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Ruckus over simultaneous LS Assembly elections divides political parties

Saturday, February 03, 2018
By Prakash Bal Joshi

The debate over possibility of holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and state assembly elections has been in the air for quite some time as President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been strongly supporting the idea for better management of electoral process.

The idea is not new but it has snowballed into a major debate and created a divide in country’s polity over desirability and practical difficulties of the proposal.  The debate has also been referred as “One Nation, One Poll” with growing speculation that the Lok Sabha elections might be advanced to achieve the goal of simultaneous elections to be held along with assembly elections scheduled in year 2018. The BJP which leads the NDA government in Centre is all for holding simultaneous elections claims that the party is for holding simultaneous elections but there is no plan for changing the schedule of the Lok Sabha polls which falls into year 2019.

Advancing polls
Several BJP leaders concede that the party leadership is giving thought to the option of advancing the 2019 election. Hypothetically, if Lok Sabha elections are held within a year, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya would simultaneously have new Assemblies, while Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh too will have relatively new Houses. If elections in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Haryana are brought forward, they too, will be added to the list. And in five years, if elections could be delayed in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur (or polls to Lok Sabha and the above Assemblies could be advanced), a major part of the country would be having elections at the same time.

 The idea of holding simultaneous elections is not new but it has become contentious in view of existing political scenario. If one recalls, the Election Commission had suggested the move way back in 1983 to evolve a system so that elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies could be held simultaneously. The view was also supported by the Justice B P Jeevan Reddy-headed Law Commission which recommended in its 170th Report in May 1999 that “we must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once”. However, there were not many takers as it was easier for the floor managers of almost all parties to hold elections separately so that they could mobilise required resources. It was another matter that holding such separate and fragmented elections kept state machinery engaged most of the time round the year and cost also escalated.

The serious debate on the issue actually began much later in December 2015. The report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People and State Legislative Assemblies’, by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice recommended “an alternative and practicable method of holding simultaneous elections which involves holding of elections in two phases”.

The committee has also proposed that terms of current Assemblies be curtailed or extended to align with the new simultaneous elections cycle, and presented the proposal as a “representative table” in its report. While addressing the joint session of Parliament last year, then President Pranab Mukherjee has also expressed concerns over frequent elections. According to his assessment these separate and frequent elections “put on hold development programmes, disrupt normal public life, impact essential services and burden human resource with prolonged periods of election duty”.

The ruling BJP has always been in support of the simultaneous elections. In fact, the BJP manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls had also emphasised need to evolve method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously.  However, the Congress has been against the proposal and told the house committee that it was “impractical” and “unworkable”. There have been efforts to evolve consensus over the issue of holding simultaneous elections, but views of political parties are divided. The Trinamool Congress dubs it as anti-democratic and unconstitutional. The left parties have been opposing it while Sharad Pawar led NCP has termed it as not feasible for a vast country like ours. The AGP and AIADMK have been supporting the proposal.

The issue of holding simultaneous elections is not India specific as several other democratic countries have also found it ticklish and had to deal with fragmented and separate elections for the federal government and provincial governments. The United Kingdom of Britain also had similar problems of multiple elections. However, in 2011, they resolved it by fixing May 7, 2015 as election day, and voting on the first Thursday of May every fifth year. Every five years ,  South Africa and Sweden hold national and provisional elections simultaneously. Every five years. This does not mean that many more democracies also have simultaneous elections, many of them hold such elections separately.

Actually, India also began its parliamentary democratic system by holding simultaneous elections. They were held in 1951-52, 1957, 1962 and 1967. The smooth cycle was disrupted due to premature dissolution of Assemblies. In 1970, Lok Sabha, too, was dissolved before completing its five-year term. You do not need an expert to tell you that if held simultaneously, it will drastically cut costs of holding elections to the Parliament and state assemblies.  The NITI Aayog paper on the issue says that the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 had cost the exchequer about Rs 1,115 crore, and the 2014 elections, about Rs 3,870 crore. If you add money spent by the political parties and candidates, then the amount will be astronomical. According to rough unofficial estimates, the total amount spent in Lok Sabha polls held in year 2014, over Rs 40,000 crores were spent by the authorities and candidate. The Election Commission of India, has already worked out expenditure holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies to the tune of Rs 4,500 crore.

Code of conduct
Since election commissioner Seshan’s days we also have code of conduct for the government, political parties and candidates. The code for the government put restrictions on taking and making announcements of decisions during the campaigning and holding of elections days. This really put spoke in already lethargic administration.

Though idea is good to restrict the party in power from making any announcements of freebees to attract voters, the code of conduct also hampers the process of development. The security forces also get bogged down to maintain law and order during election time when tempers rise high due to campaigning which bring fore fault lines on caste and religion.

Those opposing the move says that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections may be advanced to coincide with the four state assembly elections Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The Lok Sabha polls can also be held in 2019 after full five-year term and hold elections to Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim simultaneously. The government decides, the assemblies of Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Delhi may be cut short by six to eight months to coincide with Lok Sabha polls. The BJP is weary of cutting short tenure of the Parliament, since last time it did during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure in 2014, it lost heavily. So, let us watch and see how plans unfold for year 2019.

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