The media are agog with the speculation that the government is contemplating simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies. Let us examine the issue carefully.
Only four Assemblies — Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim — are due for election for the Lok Sabha in 2024. Given this background, can we now conduct simultaneous elections for all states and the Lok Sabha? Such an exercise needs massive constitutional reengineering. The terms of Assemblies due for election before June 2024 — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana — will have to be extended. Alternatively after dissolution on expiry of term of Assemblies the elections need to be postponed and Constitutionally-valid alternative arrangements should be made for running governments during the interim period. Even more problematic, the Assemblies of all other states will have to be dissolved at one go, and elections ordered along with Lok Sabha. The Constitution does not provide for dissolution of the Assembly at will by the Union, except when the constitutional machinery fails. That means a major amendment to the Constitution needs to be enacted to dissolve all the Assemblies at one go and conduct the simultaneous election. The government is unlikely to get the necessary special majority in both houses of Parliament and the approval of a majority of Assemblies.
Even if the necessary support is available for such a far-reaching amendment, there will be political turmoil in many states. For instance, in states where non-NDA parties are in office, there will be a storm of protest if the term of office of elected governments is cut short. There could be major unrest in many states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh etc.
Given the Constitutional and political realities in our federal system with the Westminster model of government, it is virtually impossible to conduct simultaneous polls at the Union and state levels.
More importantly, as long as we have the Westminster model of government with a Parliamentary executive form of government, we can never guarantee a stable five-year term for the Lok Sabha or a Legislative Assembly. From time to time the elected legislatures will have to be dissolved before completion of term of office, and elections held. Therefore, as it happened in the past, elections to Assemblies and Lok Sabha will again be staggered over time. Therefore all this exercise will have been futile.
The real question is, will simultaneous elections make our democracy better? We are a federal polity with three tiers of government - Union, state, and local. However, in the minds of the vast majority of voters the state is the unit of politics. Most issues related to citizens' lives are dealt with at state level, and local governments are not empowered in most states. As a result, most voters tend to cast their vote in elections to all three tiers similarly based on their perception of the state government. If they approve of the state government, voters prefer the governing party in the state in all elections; and if they are dissatisfied with the state government, they vote against the governing party in the state in all elections — local, state or national.
This electoral behaviour shows that most voters are not able to discriminate between the three tiers of government and their functions. The Assembly constituency has become the unit of politics and determines the political preferences in all elections. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that in most states the MLA has become the disguised executive and uncrowned king of the constituency determining everything —transfers, contracts, police cases, delivery of welfare schemes, allocation of natural resources, land, sand, or mining and various regulations.
Contrast this with other mature federal democracies. In the US, simultaneous elections are held for all tiers of government. Elections are held every two years: the House of Representatives is elected every two years; the President, Governors, and Mayors are elected every four years; one-third Senators are elected every two years; and several other state and local officials are elected on the same ballot. In the presidential election cycle, about 25-30 officials are elected simultaneously on the same ballot paper. And yet, the voters are highly discerning, and they elect different party candidates for different offices at different levels.
If, somehow, simultaneous elections are held in India on a regular basis, evidence shows that there will be an even greater tendency to vote uniformly across all tiers without regard to the functions entrusted to each level, and the performance of each tier of government.
Already our democracy is reduced to enthusiastic voting without clear understanding of the functions and issues relevant to each tier, and perpetual protest. We need greater appreciation in the minds of voters for the link between the vote they cast in each tier and the consequences they can expect in their lives. Any reform should enlighten voters further and make the vote an effective tool to improve governance and accountability. Simultaneous elections in the Indian context are likely to make our democracy even more symbolic and less accountable.
The Kovind committee should look at the deeper crisis of our democracy — illegitimate money power in elections, dominance of short-term welfare measures at the cost of the core functions of government and political mobilisation around primordial loyalties of caste, region and religion. We need serious and far-reaching reforms to strengthen our democracy and improve governance. Simultaneous elections are not the panacea to our complex challenges.
(The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter@jp_loksatta)