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As defined under the Law Commission Of India’s 2018 report, “one nation, one election” or “simultaneous elections” refers to elections to all three levels of the Constitutional institutions, namely the House of People (Lok Sabha), State Assemblies (Vidhan Sabha), and Local bodies, all of which take place at the same time. This basically implies that on the same day, a voter casts his or her or their vote to elect representatives to all levels of government.
In the current scenario, elections to the state legislatures and the Lok Sabha are held independently, either when the current government’s five-year tenure expires or when it is dissolved for a variety of reasons. This holds true for state legislatures as well as the Lok Sabha. The periods of the Legislative Assemblies and the Lok Sabha may or may not coincide. The concept of “One Nation, One Election” envisions a system in which all states and the Lok Sabha must have elections at the same time. This will include reorganising the Indian election calendar such that elections to the states and the centre are held at the same time, allowing citizens to vote for members of the LS and state legislatures at the same time.
When looking at the history of elections in India, we can make out that simultaneous has been practiced in the Indian democracy as throughout the first two decades following independence, national elections for the House of People and State Legislative Assemblies were conducted at the same time, i.e. in 1951-52, 1957, 1962, and 1967. This cycle of simultaneous elections was broken by the dissolution of some State Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, followed by the dissolution of the House of the People in 1970 and subsequent national elections in 1971.
Many national governments have in the past pushed forth their dream of simultaneous elections once they come in majority in the parliament. This concept has been brought back in trend by the ruling BJP government. In its manifestos for the 2009 and 2014 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had vowed to develop a mechanism for simultaneous polling. The Union government’s think tank, Niti Aayog, has also made a strong case for it. Back in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called an all-party conference, where the meeting’s major agenda item was to debate ‘One Nation, One Poll.’ The Law Commission of India had ardently proposed the idea of simultaneous polls in 1983 and 1999. The Law Commission in its 2018 draft report to the government again approved the idea. It even suggested amending the Constitution and electoral legislation to allow for simultaneous elections. It said “the Commission is convinced that there exists a viable environment necessitating the holding of simultaneous elections to the House of the People and the State Legislatures. Simultaneous elections can be seen as a solution to prevent the country from being in constant election mode.”
However, the lucrative deal of simultaneous polling has not been received the same way by regional parties and pro-federalism thinkers. There have been several meritorious arguments put against the idea of simultaneous polls. Let’s take a look at the arguments of both sides of the spectrum.
THE COST ISSUE
It has been commonly acknowledged by the proposition that frequent elections result in significant expenditures on the part of the government and other stakeholders. Every year, the Indian government and/or the state governments spend money to organise, regulate, and monitor elections. Candidates for elections and the political parties to which they belong, in addition to the government, spend a lot of money. The Law Commission argues that except for an additional EVM for each Polling Station and more election material (stationery, etc.) if the elections for the State Assemblies are held concurrently with those for the House of the People, there will be no additional costs. At addition, because of the more EVMs, some additional polling personnel may be required in bigger polling sites.
The opposition rejects this argument on the basis that cost cannot be used as an excuse to put Indian democracy at stake. Indian elections are the biggest polling exercise in the world, and it is certainly the hallmark of a true democracy. The question whether are we truly expending too much on elections arises here. According to the Election Commission, conducting all State and federal elections in a five-year period costs around 8,000 crore, or nearly 1,500 crore each year. Nearly 600 million Indians vote in elections, implying that maintaining India’s electoral democracy costs Rs. 27 per voter each year. From a financial standpoint, the aggregate spending of all states and the centre in FY2014 was almost 30 lakh crore, which lands us to 0.05 percent of India’s total yearly expenditure getting used for elections. Is this too much of an expense for the democratically essential exercise of Indian elections? That is something the proponents need to explain. Opposition also argues that the cost concerns are presented without the actual contextualization of why do we need to cut such costs and how this monetary gain will be utilised. The cost cuts belong to the realm of non essential expenditures, the Central Vista project for example. Election are a constitutional obligation, and thus require the “extra” expenditure if that is what it takes for the elections to be free and fair.
