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BRP Bhaskar: Pitfalls of simultaneous poll
July 24, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of holding elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies together has not found favour with most political parties. But there is nothing to indicate that he has given it up.

The Election Commission, the body charged with the task of conducting the polls, was one of the earliest to welcome the idea. But when the Law Commission sought the views of the political parties, most of them opposed it.

The strongest opposition was voiced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Its General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury, said the idea was “inherently anti-democratic”.

The two main arguments advanced in support of simultaneous elections are that it will reduce considerably the expenses involved in the conduct of elections and that it will cut the time governments lose as the rules bar them from taking policy decisions once an election is scheduled.

The main argument against it is that it will destroy the cardinal principle of parliamentary democracy, namely a government responsible to an elected legislature.

Modi is apparently batting for simultaneous elections as it is likely to work to the advantage of his Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now the largest and has the widest reach across India. It is also well-endowed with funds, being the one which attracts most donations from corporate entities.

When the Congress party had the advantages which the BJP now has, it had benefited immensely from simultaneous elections.

A cursory look at the history of India’s parliamentary system is enough to realise that a fixed tenure for all elected bodies is incompatible with it.

In the first elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies, held under the new Constitution in 1951-52, voters chose their MPs and MLAs at the same time. It became necessary to hold fresh assembly elections in two states, Travancore-Cochin (since merged in Kerala) and Pepsu (short for Patiala and East Punjab States Union, since merged in Punjab), in 1954 as the governments elected in 1952 lost the confidence of the houses and could not throw up alternative regimes.

Such situations arose in several other states too subsequently. It was in these circumstances that assembly elections in many states got delinked from the Lok Sabha poll.

Under the current system, if a government loses the confidence of the assembly and the house is not able to throw up an alternative government, the assembly is dissolved and the state placed under President’s rule. Usually fresh elections are held within six months.    

If a fixed term for elected bodies is made mandatory, a state may remain under a government which has lost its representative character to under Central rule for a long period. That will mean total negation of parliamentary democracy.

The Constitution does not provide for President’s rule at the Centre. If the government loses the confidence of the Lok Sabha and the house is unable to throw up another, the defeated government has to carry on as caretaker, pending fresh elections which must be held within six months.

When Morarji Desai’s government collapsed, the President appointed Charan Singh as the Prime Minister on the strength of the Congress party’s offer of support to him. The Congress withdrew the offer even before he could get a vote of confidence from the house. He continued in office until fresh elections were held without ever having enjoyed majority support in the Lok Sabha.

Charan Singh was Prime Minister for just 170 days. If the Modi formula of a fixed term of five years for the Lok Sabha was in force, he could have remained in office for two years and eight months without parliamentary backing.

Implicit in the Modi plan is a desire to bring in the features of a presidential system of government through the back door.

Anticipating objections to an abrupt move from the present system, Modi and his supporters have been talking of moving to simultaneous elections in two phases. Only states where the assembly’s term ends within a year or so will be required to elect new houses at the time of the next Lok Sabha poll.

It is necessary to amend the Constitution to make simultaneous polls mandatory. At present the BJP does not appear to have enough outside support to ensure smooth passage of an amending measure.

However, the BJP is in a position to launch the first phase without any change in the Constitution. It is part of the government in 20 of the 29 states. In some of them it is only a minor partner but if the major partners offer resistance it can overcome the situation with the help of the Governors, who are all Modi appointees.

But in such a situation there may be revolt from within the BJP and its allies. Going in for fresh elections before the end of the current term of an assembly involves the risk of the voters, who are the ultimate masters, upsetting the apple cart.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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