Why we need to change how elections are held3 min read . Updated: 23 Jun 2016, 02:56 AM IST
Simultaneous elections will allow political parties to focus on governance
Even before the dust settled in the electoral battlefield after the conclusion of five assembly elections earlier this year, political buzz around the next round of elections started. States such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh will go to polls next year. 2018 will see Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elect new governments, while in 2019, India will vote for the 17th Lok Sabha.
Elections in India have become a continuous process and political parties with stakes in various states are constantly preparing for one election or the other. This affects policymaking and governance as the government is trapped in short-term thinking. It is also a strain on the exchequer and puts pressure on political parties, especially smaller ones, as elections are becoming increasingly expensive.
It is in this context that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bringing up of the idea of simultaneous elections for state assemblies and Parliament becomes important. While the idea has been a topic of discussion for some time, he has done well to revive the debate. The Law Commission in its report on electoral reforms in 1999, for instance, had suggested simultaneous Lok Sabha and state assembly elections to improve governance and stability.
Although it may not be immediately possible to move towards simultaneous elections, it is still worth debating and finding ways to eventually do so. This will not only help save public money, but will also be a big relief for political parties that are always in campaign mode. It will allow political parties to focus more on policy and governance. The manner in which the United Progressive Alliance government put the revision of petroleum prices on hold regularly because of assembly elections is a good example of how elections can affect decision-making.
Lok Sabha and assembly elections were held simultaneously until the mid-1960s, but the premature dissolution of state assemblies in subsequent years disturbed the cycle. In several instances, the Lok Sabha also suffered the same fate. Therefore, some stakeholders fear that even if elections are brought in sync, the cycle might once again get interrupted.
However, what will now help is that the possibility of dismissal of state governments and premature dissolution of assemblies has diminished significantly after the passage of the anti-defection law and the Supreme Court’s landmark Bommai judgement. For the Lok Sabha, as suggested by the Law Commission and others, rules for the conduct of business can be modified so that a no-confidence motion against the government can only be moved with a confidence motion for an alternative formation. This will increase stability and allow the house to complete its term. The same can be done for state assemblies as well.
A department-related parliamentary standing committee which submitted its report in December 2015 studied the issue in detail and made some interesting recommendations. The committee noted that general public opinion supports the idea of simultaneous elections. One suggestion it received was that elections for assemblies with term ending six months before or after the Lok Sabha election could be clubbed with general elections. If implemented, the analysis suggests that this would mean assembly elections can be held in 12 states in 2019 along with the Lok Sabha polls.
But the problem with this suggestion is that the term of a state assembly (or Lok Sabha) cannot be extended unless the country is in a situation of emergency. A constitutional amendment which allows the curtailing or extending of the term of state assemblies for a predetermined period can solve this problem. It is possible that even this may not lead to the desired outcome in the near term. One recommendation made by the standing committee, however, can make things a lot smoother. It suggests that elections for assemblies can be conducted in two phases—one with the Lok Sabha and the other midway through the Lok Sabha’s term. This will significantly reduce the time and energy spent on polls.
To be sure, there are multiple issues that will need to be addressed if the country intends to move in this direction. The concerns and suggestions of different stakeholders will have to be debated in order to build political consensus around the idea. That said, the proposal will not only have economic benefits but will free up precious political space for policy discussions. It will also help in taking forward the process of economic reforms as decisions will not always be hostage to assembly elections.
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