The Union government has constituted a panel led by former President Ram Nath Kovind to study the “one nation, one election” proposal years after government think tank NITI Aayog backed the idea of simultaneous state and national polls to remove impediments to governance, policy making, and developmental activities.
The Kovind panel will explore the feasibility and the mechanism on going back to having Lok Sabha and state assembly polls simultaneously. These polls were held together until 1967.
A discussion paper co-authored by Bibek Debroy, the chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council and a NITI Aayog member from 2015 to 2019, noted that there has not been a single year without an election to either a state assembly or Lok Sabha or both in over 30 years. It added the same situation was likely to prevail.
The paper said the situation leads to massive recurring expenditures as well as prolonged deployment of security forces and manpower, etc. It noted that the adverse impact is both tangible and intangible within the larger sphere of governance. “Tangibly, frequent imposition of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) leads to suspension of developmental projects and other government activities… The larger intangible impact of frequent elections is that governments and political parties remain in perpetual ‘campaigning’ mode,” said Debroy and Kishore Desai, officer on special duty, NITI Aayog, in the paper.
The paper said electoral compulsions change the focus of policymaking and that short-sighted populist and “politically safe” measures are accorded higher priority over “difficult” structural reforms which may be more beneficial from a longer-term perspective. “This leads to suboptimal governance and adversely impacts the design and delivery of public policies and developmental measures.”
It added considering Indian demographics and the ever-increasing expectations of the young population, it is imperative to remove impediments to governance expeditiously.
The paper cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments that if India is to meet the challenge of change, mere incremental progress is not enough. It added frequent elections impact the government’s risk-taking capabilities and incentivise a safer status quo approach instead. “Getting out of this ‘permanent election mode’ is, therefore, a huge structural change in mindset that could potentially provide the much-needed space to governments to focus on long-term transformational measures without worrying about the next impending election.”
Modi has repeatedly called for ending frequent election cycles.
The Law Commission of India in its 170th report on Reform of Electoral Laws backed the idea. “We must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once. It is true that we cannot conceive or provide for all the situations and eventualities that may arise whether on account of the use of Article 356 (which of course has come down substantially after the decision of Supreme Court in SR Bommai vs Union of India) or for other reasons, yet the holding of a separate election to a Legislative Assembly should be an exception and not the rule.”
In its judgment in the SR Bommai case in March 1994, the Supreme Court defined the contours of the Constitution’s Article 356, which allows for the President’s Rule. The court laid down legal principles for a lawful and valid exercise of the power under Article 356.
The Law Commission suggested that elections to assemblies whose term ends six months after the Lok Sabha polls can be clubbed together. The results of such elections can be declared at the end of the assembly tenure.
In a reference note titled “Simultaneous Elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies”, the Lok Sabha secretariat said the Election Commission of India (ECI) taking into account eventualities has suggested measures for the conduct of simultaneous elections which, inter alia, include the term of the Lok Sabha would normally commence and expire on a particular date (and not on the date on which it completes five years from the date of its first sitting.
“The terms of all State Legislative Assemblies should also normally come to an end on the date on which [the] term of the Lok Sabha is expiring. That may also mean, to begin with, as [a] one-time measure, that the term for the existing Legislative Assemblies will have to be either extended beyond five years or curtailed so that fresh elections can be held simultaneously with Lok Sabha election.”
The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted a report on the feasibility of holding simultaneous elections in December 2015 recommending that elections could be held in two phases. It added elections to some assemblies could be held during the midterm of Lok Sabha. It added polls to the remaining legislative assemblies could be held at the end of Lok Sabha’s term.
The committee suggested that the proposed first phase of assembly elections could be held in November 2016. It added elections to all state assemblies, whose terms end within six months to one year before or after the appointed election date, can be clubbed together. It added the second phase of elections can be held in 2019 with the elections to Lok Sabha.
The committee recommended that by-elections to all seats that become vacant during a year may be conducted together during a predetermined time period. It noted that the Representation of People Act permits the ECI to notify general elections six months prior to the end of the terms of Lok Sabha and state assemblies. It said that to hold early elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, either a motion for an early poll must be agreed to by at least two-thirds of all members of the House, or a no-confidence motion must be passed by the House.
The Lok Sabha secretariate note acknowledged difficulties despite the desirability of the simultaneous polls. “The ECI felt that simultaneous conduct of elections would require large-scale purchase of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines.” It added the ECI estimates ₹9284.15 crore will be needed for the procurement of EVMs and VVPATs. The machines would also need to be replaced every 15 years which would again entail expenditure. “Further, storing these machines would increase the warehousing cost.”
The note maintained simultaneous elections would also reduce the massive expenditure incurred for the conduct of separate polls every year. It said the ECI has pegged the cost of holding elections for Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies of states and Union Territories at ₹4500 crore.
The note echoed the NITI AAyog paper and said elections lead to the imposition of the MCC and the entire development programme and activities come to a standstill. “Frequent elections lead to imposition of MCC over prolonged periods of time which affects the normal governance.”
It added frequent elections lead to disruption of normal public life and impact the functioning of essential services. “If simultaneous elections are held, this period of disruption would be limited to a certain predetermined period of time.” The note added it would free the crucial manpower often deployed for prolonged periods on election duties. “For example, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections which were held along with State Assembly Elections in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh was spread over ten phases and 1077 in situ companies and 1349 mobile companies of Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) were deployed.”