‘Simultaneous elections possible, but not easy’: Former CEC Navin Chawla at HTLS 2023
Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment said he hasn't seen evidence to suggest the quantum of funds would be lower if elections are held together.
Holding the much-talked-about simultaneous elections or ‘one-nation, one-election’ “is not impossible but not easy either", claimed former chief election commissioner of India Navin Chawla on Day 2 of the 21st edition of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Wednesday.
Along with Chawla, Milan Vaishnav, director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was also in conversation with Sunetra Choudhury, national political editor of Hindustan Times.
The Union law ministry had named eight members to the committee, headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind, that will examine the issue of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, assemblies, municipalities and panchayats. It would also examine and recommend whether the amendments to the Constitution would require ratification by the states.
The committee will also analyse and recommend possible solutions to scenarios such as a hung House, the adoption of a no-confidence motion or defection or any other event in case of simultaneous elections.
Speaking on the issue, Chawla said the first intervention came in 2015 when a parliamentary committee was set up under an MP (Sudarshan) Nachiappan and that had called the Election Commission in for evidence and the commission did say that there was a possibility that it could be done. "It didn't rule it out. I think it began there,” he said.
‘It is a very complex issue’: Navin Chawla
On the current debate over the issue, Chawla said, “It's complicated. It really is a very complex issue. I am aware that there was a special session of Parliament that an extraordinary committee has been set up under the former president which is yet to, I think, invite people to participate. But nonetheless, from strictly from an election point of view, I suppose I had to do it, it would be possible because we would have to increase the hardware, you would need to increase the constituencies – they will double practically although that happens when a general election does coincide with four or five assemblies. But when you are doing the entire country then the need for hardware, the need for district magistrates for returning officers for the whole bundobust of the pyramid below that the EVMs, VVPATs. All that is not impossible, but it's not easy," the former CEC said.
"One of the big things in the election commission is not just that you have a district magistrate and the pyramid, but a lot of intense training that goes into it. So, of course, that would also multiply manifold, and I'm not talking about costs. Costs can be met, but the election pyramid would have almost to double, if not almost triple, to be able to do these elections simultaneously. So not impossible but not easy,” he added.
On huge expenditure incurred by government
Responding to a question on the massive expenditure incurred by the government and other stakeholders in holding multiple elections across the country every year, Vaishnav, said “I think you have to break down the costs into two different buckets or categories. So there are the costs borne by the government for the conduct and implementation of the elections and then there's the money that parties and candidates and their supporters are spending. Let's start with the general government expenditure. So the estimates which are out there are that on average, a general election costs to put on around ₹4,000 crore, and a state election in a medium to large state would be R 300 crore. And you say maybe it's a little bit higher now due to inflation and increased population and so on and so forth. That does not strike me frankly as a very large number. I mean just to put it in perspective the MP lad scheme, the member of Parliament local area development scheme under which every MP gets ₹5 crore a year is ₹14,000 crore over five years. We don't talk necessarily about how that's wasteful expenditure. Clearly, the bigger issue is the money that parties and candidates are spending…and ₹60,000 crore is probably an underestimate given that this is very hard to quantify," Vaishnav said.
"It's not obvious to me that if you move to simultaneous elections that spending is going to go down right because of the amount of money that aspirant members of Parliament and MLA are going to spend in their constituencies and what are some of the world's most competitive elections are still going to remain very high, and it is going to happen perhaps in a compressed period of time but I haven't seen any convincing evidence to suggest actually the quantum of funds would be lower, where the quantum of funds could be lower as on the holding of elections. But I don't really think that's a major issue given all of the other expenditures the government of India undertakes,” he added.
There are disadvantages in holding polls together: Navin Chawla
Chawla also doesn't think it be cheaper if elections were conducted together. “There are disadvantages to doing them together. One is that you know it's a huge country and even when we do a general election by itself, we require as many as 2,000 senior officers as observers joint secretaries and above, emptying out the central government and the state governments virtually that apart every single political party didn't trust the state police. They all wanted the central police. So you were emptying out the police forces, you had something like I had wanted companies and I only got 500, but I know a 1,000 went to Bengal not very long ago. So now, when you quantify this into a general election and simultaneous elections then everybody has got used to demanding observers and central forces and how exactly and where they can come simultaneously is something that if I were in the election commission would beat me, I wouldn't know where to get them," Chawla said.
"So, once again going back to the point that yes, we might consider it doable from the election point of view, but would it satisfy the political arena because we are not only talking about established political parties, we are mainly talking about those who are in opposition whether it's at the Centre or the states who demand a level playing field and for the level playing field. What about the poor individual candidates who may not have a political party behind them? Aren't they also entitled to an equal level playing field so the election commission being seen as a fair umpire to really be fair down because you know we are very noisy people and if one VVPAT doesn't work or one EVM breaks down somewhere, you know we are all over the newspapers, even if it's just one and two. But we do know that a million are working and we have got to make all the it has to be glitch-free so the bigger you make it, I'm not saying it's impossible but I would be very nervous,” Chawla explained.
Milan Vaishnav on idea of going back old system
When asked if it's a valid argument to go back to the old system of holding elections together, Vaishnav said, “I think people are right in saying that India more or less had simultaneous elections from 1952 to 67, the cycle was first broken in Kerala in 1959 when President's rule was imposed to take down a Communist Party government. There then of course in 1967, as we all know, the Congress party lost a number of critical states that was the kind of end of the first party system and afterwards, you had very unstable opposition governments where defections counter defections led to the dissolution of many assemblies right that further broke the simultaneous cycle and of course in 1971. Indira Gandhi called early elections which kind of firmly delinked state and national polls so it started out simultaneously, but there is nothing hardwired in the system to suggest it should stay that way. I think Gautam Bhatia, the lawyer and legal analyst, had a very nice piece recently in which he said we have to remember that the essence of parliamentary government in a sense is that at all times governments must enjoy the confidence of the House right and in a parliamentary setup, unlike a presidential system, you know rigid timetables don't necessarily conform to the principles of Parliament govern. We haven't gotten into the proposal for ‘one nation, one election’. We should say there isn't an official proposal. There have been drafts of various proposals but I think they raise really problematic considerations from the standpoint of popular consent and legitimacy.”
Referring to the report that was put out by the Niti Aayog, Vaishnav explained that under Bivek Debroy and a co-author Kishor Desai, what they have proposed which builds on the Parliamentary standing committee report, is not one nation, one poll but actually one nation, two poll. "So, there would be two phases of elections. So if we were just to assume this would kick off with the 24 general elections for argument's sake, you would have a phase one election where you would have the Lok Sabha elections and elections in 14 states which are slightly before or slightly after the general elections, and those would be held say in May and June of next year, then about two and a half years later, you would pull all of the other remaining states. So, this would be the fall of November 26 in which the other half would go. Now this raises a whole bunch of questions about what happens if there's a dissolution of a government or a coalition falls…
“But basically what the proposal says is first of all, if there's a no-confidence motion to take down a government that must correspond with or proceed hand in hand with a confidence motion in favour of an alternate government. If that consensus is not met, then elections are quite far off – you would have to have fresh elections but that new government then would only serve the remainder of the original government's term. So it wouldn't be for five years - say it would be three and a half years or four years if elections are very close then the Centre or the state would either go to the President's rule or Governor's rule right and then elections would then be paused until the next phase went,” he said.