Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora again spoke of the contentious ‘One Nation One Poll’ idea in Ahmedabad on Saturday (November 16), saying that even though the Election Commission would “prefer it”, but he did not see it “happening very shortly”.
“Yes, we would also prefer it (simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state legislative Assemblies). And this is not a bureaucratic statement, just saying we agree in principle, etc.,” Arora said.
“However, it is for the political parties to sit together and evolve some consensus. Do the requisite amendments in the law, so that (poll) cycle can be brought together. Unless this is done, it is a good thing to talk at seminars, but it is not happening very shortly.”
‘One Nation One Poll’ (or ‘One Country, One Election’) has been a pet idea of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, one that he has repeatedly pushed. Soon after being reelected in the summer, the government announced the setting up of a committee to examine the issue.
So how will simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies help?
There are arguments on both sides.
Making polls simultaneous would cut down costs by limiting all elections to a single season.
India now has an election in one state or the other at almost any given time — in 2019 alone, there were the massive seven-phase Lok Sabha elections in April-May, which were held along with Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; last month there were Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana; and starting November 30, there will be Assembly elections in Jharkhand. Besides, there have been Assembly and Lok Sabha byelections in a very large number of states, and more are scheduled later this year. Assembly elections are scheduled in Delhi and Bihar next year.
Those who favour simultaneous polls argue that the Model Code of Conduct gets in the way of the government announcing projects or policy plans.
However, critics argue that the complexity of simultaneous elections in a country of India’s size and diversity would be impossible to manage.
There would be massive logistics issues, requiring about twice as many electronic voting machines and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines as in a Lok Sabha election.
Also, it is widely held that simultaneous polls would benefit the nationally dominant party at the cost of regional players, and the complications that would arise if any of the governments were to collapse before completing its term.
Leave alone state legislatures, even the central government could fall. Of 17 Lok Sabhas since 1952, seven were dissolved ahead of schedule — in 1971, 1980, 1984, 1991, 1998, 1999 and 2004.
But didn’t India have simultaneous elections to begin with?
Yes, indeed it did.
Lok Sabha and state legislatures went to polls together in 1952 and 1957, with the Congress initially comfortably placed all over the country.
The synchronised cycle was first broken in Kerala, in July 1959, when the Centre invoked Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the ministry headed by E M S Namboodiripad of the Communist Party, which had assumed power after elections in April 1957. This was followed by state elections in February 1960.
As the Congress’s popularity declined, it suffered major setbacks in several states —Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Orissa, Madras and Kerala — in the 1967 elections. Consequently, Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments, comprising Bharatiya Kranti Dal, SSP, PSP, Swatantra Party, Jana Sangh and Congress defectors, came to power.
Defections and counter-defections ultimately led to the dissolution of Assemblies, which separated the poll cycles of many states from the central one.
As of now, only four states — Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim — go to polls together with Lok Sabha.
In recent years, Assemblies have been completing their tenures, mainly because of the anti-defection law of 1985 and Supreme Court judgments on invoking Article 356.
So when was the idea of simultaneous polls resurrected?
The Election Commission had suggested back in 1983 that such a system be worked out.
The Law Commission headed by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy, in its 170th Report in May 1999, stated “we must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once”.
In 2003, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee discussed the matter with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but the talks didn’t go very far.
In 2010, BJP leader L K Advani met with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and posted on his blog that he had found both Singh and then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee “receptive to the proposal”. Advani noted that a “mini-general election” every alternate year “is not good for the health either of our Central and State governments, or of our polity.”
In 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, headed by E M Sudarsana Natchiappan, compiled a report on ‘Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies’.
Simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies would reduce “massive expenditure”, “policy paralysis that results from the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct”, “impact on the delivery of essential services” and the “burden on crucial manpower that is deployed during election time”, the report observed.
Who opposes simultaneous elections?
The Congress told the committee that the idea was “impractical” and “unworkable”.
The Trinamool Congress said it was anti-democratic and unconstitutional, while the CPI and the NCP said it was “not feasible”.
The CPI(M) too pointed at “practical problems”.
The Opposition is wary of an idea that would take away the regional element of state polls, and leave regional personalities overshadowed by national leaders.
For the BJP, on the other hand, a single campaign with Prime Minister Modi as its face, would help immensely. Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav has said the idea amounts to “One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader”.
The Opposition is likely to remain hostile to the proposal.