Monday, 8 August, 2022
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Mamata, Mayawati stand to lose most from holding state and national polls at same time

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Some lucky state assemblies would get an extension by a few months with this plan for elections, while some unlucky ones will get their terms cut short.

Simultaneous elections — that one grand idea which could change how our democracy functions in the most profound way. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers have batted for this idea several times in recent years. Modi did it again on Sunday during his address at Vigyan Bhavan on the occasion of Law Day.

“The benefit of (simultaneous elections) is that the country is not always on election mode,” Modi said in his speech and called for a discussion on the issue. “I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but at least discussions and deliberations should begin. Conducting elections every 4-6 months in different states is very hectic and costly.”

In January 2017, NITI Aayog put out a discussion paper authored by Bibek Debroy titled, ‘Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: The What, Why and How’ where it described the process as “A voter would normally cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time.”

NITI Aayog suggested a whole calendar to synchronise elections in two phases. If that plan is implemented, a few states will go for elections in 2019, along-with the Lok Sabha elections, while a few other states will go for elections 2.5 years later, i.e. in December 2021 (calendar can be found in Page 26 of the report).

So some lucky state assemblies would get an extension by a few months while some unlucky ones will get their terms cut short. All for the greater good of syncing all elections up neatly.

There is one fundamental question that need to be answered before this is implemented. Do simultaneous elections benefit national parties and do they put regional parties at a disadvantage?

The country as a whole is never really on a “constant election mode”, as the Prime Minister puts it. That’s a rhetorical fallacy.

The problem is that state elections today are somehow being turned into a referendum on national parties and its leadership. Both the BJP and INC are campaigning for elections in different states on the popularity of their national leaders: Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Are people in states supposed to vote for assemblies based on the credibility of national leaders? All this is fundamentally wrong and hurts democracy in profound ways.

Only national parties, the BJP and INC, field candidates in every state election, and regional parties, which are limited to state borders, don’t. If simultaneous elections happen, it would be a definitive advantage for these national parties but conditions for regional parties will remain more or less the same.

One major argument in favour of simultaneous elections is the cost to taxpayer. Modi said in his speech: “2009 Lok Sabha elections cost Rs 1,100 crore whereas the cost for 2014 elections was approximately Rs 4,000 crore. Apart from this, the parties and candidates had to bear a separate cost.”

The NITI Aayog estimates that the overall cost for conducting simultaneous elections would be Rs 4,500 in one go, thus saving money for the exchequer. Again, the big beneficiaries here would be the national parties. Right now, they have to spend considerable amount of money in different state elections where they field candidates and also in the Lok Sabha elections. Simultaneous elections would help them save money. When compared to the capacity of regional parties to spend, national parties would have a massive advantage.

For every staggered state election, national political parties have to keep changing their messaging. They have to stay agile and accountable to the public. They are also forced to tailor their policies with an eye on the upcoming election in a particular state.

With simultaneous elections, that frequent bouts of accountability will diminish. Today, the campaigning effort to form governments at two different levels has become a key part of not just fixing accountability, but also decentralising it. Otherwise ignored state issues become a priority for the central government when elections come up.

This brings us to another big question: will voters end up voting for a national party for both state and central governments or will they vote for different outfits on different levels of government if simultaneous elections are held?

On this, a report by IDFC Institute provides an answer: “The trend of choosing the same party has gone from 68 per cent in 1999 to 77 per cent in 2004 to 76 per cent in 2009 and 86 per cent in 2014. Contrary to the popular notion that the average voter is acutely discerning of the difference between voting for her state representative and national, there is very little actual evidence of it. If any, as our analysis shows, the ability or willingness of the voter to vote differently is only decreasing with time.”

National parties would like us to believe that every time they fight state elections, the whole country is going into elections. This perception helps them consolidate their power politically. And the perception also forces everyone to care about state elections as much as they care about national ones.

This time, even the parliament session was delayed for the state elections, and ministers and MPs diverted to the campaign trail.

Since the same national leaders are campaigning at both state and central levels, it becomes a constant battle between national parties. They continue playing up the Delhi—centric rhetoric — severely damaging the cause of federalism.

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  1. it is all fair and square to discuss the economics and moral part of holding simultaneous elections. one important aspect left out of the discussion is: with aya rams and gaya rams ruling the roost till date, toppling duly elected ruling parties are always at the risk of losing their power, especially on razor thin margins. when a government falls, and people find horse trading will not solve the problem, will it be governor’s rule till the next elections? what is the cure when a state experiences political vacuum like that of Tamilnaadu ? will aya rams take the reins of the state? talking about governor’s rule, someone like romesh bhandari or that infamous indira gadhi cook in Jharkhand is in the hot seat, i shudder to think what will the political status.

    anyone willing to risk a reply?

  2. Your assertion that ‘With simultaneous elections, that frequent bouts of accountability will diminish’ is misplaced. The Union Government is accountable to the citizens of India since the citizens get the veto power every 5 years. In these 5 years, the Union Government’s focus should be on development and good governance, which unfortunately takes a back seat because of election campaigns in the states.

    Why do you think all modern liberal-democracies (US, UK, Canada, and so on) have fixed elections?

  3. Honestly I am having serious doubts about simultaneous elections giving a advantage to national parties over state parties. Of course there are real financial advantages to this, for both the government and national parties. But I don’t see it as that big.

    Also, as for state issues getting lost, I don’t think that will happen. Instead, I think we have strong state parties in most states today which will ensure that state issues are brought front and center at even the national stage. Considering in the current revenue system of the nation states depend so much on funding from the center, I think this is a very very important thing and something that promotes decentralisation and federalism. In fact, here national parties will be at a disadvantage since currently they can be biased towards one state or the other.

    The IDFC study data says that people are choosing different parties less. That may be true, though I doubt the causality of the fact. Also we must remember, that does not necessarily mean the people choose the national party.

    In the 21st Century, simultaneous state and national elections have only happened in Andhra Pradesh(+Telangana) and Odisha. In AP 2 out of three times a national party won with the INC. In 2014 though in both AP and Telangana, the respective state parties won the state elections and majority of the MP seats as well. In Odisha, each and every time its the state party, BJD, which has continued its dominance despite significant presence of both major national parties.

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