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Last week in Patna, chief minister Nitish Kumar declared he was in favour of simultaneous elections at state and national levels. His JD (U) party had signalled this when it said it was ready for mid-term polls in 2019, along with national elections, but one year ahead of the next scheduled Bihar elections.

This is a theme that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increasingly been focusing on. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has noted in ET, the PM has repeatedly advocated returning to the simultaneous national and state elections that prevailed in India till 1967. He mentioned it in an interview he gave ET last year and in an address to BJP office bearers and state unit chiefs.

Various BJP leaders have also spoken in favour of the issue– and now it appears that allies are getting on board as well. Advocacy for simultaneous elections is not new. Mukhopadhyay notes that LK Advani raised it a decade and a half ago when he was Deputy PM. In 1999, the Law Commission of India, headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy, called for an end to “this cycle of elections every year and out of season.”

In a feasibility report presented to the Rajya Sabha in December 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice declared: “Almost all political parties who appeared before the Committee felt that simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies is a cost-effective noble proposition but difficult to implement because of our Constitutional arrangement.”

In his last Republic Day address, President Pranab Mukherjee, presumably with the government’s tacit approval, also advocated simultaneous elections. SY Qureishi, a former chief election commissioner, has also become a strong proponent: “Our country is perpetually in election mode that as the current government pointed out, staggers government machinery. This will help check flow of money during elections and control corruption, casteism and communalism that tend to be perpetuated each time there is an election,” he told ET.

DEBROY AND DESAI

Most notably NITI Aayog has released a detailed paper, prepared by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai that examined the issue in order, they wrote, “to fuel a wider debate on this issue of national importance.” The paper list four arguments in favour of simultaneous polls. First, they point out, with elections happening somewhere in India nearly all the time there is disruption to governance due to imposition of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct: “except the routine administrative activities, other development programs, welfare schemes, capital projects, etc. remain largely suspended…”

Next, Debroy and Desai point to the massive costs. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections cost around Rs1,115 crore and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections tripled that at around Rs3,870 crore. The cost of state elections held in-between these periods would have been substantial and in addition to these figures.

By contrast, they cite an Election Commission estimation that combined national and state polls could be done for around Rs4,500 crore. All this does not include the spending, authorised and unauthorised, by all candidates, much of which gets diverted to black money, which is another significant cost of unbridled, endless elections.

The third point they make is the drain on the resources of the security forces that have to protect the polling process. And finally they note the issues that most citizens would feel directly – the disruption of public life with political rallies and noise pollution and the sharpening of caste, religious and communal divides by unscrupulous politicians looking to garner votes.

Debroy and Desai’s paper also considers the counter-arguments in favour of our current endless election system. In the Parliamentary Committee report, for example, despite the general endorsement of the ‘noble goal’ the actual submissions by most political parties are mostly against simultaneous polls (the BJP seems not to have made any submissions).

HARMONISATION
This is spelled out by the Communist Party of India. It agrees that the proposal is ideal, but simply not practical: “There will be midterm polls in States, due to political instability in the States. The terms of such Legislative Assemblies cannot be reduced, to have simultaneous elections to Legislative Assemblies and Parliament. It will be undemocratic. There is a possibility of midterm poll for Parliament also, due to ruling party losing majority, as it happened earlier. To conduct the elections simultaneously all the Legislative Assemblies cannot be unilaterally abolished for no fault of them.”

Both the Parliamentary Committee report and the NITI Aayog paper focus on rather technocratic answers to this objection. This involves splitting the problem into two – first, how to harmonise national and state polls now and second, how to keep them in synch in the future.

The harmonisation can be done, it is suggested, not at one shot, but by gradually grouping and bringing the polls together over a couple of election cycles. Some state assemblies can be extended by about a year, some cut short and, assuming they happen on the current schedule, by the 2024 Lok Sabha elections things should be in synch. Nitish Kumar’s new support for simultaneous polls is particularly significant since the next scheduled Bihar election in 2021 is one of the outliers.

The question of how the system can stay in synch is where the advocates of simultaneous elections start taking constitutional leaps. A vote of no-confidence that brings down a government mid-term must, they suggest, be accompanied by a simultaneous vote of confidence in some other government formation in order to keep things going till the next poll date. But if a new election must take place, then perhaps the ensuing government could serve only till the earlier government’s term would have got over anyway.

