Glitches on the way to ‘one nation one poll’

Anil Anand
There is an all-round talk going on these days on the possibility of conducting simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies.
Though not new the idea got fillip and renewed vigour after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong pitch for it followed by President Ramnath Kovind reiterating it strongly in his address to the joint session of Parliament.
And to cap it all the Election Commission of India in its exuberance almost gave thumbs up signal to the idea and even set a deadline.  “We will be logistically capable of holding Lok Sabha and Assembly elections simultaneously by September 2018,” the EC had declared in October last year. This deadline created a flutter in the political circles as it somehow coincides with May-2019 deadline of next Lok Sabha elections.
Naturally, the questions were asked by the ruling-BJP’s political opponents and independent observers if there was a plan at work in tandem? The only development that took place in between was the mention in the Presidential address on the need to hold joint elections.
Should simultaneous elections be held or not!  This is a matter of different debate. But a more important question emerging out of this freshly generated controversy on the issue is about the real intent behind.
The Election Commission had suggested as early as in 1983 that a system should be evolved so that elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies could be held simultaneously. The Justice B P Jeevan Reddy-headed Law Commission said 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”.
All this said and done, two recent election related decisions pose a serious question of intent to Election Commission of India itself apart from the September 2018 deadline. Lot of heat and dust was generated by the poll panel’s innocuous decision to segregate Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly election schedule though the date of expiry of the two Houses was almost same. It is another matter that the counting date was common. The two states had a common polling schedule in 2012 but not this time.
More recently, the declaration of bi-elections to Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats of Uttar Pradesh again raised the question of intent in its true manifestation. Why were not these bi-elections clubbed with similar bi-polls held a month back for Ajmer and Alwar seats of Rajasthan? And why has the Kairana, in UP, Lok Sabha bi-election  not been ordered by the Election Commission along with other two?
Bi-elections to Gorakhpur and Phulpur were necessitated as sitting BJP MPs Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya became UP Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister respectively. Later Kairana fell vacant after the demise of sitting BJP MP Hukum Singh.
Normally, the announcement of election schedule is the sole domain of Election Commission of India and rightly too. However, such anomalies are bound to create doubt and raise question of intent which borders its impartial status.
The question arises if the Election Commission can hold simultaneous two-tier nationwide elections cannot it do in two states where no emergency or abnormality existed, or bunch together Lok Sabha bi-elections?
So far as the autonomous Election Commission is considered, these decisions, seen as favouring the ruling dispensation, have always remained unexplained. It will not be out of place to put these in the category of opaqueness and so the resultant question of intent.
The intent and concurrence of Election Commission to hold simultaneous elections would be strengthened had these minor but significant steps been taken. Holding elections to Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat Assemblies and lately Lok Sabha bi-elections, as mentioned above, would have created an atmosphere of confidence and helped the cause of simultaneous Lok Sabha- Assembly elections- which though is a complicated issue having once failed in the 1950s and early 1960s- through eradication of the charge of political opportunism of the ruling class and in turn further strengthening of EC’s impartial character.
There has always been a lurking suspicion, barring perhaps when the indomitable T N Seshan and some others of his ilk were at the helm of affairs in the EC, that at times election schedules are planned as suited to the ruling party. These smaller but significant steps would have been in the direction of removing such suspicions and achieving the ultimate goal of ‘one nation one election’.
Or else doubts being generated in the public mind about the real purpose and efficacy of holding elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies at the same time would get strongly entrenched. These opportunities should not be missed by the EC to back up its own claim of capability to hold the elections.
There has been an unwritten rule in the Election Commission of India headquarters to hold simultaneous elections to a cluster of states where the expiry date of Assemblies is within a gap of six months or less. This rule was being followed judiciously till recent past.
In this regard another test case could have been the ongoing Assembly elections in three North-Eastern states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland, and Karnataka where polls are due in May next. By the same yardstick followed in the past these states could have been clubbed together for poll purposes in order to achieve the bigger goal.
Holding nationwide simultaneous elections is a tricky business as apart from the capability angle which was never in doubt, the Election Commission would have to be proverbially seen as above any suspicion.