Moreover, the Indian Election Commission has identified a number of challenges that may arise in the conduct of simultaneous elections. Simultaneous elections will need the procurement of a significant number of EVMs and VVPAT devices. Because the same EVMs are used for elections in different states under the current system, simultaneous elections would need the purchase of more EVMs. EVM storage becomes a challenge as the number of EVMs required grows. The Commission estimates that a total of Rs 9284.15 crores would be required for the acquisition of EVMs and VVPATs in order to hold simultaneous elections. The devices would also need to be changed every fifteen years, resulting in additional costs. According to the Law Commission itself, if the country goes for simultaneous election then the election commission need to spend Rs 4,500 crore on new EVMs.
EFFECTS ON GOVERNANCE BECAUSE OF CODE OF CONDUCT
The proposition argues that, with the ongoing cycle of elections in one or more parts of the nation, political parties, including the governing party at the Centre and the State(s), tend to focus more on the elections, in order to secure their respective party(ies)’ victory, than on governance. This diverts legislators’ focus away from essential problems such as good governance and growth and towards election campaigns. If elections are only held every five years, it is argued the ruling parties will be able to devote more time to the development initiatives that the people need.
The opposition claims that viewing elections as an inconvenience to be endured in order for the administration to gain legitimacy in the exercise of state authority is undemocratic. It is claimed that elections are plainly viewed as little more than a way to consolidate control by the supporters of simultaneous polls. The fewer and fewer they are, the easier it will be to go back to the business of ‘governance.’ It is argued that the government thinks that the requirement to seek the people’s mandate on a regular basis is an unnecessary burden that obstructs good governance. Here, ‘government’ is seen as something superior to and apart from democratic practise — the domain of the bureaucracy and the political executive that governs it. The people in India, unlike those in modern western democracies, have very few tools to keep their leaders to account and election is the most prominent of them. Any reduction in its significance will be a blow to democratic ethos. The ruling party gets five years to showcase good governance and prove its worth to the electors. Elections should be fought on this merit of performance rather than grand campaigns and lengthy propaganda.
Furthermore, the proposing political parties submit that even though the MCC is not operational throughout the State/Country, ongoing elections have an impact on vital programmes. The government(s) may postpone such plans until after the election, therefore delaying the pace of their ambitious work. However, it is argued back that the assumption that the model code remains in effect for “prolonged periods of time” is incorrect. The code is in force for a month before the election in Assembly elections. This is not a long period of time. For Lok Sabha elections, the model code is generally in force for a longer length of time – however simultaneous elections will not abolish this.
ATTACK ON FEDERALISM
The opposition’s main argument against simultaneous polling is that it weakens federalist structure of our country. According to some independent think tanks like the Center for Developing Societies (CSDS), such elections would favour the dominant national parties since people prefer to vote for the same party at the national and state levels. The IDFC Institute, a public-policy think organisation, analysed election statistics from four Lok Sabha elections: 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014. According to the statistics, “when elections are held concurrently in India, there is now a 86% chance percentage probability that an Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the state and the national level,” a tendency that the report describes as having a “undesirable influence on voter behaviour.”
The opposition further claims that this is why the present BJP-led government is pushing for such elections to be held under the slogan “One Nation, One Election” since it has the money and media to back it the upcoming elections, placing itself in an invincible position. Experts predict that if the party succeeds in this agenda, the present political system would be fundamentally transformed, rendering regional and minor parties obsolete. Contrary to common belief, there is little evidence to support the assumption that an ordinary voter can tell the difference between voting for a state representative and voting for the prime minister. It is argued that after the different territories of each unit of democracy – small or large – have been legally delimited and established, that unit works independently within that domain under a federal democracy. Its goals, priorities, mores, and customs are its own, and they are not subject to the Union’s. It is feared that with elections in one go this separation of local versus national issues will gradually disappear.
The Law Commission Report attempts to rebut this argument by stating the example of Odisha elections. Whereas the electorate overwhelmingly supported the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general elections, according to ECI statistics, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) (a regional party) boosted its vote share in Odisha from 37.23 percent in 2009 to 44.77 percent in the Lok Sabha Elections in 2014, bucking the national trend. However, the report fails to put this into a simultaneous polling situation.