Essentially as one former election commissioner admits to ET, the system requires fixed terms: “The election commission is competent enough to carry elections but there will have to be a constitutional amendment as we have adopted the Westminster model that has concepts like majority and no-confidence motion. Legislators will have to have a fixed term for this.”

CURTAILING RIGHTS
But the problem is that these neat solutions ignore the CPI’s blunt warning: “It will be undemocratic.” Forcing elections into synchronicity is not just a technical matter of adjusting legislative terms, but it involves significantly curtailing the rights of the states. Why would a strong state-level party like Tamil Nadu’s DMK or West Bengal’s TMC – or even current government allies like Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena – agree to giving up the power of a ruling state party to call an election when it best sees fit?

Debroy and Desai’s essentially bat their response to the then Minister for Urban Development and now Vice-President Venkaiah Nadu. In a long quote he denies any problems that might be caused to federal relations: “Did the holding of simultaneous elections between 1952 and 1967 (when the cycle was broken for politically motivated reasons) in any way make the country a unitary state then? Is there any evidence to this effect for anybody to draw such a conclusion?” India’s parliamentary democracy, he affirms, is strong enough to survive simultaneous elections. But this ignores why the system broke down in the first place.

Between 1952 and 1967 India was largely a unitary state with the Congress overwhelmingly strong at both national and state levels. It was the rise of regional parties and their success in state polls that lead to the politics that made simultaneous polls break-down. One of the first indications of where this was heading came in Kerala in 1959 when the CPI lead government, one of the first democratically elected communist governments in the world, was dismissed and President’s Rule imposed.

Special state elections were called in 1960 and the resulting government did not dissolve in 1962, when national elections were held. It continued till 1964, when President’s Rule was imposed again. This lasted till 1967, which put Kerala back in synch with national polls, but the intense politicking that all this threw up – in which the USA’s CIA has always been alleged to have a hand – showed that centre-state differences were always going to make simultaneous polls hard to maintain. By then other states were throwing up challenges to Congress rule and simultaneous polls were quietly abandoned.

The Parliamentary report cites South Africa as an example where simultaneous polls are working in such a system, but that country is roughly where India was in the 1960s, with a dominant, but weakening African National Congress and the federal fissures are starting to show. The opposition now controls the largest metropolitan areas, and that in turn is stimulating politics that may end simultaneous polls.

COAT-TAILS EFFECT
But perhaps the real issue is the one which proponents of simultaneous polls are avoiding. This is the power of what is called in the USA, the coat-tails effect, where a strong national leader or party pulls along candidates at the state level. This is routinely seen in the USA where, for example, President Obama’s popularity in his first election pulled enough votes to give his Democratic party a majority in the House of Representatives where they have an inherent disadvantage.

Debroy and Desai scrupulously note this argument, citing studies that show that a coat-tails effect does seem to exist, as shown from analysis of all the cases where states have gone to the polls at the same time as Lok Sabha elections. But against in the 24 out of 31 cases that one such study suggests, they bring up the case of Odisha in 2014 where a strong regional party bucked the national tide in favour of the BJP. They argue that a strong and effective state government can buck the trend.

This is certainly true, but it’s not exactly likely to persuade state parties in more competitive scenarios. In his earlier piece in ET , Mukhopadhyay cited a simulation done by an American think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies that suggested that in 2014 simultaneous polls would have swept along several states to the BJP limiting the Congress to just three (largely where it is today). What might be called a kurta tails effect could partly explain the BJP’s enthusiasm for simultaneous polls – and why it’s not likely to be reciprocated by other parties.

WHAT ABOUT FEASIBILITY?
The last question the NITI Aayog paper discusses is feasibility. As even their supporter ex CEC Qureishi notes, the scale will be staggering: “Unless there is deployment of adequate number of paramilitary forces, even simultaneous elections will have to be carried out over a period of 2-3 months which will defeat the purpose. Currently, an election sees a deployment of about 800 companies of forces. The government will have to provide at least 3,000-3,500 companies to ensure that the election is conducted within 30 days at least.”

The fact that polling is now electronic also means that double the number of machines will be needed. But if there’s one thing the Election Commission, and more generally the Indian electoral process, has shown is that such logistical challenges can be carried out. The bigger problem is the conceptual and democratic challenges, and for all the PM’s hopes, that debate has barely begun.

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