The idea of reintroducing simultaneous polls has left the public opinion divided with debates ranging from its feasibility to accusations of the government trying to sabotage the parliamentary form of democracy. People supporting the move argue that having simultaneous polls ensure smooth functioning of the government while its critics claim that such a move would undermine the federal spirit of our constitution. Arguments and counter-arguments are necessary for a vibrant democracy to sustain. Being the world’s largest democracy and one the fastest growing economies, is it time for India to reinvent its election process? The answer to the one nation, one election issue lies in this very basic question.
The proposed one nation, one election deals with conducting parliamentary elections and state assembly elections at the same time (panchayat, municipal elections are excluded). The idea got momentum after the National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014. Even though from 1952 to 1967 the Lok Sabha elections and state elections were held together, the cycle got disrupted following the political havoc in certain states. With growing clout of the regional parties, the hegemony of Congress party was challenged, and the then Congress central government constantly interfered in the state affairs with Article 356 (state emergency).
The idea of simultaneous polls came again in 1999 when it was suggested as a remedial method to improve nation’s election process in a report by the law commission of India headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy. But this idea was kept in cold storage since the government had coalition pressure to dodge the proposal. In 2015, the parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice, in a report to Parliament examined the feasibility of holding simultaneous polls. Later in August, another report was released by the Law Commission which studied the constitutional and legal aspects of holding simultaneous polls. Immediately after returning to power in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an aggressive call for clubbing Lok Sabha elections with state elections.
In a paper handed over to NITI Aayog, Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai state in the introduction itself that “It won’t be unreasonable to state that the Indian polity is perennially in an election mode. Barring a few exceptional years within a normal 5-year tenure of the Lok Sabha, the country witnesses, on an average, elections to about 5–7 State Assemblies every year”. With constant elections, developmental works take a side seat, and the entire politics gets driven by populism which political analysts sarcastically call as “good politics and bad economics”. Since Model Code of Conduct gets activated once Election Commission declares the dates for the poll, the developmental works largely remain on a standstill till the formation of a new government.
Political parties spend a massive amount of money for their campaigning, which can be relieved by simultaneous polls, and also, it is not necessary that people will choose the same party for both the tiers. For example, Odisha assembly elections and Indian Lok Sabha elections happened simultaneously, and there were pockets where BJP won the Lok Sabha seat while Biju Janata Dal won the legislative assembly seat. This clearly underlines the fact that Indian voters are mature enough to make their choice separately for the two tiers of governments. Also, simultaneous elections are more convenient for people, especially for people working in far off places so that they can also exercise their franchise without wasting it.
Even though simultaneous polls have their own benefit, their feasibility remains under the scanner. Having Lok Sabha elections and assembly elections together will eventually result in logistical problems like requiring double the number of voting and VVPAT machines, its transportation and safe storage. Even though the representatives of the Election Commission of India categorically briefed the media that the commission is very much equipped to hold simultaneous polls, its accuracy can only be tested with a thorough study. Additional polling stations and officers would be needed, which would result in a more complex election management mechanism. With large scale accusations by opposition parties of the central government trying to sabotage elections and asking for the reintroduction of the ballot paper, it wouldn’t be a wise move to club all the elections together for the time being.
To have a consensus on the issue, PM had invited leaders of 40 main parties of India to have a discussion. Out of them, 21 party heads attended the meeting while the rest of them abstained and a new committee was constituted to study the feasibility of simultaneous polls. When a large number of opposition parties give the discussion a miss, it would be much difficult for the government to galvanise support base—since simultaneous polls require constitutional amendment with a special majority. Since the government lacks the numbers in Rajya Sabha, for the time being, it rather remains unrealistic. In addition to a special majority in parliament, the constitutional amendment needs to be rectified by at least half of the state assemblies, which even complicates the matter further.
Many of the regional parties consider simultaneous elections as a threat to their existence. Since elections to Lok Sabha and state assembly would be held together, they fear that the national issues might overrule the regional politics making their brand of politics irrelevant. MIM chief Assaduddin Owaisi has called the proposed simultaneous polls as a “solution in search of a problem”. While political parties like Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, AIADMK supported the idea of clubbing polls, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Indian National Congress opposed the idea vehemently.
As per the ECI, there are 2200 unrecognised political parties in India (i.e. neither national parties nor state parties). Many of these parties are confined only to a few geographical localities and are operational just for money laundering purposes, making use of the tax exemption clause associated with the funding of political parties. Maybe simultaneous polls can permanently put an end to misusing of political parties.
The opposition has raised the issue of federalism with simultaneous polls. They claim the idea as an assault on the constitution which calls India a “Union of State” where states are constitutional administrative units. Questions are being raised on an event where no single party or a coalition gets the majority in the Lok Sabha or state assembly election. What will happen if the central government or state governments of certain states fall within a few months after its formation? Can a state be kept under governor’s rule for say four years? Does the constitution permit it? If the state has to undergo mid-term polls, wouldn’t it be a financial burden to have it for a period less than five years? These are valid questions before the establishment to address.
Beyond doubt, it could be stated that a simultaneous poll is a vibrant idea which has the potential to revolutionise India’s electoral system. Even though the idea is contested raising concerns about its feasibility, being a powerful nation with deeprooted commitment towards democracy, India can prove its critics wrong. To make the polls smoother the elections can be held in multiple phases which channelize proper deployment of security personals and officials for smoothly conducting elections.
India has lost many years of its glory due to coalition governments which lasted just for a couple of months. Simultaneous polls can encourage people not to give a split verdict and have governments formed with required numbers which ensure stability. Opposition parties shying away even from a wider discussion on the very same topic is unhealthy for the spirit of democracy. If the present government can make consensus across the political spectrum, one nation, one election is an idea which will remould India’s political landscape to suit the world of progress and aspirations.