Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Simultaneous polls will affect vibrancy, federal character of Indian democracy

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Karnataka elections 2023
If the Centre ensures the passage of amendments in the existing laws and rules that the committee likely recommends, it will lead to India’s electoral process being metamorphosed from what was conceived and remains enshrined in the Constitution and other Acts | File photo for representation only

The High-Level Committee is not likely to examine issues that will have a great bearing on the vibrancy of Indian democracy and India’s federal character

The High-Level Committee (HLC) headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind, set up to examine and recommend ways to hold elections simultaneously for Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabhas, and panchayats, heads into its first meeting on September 23.

It is appropriate to voice the worry that it is likely to go about its brief in a premeditated manner, and not examine issues which will have a great bearing on not just the vibrancy of Indian democracy but also on the republic’s federal character.

This apprehension stems from the fact that Kovind, in his address to the two Houses of Parliament on January 29, 2018, made a strong pitch for the introduction of one-nation, one-poll idea in the country. Back then, the synchronicity of the President's robust pitch on simultaneous elections with PM Narendra Modi’s identical assertion during his pre-session pep-talk to NDA allies appeared perturbing.

Kovind, in his speech, also unwittingly closed the deliberations even before these could have begun by calling for “debate and consensus” in one breath. From March 2016, when Modi, while addressing BJP office-bearers and state unit chiefs, advocated simultaneous elections to the afore-mentioned three tiers of elected bodies, it appeared that he had made up his mind. All that remained to be worked out were two issues — when and how.

Although it was four years since the all-party meeting in June 2019 that Modi convened within a month of his re-election to discuss the proposal, the formal notification dated September 2 formally establishing the HLC indicated that the decision had already been taken.

Committee’s terms of reference

It could be deduced from the Committee’s terms of reference that its task was essentially to study and suggest the process that could be followed to shift to holding elections simultaneously, at least in two phases if not one.

The Ministry of Law and Justice’s Gazette notification stated that the HLC’s primary task was to “make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections in the country.” Furthermore, it was asked to “examine and recommend specific amendments to the Constitution, the Representation of the People Act, 1950, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the rules made thereunder and any other law or rules which would require amendments for the purpose of holding simultaneous elections.”

By the time the committee was formed, the government had taken note of the nature of objections to the idea of simultaneous polls. It was thereby also asked to recommend a “possible solution” to “hung House, adoption of non-confidence motion, or defection.”

It was also asked to recommend “necessary safeguards for ensuring the continuity of the cycle of simultaneous elections and recommend necessary amendments to the Constitution, so that the cycle of simultaneous elections is not disturbed.”

The HLC was further asked to examine ways to maintain simultaneity in situations where “synchronous elections cannot be held in one go”.

Concerns regarding simultaneous polls

Because the Kovind panel was not asked to examine if any change in the electoral schedule was warranted or not, it becomes necessary to flag concerns emerging from what the government is attempting.

If the Centre successfully ensures the passage of amendments in the existing laws and rules that the committee likely recommends, it will lead to India’s electoral process being metamorphosed from what was conceived and remains enshrined in the Constitution and other Acts.

BJP’s reasons for changing the electoral process

Modi, like his predecessors in the BJP, beginning with LK Advani who first advocated the idea in the dying years of the preceding millennium, provided a populist raison d'être: serial elections were incurring very heavy costs and the burden on the exchequer could be significantly reduced if polls were held at all the three levels simultaneously.

Currently, barring a handful of states, others vote for even the state assembly and Lok Sabha separately. For instance, parliamentary polls were held in West Bengal in 2019, for the state assembly in 2021 and Panchayat elections in July this year.

BJP leaders also argued that besides the massive expenditure, holding polls in rapid succession hindered governance due to the Model Code of Conduct coming into play after the dates are announced.

They also claimed that time and energy of several ministers was “wasted” in campaigns during elections. It is a different matter that since 2014, Modi himself has followed the most gruelling campaign trail.

