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SIMULTANEOUS POLLS : AN IDEA THAT MILITATES AGAINST FEDERAL STRUCTURE AND MUST BE DUMPED

By Vipin Pubby

State Assembly elections are due in five states this year, in double that number of states besides the Lok Sabha elections next year, in three states during 2020 and in six states the following year. There has been no year in the recent past when elections were not held in one state or the other.

That’s one of the major arguments taken by the votaries of those who are seeking simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha as well as state Assemblies. They claim that the top political leaders, and consequently the governments they run, remain constantly in election mode and this ‘diverts’ their attention from developmental works. They also claim that the frequent enforcement of model code of conduct also derails progress and governments refrain from taking harsh decisions with election prospects in mind.

The latest to make a case for simultaneous elections are none else than President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. BJP has always expressed itself in favour of holding simultaneous elections and had even said in its 2014 manifesto that it would “evolve method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously”.

Although the party leaders maintained a studied silence on this issue over the last four years, the re-emergence of the issue in the wake of reports that the Modi government may go in for early elections to Lok Sabha to cut down on anti incumbency, has led to a debate on the feasibility of the idea.

Other political parties have remained divided over the issue. Congress had opposed the proposal on the grounds that it was ‘impractical’, the left parties too doubt its feasibility while the Trinamool Congress had called it “undemocratic and unconstitutional”. Some of the regional parties like the AIADMK and AGP had backed the BJP stand.

While the country had witnessed simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and Assemblies till 1967, a variety of factors such as early dissolution of Lok Sabha, dismissal of state governments or fall of some governments, had led to disruption of the schedule. Another major factor was that it was virtually a one-party rule in the country with the Congress dominating the scene. Much water has flown down the Ganges since then and other parties, including the BJP and a host of regional parties, have emerged stronger.

Also apart from the gigantic practical task of holding simultaneous elections, which would need setting up of over 7,00,000 polling booths, deployment of staff to man these booths, security arrangements and the procurement of double the number of existing voting machines, several factors would make it an unworkable task.

But even more important than these factors would be the impact it would have on the federal structure of our nation. India is a “Union of States” and its strength lies in its diversity. Each state has its unique identity and priorities. These have their own dynamics besides regional identities and aspirations. It can’t be a one-hat-fits-all situation and would be clearly an anti-democratic measure.

Such a provision would place huge powers in the hands of the ruling party or coalition at the Centre which enjoys power under Article 356 to dismiss state governments. It could take various pleas to dismiss governments and make them face elections. Then there is the question of keeping states under prolonged Central rule to await simultaneous elections. What would happen if state governments fall due to splits and political dissensions or if the government at the Centre falls. To reduce frequency of elections, there could be minor tweaking to ensure that wherever elections are due, these are held just once in a year. Even currently the Election Commission clubs together elections due in six months.

However, the federal structure conceived by the members of the constituent Assembly and enshrined in the constitution would come under tremendous strain if the government goes ahead with the idea of holding all elections simultaneously or even in mid-term slabs of two and a half years each. Fortunately such a change would require a constitutional amendment and the current government is not in a position to push it through on its own.

While it is true that top political leaders remain constantly in election mode and have elections at the back of their mind, the very idea of simultaneous elections militates against the federal structure. The pros of the current system far outweigh the cons. Let the governments and leaders remain on their toes and face electorate from time to time. Their performance must be put to test at the altar of democracy. We must trust the voters whose mandate must be earned and respected by all political parties. The ill conceived idea of simultaneous elections after five years must be dumped for good.

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