‘Simultaneous national, state elections complex and difficult, not impossible’

Nov 01, 2023 11:38 PM IST

Former chief election commissioner Navin Chawla and political scientist Milan Vaishnav point out the challenges in trying to streamline elections

NEW DELHI: The idea of holding simultaneous national and state elections in a chaotic democracy such as India is a complex endeavour that is not impossible but difficult, and will need wide consultations with all stakeholders due to its potential impact on federalism and the Constitution, according to former chief election commissioner Navin Chawla and political scientist Milan Vaishnav.

Former chief election commissioner Navin Chawla and political scientist Milan Vaishnav in a conversation with HT’s national political editor Sunetra Choudhury
Former chief election commissioner Navin Chawla and political scientist Milan Vaishnav in a conversation with HT’s national political editor Sunetra Choudhury

In a conversation with HT’s national political editor Sunetra Choudhury during a virtual session on the second day of the 21st edition of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, the two experts also laid out the contours of the debate on holding simultaneous polls, pointed out the challenges in trying to streamline elections and discussed previous efforts at laying out a road map for simultaneous polls.

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Their discussion came against the backdrop of the government setting up an eight-member committee led by former President Ram Nath Kovind to make recommendations regarding simultaneous elections. The committee will analyse various election scenarios and propose a framework and time frame

The first few rounds of elections in independent India were held simultaneously — in 1951-52, 1957, 1962 and 1967 — but the schedule got fragmented after the 1967 elections when a number of state governments either lost their majorities or were dismissed . In the past, a parliamentary standing committee, the Niti Aayog, and the Law Commission have weighed in on the issue, expressing concern over the burgeoning expense of holding one election after another but also flagging possible constitutional and legal problems.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has backed the idea of holding state and national elections simultaneously several times in the past, hailing what he called “One Nation, One Election”. But opposition parties reject the proposal as undemocratic and said the decision was “against the interests” of the country.

In the session, Chawla – who oversaw the 2009 general elections – highlighted that while the idea was not impossible to implement, it would require a significant expansion of resources and infrastructure. This would mean more district magistrates, returning officers, electronic voting machines, voter verified paper audit trail machines, and training given to poll personnel. “The election pyramid would have to double or treble for simultaneous polls…it is not impossible but it is not easy,” he said.

He also flagged that there were disadvantages in holding elections together. He pointed out that general elections required at least 2,000 senior officers as observers, virtually emptying out the senior bureaucracy at the central and state level. In addition, every party wanted central police supervision in their region and were used to demanding observers. “How exactly and where they can come simultaneously would beat me,” he said, without ruling out the possibility of it being doable from an electoral point of view.

But he raised other questions of fairness, especially the demands by opposition parties for a level playing field. “What about the poor individual candidate not backed by any party? They too deserve a level playing field.”

Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tackled the argument that holding elections simultaneously would be cheaper for the exchequer. He said that on average, a general election costs 4,000 crore and assembly elections in large to medium states 300 crore -- numbers that may have risen due to inflation and increased population. “This doesn’t strike me as a very large number,” he said, drawing a contrast with the MPLAD scheme, under which each member of Parliament can spend 5 crore a year on development projects in their constituency.

The other aspect of the debate was on the amount of money spent by candidates and parties. “It is not obvious to me that simultaneous elections will reduce spending. The amount of money spent will remain just as high, just in a compressed period of time…there is no proof that the quantum of funds spent will be lower,” he said.

He also flagged some concerns about popular consent and legitimacy while noting that there was no official proposal on the table. He considered previous efforts by the Niti Aayog, which proposed two phases of elections, one comprising the Lok Sabha polls and elections in 14 states, and the other composed of assembly elections in the remaining states. The proposal also dealt with situations such as no-confidence motions, governor’s rule and a government collapsing midway through its term. “These proposals look good on paper but are messy in the details,” he said.

Chawla pointed out that simultaneous polls require important constitutional changes that have to be done with the widest possible consultation with states. “After all, we are a federal polity,” he said, suggesting that legal pundits should also be brought into the discussion.

Vaishnav rejected arguments that the model code hampered development and that a continual electoral cycle made administrators risk averse, and pointed out the enormity of a potential move towards simultaneous polls. “There will be an impact on federalism and state-Centre relations. This is core to their existence and political competitiveness…it will affect all parties.”

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