The opposition also argues that simultaneous elections jeopardise states’ political autonomy. Any elected State administration today has the option of dissolving its Assembly and holding new elections. States will have to give up this autonomous authority and wait for a national election schedule if elections are to be held concurrently. The State will be reliant on the Union administration for elections to its State under a simultaneous elections regime, which goes against the grain of our federal structure’s political autonomy. Because of India’s parliamentary system, Assemblies and governments have no set terms. The remedy proposed by the Niti Aayog is to shorten Assembly terms. Allowing the Election Commission’s diktats to shorten the natural life span of Assemblies and the Lok Sabha will reduce the value of each vote.
DISRUPTION OF PUBLIC LIFE
The proposition argues that separate elections keep the electors in a constant polling mode. Constant elections disturb public life because polling personnel must be engaged for substantial amounts of time during elections, which is a time-consuming task. The ECI requires the assistance of a large number of polling officials from government organisations in order to ensure seamless, peaceful, and unbiased elections. The ECI employed about 10 million people as polling officials to run and supervise the election process over 9,30,000 polling stations around the country for the 16th Lok Sabha elections. This equates to roughly 10.75 people per voting location on average.
The commission also claims that given that one or the other State Assembly election is held every six months, this circumstance results in the deployment of security personnel for an extended length of time. Such a circumstance diverts a large percentage of an armed police force that could otherwise be better used for other internal security objectives, which are these forces’ main responsibility. The majority of polling booths are found in schools, whether public or private. The school employees and teaching staff have been told to go to the polls, putting their primary responsibility of providing education in jeopardy. Apart from the polling day, schools are closed even before the election day for preparation purposes. Employees of the Central and State Governments, as well as PSUs, who are assigned election duties are in a similar situation.
The opposition claims back that such a disruption occurs in any election in general. This disruption however is essential for the smooth conduct of our big scale election exercises. In the wider interests of interim accountability, they argue that a disruption of public life twice in five years is not a binding limitation. A voter’s right to vote twice in five years and keep governments responsible is far more significant than a voter’s right to vote once and then have no way to voice their view for the following five years.
ACCOUNTABILITY OF THE CENTRAL GOVT
Because elections would only be held every five years, the government’s accountability to the people will be reduced. Elections are held on a regular basis, which keeps legislators on their toes and improves accountability. When an election in a state is postponed until the synchronised phase, President’s rule must be implemented in that state during the interim time. This is a major setback for democracy and federalism. The central government ruling party, with its already overwhelming presence in the media, would receive an undue opportunity to go on with any kind of policies it has on its agenda without fearing a setback in a nearby state election. For instance, had BJP implemented the widely protested farm laws in the scenario of a homogeneous elections set up, the people of say Punjab would not get the chance to vote down BJP and its allies in the separate state or local body elections as a measure of protest.
During the Emergency, the courts and the majority of the media bowed to the Union government. Elections were the sole effective check on Indira Gandhi’s power, removing her from office in 1977. Any system that attempts to weaken this check would be disastrous for India’s democracy.
HIGHER VOTER TURN OUT AND A CHECK ON BLACK MONEY
The Law Commission report claims these benefits to be associated with simultaneous polls.
Elections are contested using dark money, which is a well-known fact. During the country’s elections, a large amount of black money is converted into white money. Simultaneous elections would minimise the influence of black money in election finance by removing the temptation for political parties to use unlawful sources of election funding. The continual flow of money, in particular, leaves the door to money abuse wide open.
The report mentions a study by Mr. Csaba Nikolenyi, a Montreal-based professor at Concordia University who studied Indian elections. This stated study used basic formulae to calculate voter motivation, among other things, and came to the conclusion that India’s separate elections were preventing more people from participating in the democratic process.
