Simultaneous elections in India: Hard to see tangible benefits, but list of drawbacks continues to grow


Alok Prasanna Kumar 

Is India headed towards a system of simultaneous state Assembly and Lok Sabha elections every five years?

There seems to be gathering momentum for the proposal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it last year. An RSS think tank has said it. President Ramnath Kovind also referred to it in his speech that opened the Budget Session of Parliament.

The arguments pitched for it are not based on some high principle — it is supposed to help ‘save money’ for the government that can apparently be better spent elsewhere and it is claimed that the non-stop election cycle gets in the way of ‘good governance’ (whatever that is supposed to mean). Neither of these are particularly convincing arguments in and of themselves — there are no strong and reliable numbers on what it could cost (not just to the exchequer but to the candidates) to hold simultaneous elections. Further, only the Union government might be conceived of being affected by the endless election cycle but even then, that’s a conscious choice being made by the party in power — that winning a particular state Assembly election is more important than whatever ‘good governance’ measures are needed.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

The argument against is much stronger: That the holding of simultaneous elections dramatically shrinks the choices of the electorate. It advantages national parties over regional or local ones and might privilege ‘national issues’ over local ones. It’s perhaps no surprise that the leaders of a dominant national party that has largely suffered defeat only at the hands of strong regional parties in the recent past are pushing for simultaneous elections.

That said, there is little by way of a draft or any coherent plan on how to legally ensure simultaneous elections. If it is to be taken as a serious measure of constitutional reform, the constitutional amendments are going to be no mean feat, requiring as they do a fundamental re-structuring of the way in which parliamentary democracy works in India.

Simultaneous elections to all state Assemblies and the Lok Sabha have only ever happened in the first four General Elections that took place in India between 1952 and 1967. Since then, the cycle has repeatedly been broken given the nature of India’s constitutional democracy. It’s important to understand that the absence of simultaneous elections is not a bug, but a feature of India’s form of government.

In the Westminster form of parliamentary democracy, the government lasts only so long as it enjoys a majority in Parliament (Assembly or Lok Sabha). Unlike the American system where the legislature (Senate and House of Representatives) does not decide who the Head of Government is, in India, it is the legislature that decides. It is the way that the party system is intended to work in India (as it does in the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries that follow a similar system), and the result is therefore that when the government of the day loses the majority in the legislature, it is forced to seek the mandate of the people once again.

Unless the Constitution is fundamentally and irretrievably altered to replace this form of parliamentary democracy with a purely presidential one, along the lines of the United States model, simultaneous elections are simply not possible. A government that loses majority in the legislature would be unable to govern at all until the next election. Simultaneous elections are only possible if the link between majority in legislature and government is broken as in the American model.

Assume that the Government drafts such a constitutional amendment, radically changing the Constitution, would the change survive the Supreme Court’s scrutiny? Probably not. As the Supreme Court has held in its 13-judge bench decision in Kesavananda Bharati versus State of Kerala, a parliamentary form of democracy is a basic feature of the Constitution of India and cannot be completely removed by amendment. Even assuming that they did not mean to rule out a presidential form of government entirely, it would still require a 13-judge bench of the Supreme Court to definitively rule on the matter.

Even leaving aside the possibility that the Supreme Court may strike down attempts to change the basic features of the Constitution, there are other questions that arise, which have clearly not been thought through:

What is the implication of this presidential form of democracy?
What will be the role of the legislature?
Will it have any meaningful role in checking the powers of the president?
What happens to the 10th Schedule that is supposed to prevent defection of legislators?

None of these questions have even been raised, let alone engaged with by anyone who is propounding ‘simultaneous elections’.

A much larger question also arises: If all state Assembly elections are going to be decided on ‘national issues’, what of federalism? Will the presidential system be reflected at the state-level with a similarly-structured gubernatorial system?

In the absence of any real debate or discussion about the implications, difficulties and challenges with holding simultaneous elections, one gets the feeling that what is being proposed is a one-off early election, with the possible voluntary and coordinated dissolution of BJP and NDA-ruled state legislative Assemblies. This would require parliament to be dissolved early — a move that has not always had a successful outcome for the party dissolving it.

Whatever the government proposes, it is hard to see any real upside to simultaneous elections while the downsides continue to mount.

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