Thursday, 25 Apr, 2024
Politics 24-Mar, 2024

Will Simultaneous Elections Solve India's Electoral Strain?

By: Rishav Khetan

Will Simultaneous Elections Solve India's Electoral Strain?

Source: IANS

In India, elections are conducted almost annually in one or more states, straining both the administration and the nation's resources. Frequent elections require significant fundraising by political parties, contributing to political corruption. The proposal of 'One Nation, One Election' seeks to address this challenge by synchronizing National, State, and Local elections.

President Abraham Lincoln famously stated, "The power of the ballot is mightier than the bullet." Elections stand as the bedrock of democracy, reflecting the collective voice of the citizens. The neighboring countries of India have grappled with instability, often experiencing military coups and autocratic regimes. Despite facing its challenges, India has consistently upheld its democratic principles. Nonetheless, the frequent occurrence of elections, including by-elections, strains both public finances and administrative capabilities. The proposal of "One Nation, One Election" seeks to address this challenge by synchronizing General, State, and Local elections. While some support the idea, others oppose it vehemently, and therefore, the feasibility and necessity of the One Nation One Election are worth examining. 

The idea of One Nation, One Election is not new to India. The elections to both the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies were conducted simultaneously in 1951-52 and 1957. However, this pattern was broken in 1959 when Article 356 was invoked to dismiss Kerala's Left Front government under E.M.S. Namboodiripad, prompting mid-term elections in the state in 1960. The new government in Kerala completed its term in 1965, thereby breaking the cycle of simultaneous elections. The next Lok Sabha elections were held in 1962 for the 3rd Lok Sabha. 

Prior to this, not all states went to polls in 1957 with the General elections to the Lok Sabha, owing to the merger of Travancore-Cochin and Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU) into newly formed Kerala and Punjab, respectively. These states were slated for elections in 1957, but as no alternative arrangement could be devised and the governments were reduced to a minority in both cases, mid-term polls were conducted in 1954. The last instance of near-simultaneous elections occurred in 1967, but this pattern was disrupted by the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969. In 1970, the Lok Sabha was dissolved ahead of schedule, leading to fresh elections in 1971. 

Currently, the assembly polls in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha are held together with the Lok Sabha elections. 

Assessing Feasibility of Simultaneous Elections

In India, elections are conducted almost annually in one or more states, straining both the administration and the nation's resources. Frequent elections require significant fundraising by political parties, contributing to political corruption. During the inaugural Lok Sabha election in 1951-52, 53 political parties participated, fielding approximately 1,874 candidates. The total election expenses amounted to Rs. 11 crores. By contrast, the 17th Lok Sabha election in 2019 saw the participation of 610 political parties and roughly 9,000 candidates in the fray. According to Statista, the total expenditure escalated to approximately Rs. 55,000 crore, nearly doubling compared to the preceding general election of 2014, potentially making it the most expensive election globally. The expenditure is only expected to increase in subsequent elections. 

The idea of One Nation, One Election was revived by the 170th Report of the Law Commission, submitted in 1999, advocating for simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies every five years. In 2015, the feasibility of simultaneous elections was further explored in the 79th Report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law, and Justice, which proposed a two-phase approach within a five-year cycle. Additionally, in 2017, NITI Aayog issued a Working Paper titled “Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The What, Why and How,” recommending a gradual transition towards synchronizing elections between Parliament and state assemblies from 2019 to 2024. Subsequently, in August 2018, the Law Commission of India released its draft report on simultaneous elections, suggesting necessary amendments to the constitution, the Representation of the People Act 1951, and the Rules of Procedure of Lok Sabha and state Assemblies.

HLC Recommends Two-Phase Approach 

A high-level committee (HLC) was constituted by the government of India under the chairmanship of former President Ram Nath Kovind on 2 September 2023 to study the issue of conducting simultaneous elections in India. On March 14, the committee submitted its report, spanning over 18,000 pages, to President Droupadi Murmu following extensive consultations with various stakeholders, including 47 political parties, 32 of which endorsed simultaneous elections. The committee proposed a two-phase strategy, recommending initially holding simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. In the subsequent phase, elections for Municipalities and Panchayats would align with those for the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, ensuring that these local elections take place within a hundred days of national and state-level elections. It recommended a single electoral roll and Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPIC) for use in elections across all three tiers of government. Additionally, the Committee suggested the possibility of holding fresh polls in case of a hung House or a no-confidence motion during the five-year term.

Source: Press Information Bureau | The members of the High-level committee submitted its report on One Nation, One Election to President Draupadi Murmu.

The One Nation, One Election supporters argue that it is necessary to alleviate the strain on state finances and administration and combat political corruption. However, critics view it as a potential threat to India's federal structure and diversity. One common criticism against the idea is the concern that national parties and their leaders may overshadow regional counterparts. Nonetheless, historical evidence suggests otherwise, as India witnessed the emergence of influential regional leaders like Jay Prakash Narayan, M Karunanidhi, M G Ramachandran, Jyoti Basu, N T Rama Rao, and H.D. Deve Gowda during periods when the popularity of the Congress party remained unchallenged. Furthermore, logistical challenges such as the substantial requirement for Electronic voting machines (EVMs) and Voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPAT) present practical obstacles. It is estimated that up to 30 lakh EVMs may be necessary for simultaneous elections, necessitating an additional capital of four to five crore rupees. Additionally, these machines would need replacement after three elections or 15 years due to their limited lifespan. Moreover, the issue of horse-trading among Members of Parliament (MP) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) poses a significant challenge. The proposed solution of conducting fresh elections in the event of a Hung Assembly or a No-confidence motion for the remainder of tenure potentially undermines the intended goal of reducing the burden on state finances and bureaucracy.