year that the synchronised elections fell apart. Then there were a spate of unstable governments at both the Centre and the states which caused early dissolution of the Lok Sabha or state assemblies.
The situation today is such that almost every year, some state elections are lined up; the redeeming feature is that some stability has come about to the life of the state assemblies, thanks to the Supreme Court’s strong verdict against the arbitrary imposition of the President’s Rule by the Centre in 1994 in the Bommai case, which was reiterated recently in the Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh case.
What should be our foremost concern is that elections cost a lot of taxpayers’ money. Just take a look at the statistics: in 1952, when the first national election for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies were held, as per the Election Commission’s own data, just about Rs 10 crore were spent. In the subsequent two elections – 1957 and 1962 – the expenditure came down to almost 6 crore and 7.5 crore respectively (can anyone now imagine the possibility of reduction of expenditure on any head after five or ten years?). In 1967, the election expenditure equaled that of 1952, and in 1971, there was only a marginal increase.
Since 1977, the expenditure is on an upward climb. It doubled to more than Rs 23 crore (compared to 11.5 crore in 1971). In 1980, it more than doubled — to Rs 54 crore. By 1989, it went up by three times to Rs 154 crore. Just two years later, the expenses shot up to Rs 359 crore. In 1996, it had reached Rs 600 crore mark. And three years later, in 1999, the Election Commission spent Rs 880 crore. By 2004, it had shot up to Rs 1300 crore. The provisional estimate tells us that the conduct of 2014 Lok Sabha elections entailed an expenditure of almost Rs 3500 crore.
The expenses on state assembly elections are also rising. The election to the Bihar assembly cost the state government Rs 300 crore; expenses incurred by the central government election commission is a separate story. Imagine the amount of taxpayer’s money being spent over and over again mindlessly. With some application of mind and some resolute will, this wasteful expenditure could be minimized.
We cannot afford to avoid elections; after But all, that is the mainstay of a democracy. But we could avoid duplication of elections by holding Lok Sabha and assembly elections together. The Election Commission has expressed its ability and willingness to conduct simultaneous elections. Nevertheless it may appear an insurmountable task, given the spread of elections across the years, as it stands today.
The matter was discussed by the Standing Committee of Parliament which deliberated on the “feasibility of holding simultaneous elections to the House of people (Lok sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies” and submitted a report on 17 December, 2015.
The summary of the Standing Committee Report, as compiled by the PRS Legislative Research, is the following: “Need for holding simultaneous elections: The Committee noted that the holding of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies would reduce (i) the massive expenditure that is currently incurred for the conduct of separate elections; (ii) the policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; (iii) impact on delivery of essential services; (iv) burden on the crucial manpower that is deployed during election time.”
The Committee made the following recommendations: “Holding of Elections in Two Phases: The Committee recommended that elections could be held in two phases. It stated that elections to some Legislative Assemblies could be held during the mid-term of Lok Sabha. Elections to the remaining Legislative assemblies could be held with the end of Lok Sabha’s term.”
The Committee even suggested a time frame for holding the elections. “Schedule of next cycle of elections: The Committee suggested that the proposed first phase of Assembly elections could be held in November, 2016. Elections to all state assemblies whose terms end within six months to one year before or after appointed election date can be clubbed together. Similarly, the second phase of elections can be held in 2019 with the General elections to Lok Sabha.”
Well, November 2016 deadline is not feasible now. But if efforts are made in line with the recommendations right away, May 2019 deadline can be certainly met.
But, like GST, this matter also needs political consensus, as it would involve Constitutional Amendments to Articles 83, 85, 172 and 174 to put the legislation in process. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi succeeds in evolving the consensus to make simultaneous election to Lok Sabha and state assemblies a reality, he would end up making a significant contribution to reforming Indian democracy for the good.