The third reason advanced, particularly by Modi, is that frequent polls lead most parties to make populist promises which he euphemistically termed last year as revri (sweet candy made of sesame seeds and sugar). Here too, the BJP has not been behind its adversaries in giving such assurances. While in power, it has also rolled out several schemes which are projected as welfarist, but effectively remain little but dole or charity, in the absence of policies to extricate people from poverty.

The BJP also furthered the fourth and final reason for concurrent polls: frequent elections put undue pressure on security forces and they are unable to focus on their primary responsibility.

Politically, the narrative that was strung together by BJP leaders, Advani onwards, was that India’s politics was idyllic till 1967 and thereafter everything became awry. This argument does not recognise that simultaneous polls were not a conscious choice of the people or their representatives, but the result of circumstances.

People’s right to change govt

Indian elections were de-clustered when governments in several states did not function as they were intended at the time of their formation. As a result, these governments collapsed and as no new government could be formed from the same legislative assemblies, fresh polls had to be held.

Furthermore, Indira Gandhi too advanced the Lok Sabha elections and held them in early 1970 instead of 1972 when they would have been due.

The arguments of Modi take away the right of the people, through their representatives, to pull down a government because it is not following pro-people policies or if it has failed to retain its political flock in the House.

Additionally, the concept of fixed tenure for governments, legislative bodies, and lawmakers is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

When Vajpayee batted for ‘right to recall’

Current advocates of simultaneous elections do not take note of a crucial intervention made by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha in 1974. The backdrop to this is the fact that the right to recall elected representatives had been discussed and demanded in the Constituent Assembly, but it was not accepted.

In 1974, Vajpayee backed a Private Member’s Bill for the voters’ right to recall lawmakers with words laden in political meaning: “Accountability is the foundation of democracy...should people sleep for 4 years and 364 days and wake up for one day to exercise their vote? Should not the people see if the representatives elected by them are working properly or not?”

The right to recall a legislator or parliamentarian is a direct right of voters, and non-confidence motions are indirect means of the same against not just one legislator but those that collectively comprise the treasury benches.

Modi wants national narrative to influence state elections

Modi’s is a votary of simultaneous elections because he would like the national poll to influence the outcome of the state elections. He prefers this because of his capacity in fabricating an overarching national narrative over multiple local factors.

Clearly, his target is the unpredictability of Indian elections – in a parliamentary poll, voters elect party “A” and in state polls a few months or a year or two later, they opt for party “B”. This is what happened in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, and Haryana where the results in the parliamentary polls in April-May 2019 were different from those of the assembly elections a few months later.

Furthermore, regular elections enable people to “correct” their mandate which might have been the result of an emotive issue: like, for instance, in 1984 and 1991 after the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

The BJP has been forced to weather the electoral behaviour of pro-regional party voters during state elections, and this being at variance with the BJP being their choice during the Lok Sabha elections. Modi is of the view that greater “nationalisation of politics” stands to his benefit.

Simulation study by American think-tank

The Prime Minister’s opinion is buttressed by a simulation done by the American think-tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies. It demonstrated that if along with the 2014 parliamentary polls, simultaneous elections were held in states, BJP — either on its own or with partners — would have been in power in several states in which the Congress came to power subsequently.

It is true that there is no uniformity in this pattern. But Modi wants to communicate a political message to voters by ushering in simultaneous polls: that he is the only one who keeps “national interests” above his personal political benefits whereas his adversaries do not.

This stems from the fact that the majority of opposition parties oppose the plan and this would provide an opportunity for the BJP to portray them as parties blocking proposals beneficial to India.

Modi is of the view that buttressing the existing political binary of nationalist versus anti-national would be to his benefit.

At no point can elections be seen as irritants to governance and which have to be ritualistically held as a matter of routine. Polls have to be considered as a process that energises democracy and prevents power from becoming absolute.

(The writer’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas, or opinions in the article are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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