Constitutional and practical impediments to the idea of simultaneous elections are formidable. Given the degree of political polarisation, consensus would be hard to achieve.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for “one nation, one election” – holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies – has raised many questions about his intent.
Is this another step at centralisation and vitiating the federal scheme of the Constitution, and in the process further entrenching the BJP’s hold in the nation’s body politic? It should hardly surprise anyone because no political party would call for reforms that would ex ante undermine it. And were this to occur in 2019, it would likely favour the BJP in states where it is the incumbent party facing a difficult re-election scenario. It is not at all clear who would gain or lose if this were to be implemented in 2024.
The long-term implications of major institutional changes are seldom predictable, no matter how confident we are of tomorrow.
Soaring costs are a concern
Intent aside, there are serious questions on both the desirability and feasibility of such a move. A parliamentary report by the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice made the case for holding of simultaneous elections on several grounds. The most obvious is financial: holding simultaneous elections would curb not just the huge campaign expenditures incurred by political parties but also the substantial public expenditures incurred in the actual conduct of holding elections. A second strong argument is the opportunity costs of time that are incurred during an election: the time that is lost as policy making freezes due to the imposition of the Model Code of Conduct during election time; the opportunity costs of time of key political figures who, instead of focusing on governance, are compelled to be incessantly on the campaign trail; and at lower levels, the disruptions in the day-to-day functioning of the bureaucracy, from teachers to police and other public officials, who are called into election duty.
It seems intuitive that expenditures and disruptions would be less if there were fewer elections, although just how much is hard to gauge.
There is little doubt that the soaring costs of elections – not just at the national and state levels, but also the burgeoning number of local elections – are casting an increasingly dark shadow on India’s democracy. While its corrosive implications for corruption are well-known, in a forthcoming book ‘Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India’ (co-edited with Milan Vaishnav), we argue that there is another deeply pernicious “selection” effect. This relates to who can realistically compete for elections, given the rising financial barriers to running in an election.
Any solution comes with a problem
But there is another hard-to-gauge cognitive cost of more frequent elections. Besides Bollywood (and cricket), elections constitute the third leg of an obsessive national dialogue. And like a Bollywood film, elections are expensive, rely on a lot of black money, there is a lot of action accompanied by bad dialogues and over-the-top acting, plenty of violence, and the incessant gossip on the lives of its key protagonists.
Rarely do either elections or Bollywood produce blockbuster outcomes. And regrettably, there are far fewer love stories. But like any other obsession, they capture so much cognitive space – whether in the media or inter-personal conversations – that thinking and acting on the quotidian aspects of day-to-day governance gets short shrift. While regular elections are the basic foundations of any democracy, India’s democracy has become so identified with elections that it has been tragically reduced to just elections – with consequences that are all too evident.
But the need for fewer – and much less expensive – elections is not the same as simultaneous elections, especially one that combines national, state and local elections. There are very good arguments that would caution against this. Perhaps the biggest normative and practical impediment is: what happens when there is a fractured verdict in a state or several states or (or perhaps, especially) at the centre? In the case of the latter, will all the states also have to go to polls again simultaneously? And what if the verdict is again fractured?
Any solution has within it seeds that will sprout to become new problems. The legal and constitutional impediments are formidable, and given the degree of political polarisation, it is hard to think how a political consensus on the multiple constitutional changes needed would come about.
The logistical challenges are equally daunting. With the Election Commission of India (ECI) coming under the scanner with increasing frequency, it could well buckle under the sheer overload of trying to hold simultaneous elections, if not done with great deal of preparation.
One step at a time
This does not mean that holding simultaneous elections should not be a long-term goal because of the reasons discussed above. But first, other steps could be taken, which can become building blocks for the more sweeping long-term goal.
Initially, state and local elections can be held simultaneously rather than national and state elections. Currently, the former is managed by the ECI while the latter is managed by the state election commissions, with each preparing its own electoral rolls. Simultaneous elections for state and local governments would result in creating a clean, single electoral roll. It would also mean that local elections cannot be easily postponed – a phenomenon that frequently occurs – since most state election commissions are less independent than the ECI. And, the regional parties would be less opposed to such a move.
Another possibility is to hold elections to certain legislative assemblies, whose term ends six months before or after the general elections, simultaneously with the general elections. That, however, would likely need a constitutional amendment. A version of this has been suggested by the Law Commission in its recent ‘Draft working paper — Simultaneous Elections — Constitution and Legal Perspectives’.
Another suggestion (reportedly by the ECI) is to fix one day in the year for any election. In other words, all elections due in a year are held on the same day (say the last Saturday of November). This would give greater predictability, reduce the around-the-year campaigning in some part of the country or the other, and would only require an amendment of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
The temptations of sweeping changes delivering a magic bullet are tantalising. But a more gradual approach – albeit with a similar overarching goal – is likely to be more compelling.
Devesh Kapur is Madan Lal Sobti professor for the study of contemporary India, and the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.