Simultaneous elections

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The Central Government appears to be serious to the idea of holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections together. It was reported that the Election Commission and the Law Commission will be holding a brainstorming session next week (May 16) on the road ahead for holding simultaneous polls. A PTI report quoted the law panel as having said that simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies could be held in two phases beginning 2019 provided at least two provisions of the Constitution were amended and ratified by a majority of states. Here it must be understood that it is not for the first time that the idea of holding simultaneous elections has caught the imagination of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the centre. Even in the previous regime, when the NDA-government was in power, this idea was floated and debated and then abandoned with a declaration that next time, when these right groups are in power, they will devise some new system on this issue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking about this for some time now. It is not too much of a leap to surmise that he believes that voters are likely to back the same party in both elections, and that in the absence of a national alternative to his candidature at the centre, such a voting pattern may help the BJP across some states too. The Law Commission’s earlier move to seek the opinion of the public, political parties, academicians and other stakeholders, on the proposal appeared to be aimed at giving concrete shape to this political viewpoint. The Law Commission has released a three-page summary of its draft working paper, setting out the amendments that may be required in the Indian Constitution and electoral laws. It proposes to put together a report to forward to the centre after getting the views of the public. Among its ‘possible recommendations’ is a ‘constructive vote of no-confidence’: while expressing lack of confidence in one government, members of the legislature will have to repose trust in an alternative. It also suggests that premature dissolution of the House could be avoided if all members sit together and elect a leader. This would entail a temporary waiver of the anti-defection law so that members could help form a stable government without the fear of disqualification. However, these are reforms that can be adopted even if simultaneous elections are not held. In the light of such recommendations, there lies the danger of undermining the federal structure of the Indian Constitution which allows the states the autonomy to decide on their elections if the House is dissolved for various reasons, be it loss of confidence or a decision to hold fresh elections by choice to have a new House. One argument from the BJP leaders has been that simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies have the benefits of saving poll expenditure and helping ruling parties focus on governance instead of being constantly in election mode. The flip side is that it is nearly impossible to implement, as it would mean arbitrarily curtailing or extending the term of existing legislatures to bring their election dates in line with the due date for the rest of the country. This would be the most difficult change to execute; as such a measure would undermine federalism as well as representative democracy. The Law Commission has suggested an alternative: categorise states based on proximity to the next general election, and have one round of state assembly polls with the next Lok Sabha election, and another round for the remaining states 30 months later. This would mean that India would have a set of elections every two and a half years. This again appears to be impossible given the diversity in the states, which have been holding elections as per the schedule and completing each term to the full. But governments have been brought down or have collapsed on their own, leading to mid-term polls in different states and even at the centre on different occasions. Given the difficulties involved in shifting to simultaneous elections, electorate may have to live with the reality that some part of the country will go to polls every few months or years as has been happening since independence.