Simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha, state Assemblies untenable; smacks of attempt to impose one-party dominance

Suhit K Sen
The attempt to introduce simultaneous elections by diktat is a stealthy move towards reviving a polity dominated by one party and it must be resisted.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been pushing for simultaneous elections to Parliament and all Legislative Assemblies for over a year. In April 2018, the party and the NITI Aayog both backed the idea in separate reports. In August that year, the Law Commission examined the proposal and found it had merit.

Later that year, there were rumours that some Legislative Assembly polls would be postponed and some brought forward to enable simultaneous elections for 11 states alongside the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections.

In July 2018, it was reported that four parties favoured the idea while nine opposed it. And in 2019, the BJP manifesto plumped again for simultaneous elections. It is worth examining the idea, despite it being backed by the NITI Aayog and an august constitutional body such as the Law Commission. Two angles must be examined to arrive at any kind of conclusion: the historical, which also subsumes the practical; and the one based on democratic principle.

Let's look at the electoral history of post-Independence India, to begin with. The first elections held in India under the aegis of the Constitution and on the basis of the universal adult franchise were completed in 1952. The elections were simultaneous. Thereafter, simultaneous elections were held in 1957, 1962 and 1967. The only exception was Kerala, where the communist government headed by EMS Namboodiripad was dismissed, President's Rule imposed and 'mid-term' elections held the same year. For the record, a United Front government headed by the Congress won these elections.

The question is what made it possible to hold simultaneous elections for four successive terms. To anyone who knows the rudiments of India's post-Independence political history, the answer is simple: it was the fact that the Congress was overwhelmingly preponderant in the political and electoral spheres and had untroubled majorities in Parliament and all Legislative Assemblies. It was a polity characterised by political scientists as one-party dominant and famously designated the 'Congress system' by Rajni Kothari, one of India's most eminent political scientists.

But the Congress system broke down in 1967 when the dominant party found its majority in the Lok Sabha dangerously whittled down and it lost power in a swathe of states across the country. Non-Congress coalition governments of various hues came to power in Haryana and Punjab; Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh; Orissa and West Bengal; Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where a single party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) routed the Congress.

Many of these patchwork coalition governments did not survive, however. The non-Congress government in Haryana was the first to fall, in 1968. Fresh elections were held and the Congress returned to power under the notorious (or redoubtable) Bansi Lal. The Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal governments followed suit. Fresh elections were held in 1969. The new non-Congress governments formed subsequently all fell in quick time. The imposition of President's Rule became routine. In time, the Odisha and Kerala government fell, necessitating fresh elections. In Madhya Pradesh, the government formed by a group of Congress defectors led by Govind Narain Singh allied to opposition parties fell when Singh and his adherents re-defected to the Congress. No elections were necessitated.

Greater instability was injected into the political system when the Congress split down the middle in December 1969. Most Lok Sabha members of the Congress remained with the party formed by Indira Gandhi and her adherents. Gandhi, therefore, remained prime minister, but at the head of a minority government, surviving with the support of the Communist Party of India and the DMK. In early 1971, Gandhi disarticulated the Lok Sabha elections with state elections by holding snap elections. In the famous, garibi hatao versus 'Indira  hatao ' elections, Gandhi used a spectacularly successful plebiscitary style of campaigning (now emulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi) and wiped the floor with the 'Grand Alliance', consisting of the Congress (O, for Organisation), the Jana Sangh, the Sangathana Socialist Party (often erroneously referred to as the Samyukta Socialist Party), the Swatantra Party and the Praja Socialist Party. Simultaneous elections were in effect dead in the water.

A number of state elections were held in 1972, in the aftermath of the Bangladesh War, and the Congress swept to power in all of them. For a while, it seemed that the era of Congress dominance would be revived, under the aegis of Gandhi's Congress, the Congress (R), but the Allahabad High Court judgment unseating the prime minister, the imposition of the Emergency and the subsequent ascension to power of the fragile Janata Party intervened. Instability returned to the Indian political space and the idea of simultaneity was once again blown out of the water.

Since 1977, Central governments have fallen after losing their Lok Sabha necessitating fresh elections in 1980, 1991 and 1999. Any number of state governments have failed to complete their term. At the time of writing, a number of state governments are perched precariously: in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal. This despite the fact that in the lattermost state, the ruling Trinamool Congress has a brute majority. Governments in the North East are also chronically unstable.

While it is true that many states now have very stable governments, especially with the BJP emerging as a dominant force countrywide, there are no guarantees that state governments will not fall. So, how will simultaneous elections work in this context? The simple answer is that they won't. Mid-term elections will always remain a possibility. One solution suggested in the current context by BJP leader Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, and examined earlier by the Constitution Review Committee set up by the National Democratic Alliance government headed by the late Atal Behari Vajpayee, is that no-confidence motions will have to be accompanied by confidence motions, enabling a new government to be formed when one falls.

This provision does exist in some places, as in Germany, which has an electoral system based on proportional representation, but it would be practically impossible to make it work in India. First, it would require a constitutional amendment, around which consensus would be difficult, if not impossible, to drum up. Second, it could mean prolonged tenures for minority governments, which would, again, be an unsustainable proposition. In other words, the idea is not workable.

Let us take the second angle. Two arguments are made, in the main, in favour of simultaneous elections, among others by the NITI Aayog. First, disaggregated elections cost the nation money. Simultaneous elections would, in other words, save the exchequer and, therefore, the people significant expense. Second, periodic elections in different states are disruptive to the development process. The first argument is correct. No clinching evidence has been produced for the latter. Even if both the arguments are taken to be correct, they would not trump the fundamental principles of representational democracy. One of these is that a government can remain in power only as long as it commands a majority amongst the elected representatives of the relevant House €" be it the Lok Sabha or the state Legislative Assemblies.

Democracy cannot be press-ganged in the service of convenience or financial considerations. The point is that since the days of Congress dominance, the Indian political system has become more plural and, therefore, more inclusive. The attempt to introduce simultaneous elections by diktat is a stealthy move towards reviving a polity dominated by one party. It must be resisted.

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