Simultaneous elections in India

Harihar Swarup
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and state assemblies may be self serving but has strong logic. Will it work in present political scenario? Many opposition leaders are bitterly opposed to this idea and boycotted all-party meeting convened by PM to discuss his proposal. They see such a change as quasi-presidential system in which Modi’s popularity will overwhelm local issues, giving BJP a huge unwarranted advantage.
They also ask what will happen if a state government falls after simultaneous polls. Will President’s rule be declared till the next simultaneous election? Or, will both the Centre and the states have to hold fresh elections? Both are terrible ideas. Opposition party spokespersons condemn simultaneous elections as undemocratic and authoritarian. However, Independent India started with simultaneous elections in the 1950s. At that time it was logical but as the time moved and, it moves fast, the situation changed; simultaneous elections are no longer feasible. Howsoever, one wishes it may be made possible but we cannot push the clock back.
Modi’s logic is that today some state or central election (by poll) is held every few months. This disrupts decision making, since no policy changes can be taken in the run up to an election. Second, the more elections are held per year, the more is the black money spent on them, along with associated corruption to fund polls. Third, constant elections divert government officials from productive projects. Fourth, governments with assured five-year term can focus on long-term solutions, whereas constant elections put a premium on short-term fixers (freebies, reservations subsidies…)
This is far from what the early leaders of Independent India envisaged. In the 1950s, Central and state elections were held simultaneously with no party suggesting it was wrong. But as the years went by many state and central governments failed to last a full five-year term, forcing mid-term elections. Over time, this has come to mean that India has one election or another several times every year. This was never the intention of the Constitution makers.
We need a compromise solution that reduces the ills of constant elections without giving an overwhelming advantage to the BJP. The answer cannot be BJP’s ‘one nation, one election’ formula. But why not ‘one nation, two elections’?
The first need is a fixed government term for five-year, and this will require amending laws. After an election, every legislature should elect a Prime Minister or Chief Minister for five years. That leader should stay in office even if defections reduce his party or a coalition to a minority. India has shown that minority governments (like Narasimha Rao’s) can work perfectly well. Besides, fixed terms will greatly reduce defections and horse trading.
Problem: if elections are held only once in five years, voters have little chance in between to show their dissatisfaction. The solution is to hold state elections in the middle of the fixed Lok Sabha term. This will mean alternating central and state elections every two and half years. This will give the fullest scope for focusing on state specific issues in one set of election and on central issues in the other.
It will give voters more power and impose accountability on politicians. It will cost more (for Government and parties) than simultaneous election every five years, but much less than today are constant elections. It will slash the disruption of decision making. It will enable the government to focus more on long-term solutions and less on short-term fixes.
Politically Modi will never be able to sell the idea of a simultaneous election because it will so obviously benefit the BJP at the expense of others. But if he is serious about reducing costs, corruption and short-termism, he should suggest ‘one nation, two elections’. The Central election should be held every five years and state elections in mid-point between. Regional parties will see the advantage of having an explicit delinking of state from Central elections. All will see the benefit of a fixed term that means governments cannot be downed by defections. This could help create a new consensus. (IPA)