The Election Commission sparked off a massive nationwide debate on Wednesday by voicing its support for simultaneous elections to the Parliament and state Assemblies. The poll panel's statement could well be a game-changer as far the electoral process is concerned, in the context of a strong political narrative which has emerged in favour of the move. While the issue has been discussed academically for several years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strong statements in the recent past appear to have swung the system in to action. The EC's statement on Wednesday could well be a reflection of this.
While the suggestion has been made several times in the past, the poll panel unequivocal statement that it would be logistically prepared to conduct simultaneous elections gives fresh impetus to the idea.
The concept of simultaneous elections has also found somewhat more tentative support from other official quarters after the Narendra Modi-led government's ascension to power. These include the NITI Aayog and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. Both of these have proposed two-phase elections as a middle ground to the debate. With both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former President Pranab Mukherjee recently speaking favourably about the idea, it seems that this major electoral overhaul is on the anvil.
Who has said what
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2016 was quoted by The Times of India as saying, "Elections cause several impediments including financial burden...Therefore, the viability of simultaneous polls should be explored." He had further said that leaders from various political parties support the concept in private, but dither from speaking out in public.
Former president Pranab Mukherjee had said, "With some election or the other throughout the year, normal activities of the government come to a standstill because of code of conduct. 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, in its report in December 2015 had called for elections in the country in two phases. At the time, it had proposed that the first phase, comprising of elections to some State Assemblies, could be held in November 2016. According to it, the elections to the remaining state Assemblies could be held along with the Lok Sabha election.
The NITI Aayog published a discussion paper on the feasibility of simultaneous elections recently. The paper was authored by Bibek Debroy, member of the Aayog and Kishore Desai, Officer on Special Duty at the Aayog. The paper said, "As is the case with long-term structural reforms, implementing this measure would also cause some short-term pain. However, this would be a stepping stone towards improved governance and a larger initiation of 'electoral reforms' – a desperately needed measure to re-boot the Indian polity."
However, the Aayog has also pointed to the necessity of evolving a consensus on the issue, and said, "Without a general consensus and wider acceptance, its intent and efficacy could be compromised." It has called for creating a focused group of stakeholders comprising of experts on the Constitution, think tanks, government officials and representatives of various political parties to work out ways to implement the idea. It has agreed with the standing committee on conducting two phase elections. It has proposed that phase 1, comprising of the Lok Sabha and 14 states could be held in May 2019, while phase 2, comprising of the remaining states could be held in October 2021.
Merits and demerits
Simultaneous elections are by no means new to Indian democracy. In fact, such elections were held in the country since the first election in 1951-52 till 1967. However, 1968 and 1969 saw the dissolution of several legislative Assemblies. Later in 1970, the Lok Sabha itself was dissolved and fresh elections were held. This led to different schedules for the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections.
The NITI Aayog paper pointed out that huge expenses are borne to conduct elections, and this expense can be reduced through simultaneous polls. The Aayog also points to the fact that it also leads to security forces being engaged for longer periods of time due to repeated electoral processes. An article in The Indian Express also pointed out that such a system gives four uninterrupted years to the government to work on public welfare, leaving out one year for the campaigning process.
However, critics of the concept point to the possibility of the results of elections being skewed because of their simultaneous nature. Former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising points out that if there is a wave in favour of the Centre, it would also affect the results of the states in such a scenario, as quoted by The Wire. Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, in an article in The Indian Express, further argues that simultaneous elections would distort local and national issues in the minds of the voters. Quraishi also contends that frequent elections will ensure that politicians are continuously held accountable by the people.
What it means for states
While the electoral schedule of some states will remain unchanged, the schedule for some states will change drastically if the proposal comes through. Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana will see no change in their schedule of election, according to an analysis by the NITI Aayog. On the other hand, states whose schedule will be changed by the highest duration — 27 months — are Goa, Manipur and Punjab.
With inputs from PTI
Updated Date: Oct 05, 2017 12:16 PM