Moreover, the report also argues that because of the frequent elections, political parties in power are more likely to pursue populist policies rather than nationalist ones. Political parties believe that offering individual benefits is the most effective method to win over people, particularly the impoverished. Thus, the report claims that with fewer elections, such behaviours are likely to decline significantly, and a greater emphasis will be placed on implementing policies that benefit the public at large.
It should be mentioned that simultaneous elections do occur in different countries of the world, in some form or another. Simultaneous elections are used in countries such as the Philippines, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sweden, Indonesia, South Africa, Germany, Spain, and others. However, no country as diverse and large as India has experimented with simultaneous elections. Major challenges to the implementation of this concept exist since the proponents of this idea have not given a convincing roadmap as of now. As mentioned before, India actually started its political journey with simultaneous elections and simultaneous elections were held in India until 1967, during which time the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assembly elections were held simultaneously and with little fanfare. The cycle of synchronised elections was broken after this era, largely because many state administrations (as well as national governments) were unable to finish their five-year terms.The same issue is expected to arise again and the results could be exactly opposite of the anticipated benefits. The issue of simultaneous polls requires greater levels of debate and political consensus in order for it to be a viable reality in the near future. This is not just given the size of our country, but also given the constitutional challenges involved.
For all elections to be held on the same day, the terms of the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies should be synchronised so that elections may be held in a reasonable amount of time. Constitutional modifications would be required for this. The Indian Constitution’s Articles 83, 85, 172, 174, and 356 would need to be interfered with. The 1951 Representation of People Act would need to be modified to provide measures for both parliament and assembly’ tenure stability. This can be accomplished by changing numerous laws, especially Article 83 (which deals with the Lok Sabha’s tenure) and Article 172 (which deals with State Assembly tenures). Article 356 must also be changed, as it allows the Central Government to impose President’s Rule in the event of a State’s constitutional apparatus failing. The Law Commission report 2018 also proposed that all elections due in a calendar year be held at the same time. To avoid the potential for a no-confidence motion to cause chaos, the Commission recommended that the “no-confidence motion” be replaced with a “constructive vote of no-confidence” through appropriate amendments, and that a government be replaced only if there is confidence in an alternative government.
Furthermore, some proponents of “One Nation, One Election” argue in favor of a change in our parliamentary system of elections. Because of the nature of Parliamentary government, a government might fall before its tenure is over. And if the government falls, new elections must be held. In case of an indecisive or hung parliament, the election synchronization can easily get disturbed. As a result, the main impediment to holding simultaneous elections in the country is the country’s Parliamentary system of government. A presidential form of government is one radical alternative that has been offered.
Such changes do not only require large scale public approval but also the unanimous consensus of political parties at all levels. National level parties like CPI(m) have already vehemently opposed this proposal. The CPI(M) has described the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) concept of “one nation, one election” as a “threat to democracy and federalism,” and has stated that the Opposition should not be caught off guard when the Narendra Modi government makes its move in Parliament on the issue, and should unite to defeat such a proposal. The nature of this problem would necessitate approval by at least half of the state legislatures in addition to a 2/3rds majority in both Houses of Parliament. As a result, it’s critical that all political parties are on the same page on this subject.
Along with opposition from independent think tanks and political experts, the idea of “one nation, one election” has been condemned by the civil servant community as well. Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), a group of former civil servants from the All India and Central Services, non-partisan and apolitical in nature, has issued a statement criticizing the idea of simultaneous polls. Simultaneous elections, according to 90 retired civil employees, have little regard for federal democracy and would create enormous constitutional difficulties as well as huge logistical problems due to security and personnel concerns. They’ve called for election changes, claiming that implementing the “One-Nation-One-Election” concept would be disastrous for the country’s federal system.
With such wide spread intellectual opposition, lack of political consensus and a convincing contextualisation by the government, along with the involved grave constitutional implications and a general lack of public awareness regarding the concept of simultaneous polling, “one nation, one election” remains much closer to being a media panel buzz slogan than an actual on ground reality.
Author: DIVYANSH GAUR, INSTITUTION: INSTITUTE OF LAW, NIRMA UNIVERSITY
Editor: Kanishka Vaish, Senior Editor, LexLife India.