Is Modi's idea to hold all elections together just to save money?
The issue of simultaneous elections at the Centre as well as in states is being projected as one of the greatest electoral reforms for the Indian democracy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been arguing in favour of such an arrangement ever since he came to power, emphasising that it will lead to saving of a lot of government money. In a recently held meeting at NITI Aayog, he once again pitched the idea.
What's the motive
Since nobody can deny the massive support that Modi enjoys today in the country - whatever doubts were there were allayed post Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections - it won't be long before he manages to convince the country to buy his vision.
President Pranab Mukherjee has already lent support to the idea in his Republic Day address to the nation this year, asking all political parties in the country to build a consensus on the issue.
Before this idea becomes a reality, it is important to ask whether simultaneous elections are just about saving the public money? Or, is there a possibility of some other motives getting fulfilled in certain circumstances?
Before agreeing to any such so-called reform of the country's electoral mechanism, all political parties, especially the regional ones, must ponder over the issue with wariness.
The election cycle
Simultaneous elections were in practice in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. But in 1967, a variety of coalition governments formed in different states and each had different longevity. And then the era of having elections in states before the end of five-year terms came along. So with every mid-term election, there began a cycle of a new five-year government in states.
At the Centre, the five-year cycle remained intact till 1967. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi called for mid-term elections in 1971 - a year before the end of her term. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the Centre too, saw a number of coalition governments that did not complete the full term.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Indian diplomat who served as a Cabinet minister in the UPA-I government says, “It is impossible to ensure that Centre and states will have simultaneous elections all the time unless we undermine the democratic process of electing governments. If a central or a state government loses its majority in Lok Sabha or a state assembly, you cannot allow the government to remain in power until the next 5 year cycle begins. Or there would be Presidential rule in the state/Centre for the same period. The proposal is illogical”
A medicine to kill the opposition
What is a democracy without opposition? A bicameral structure of people's representation in Parliament itself suggests that the framers of the Constitution did not want the legislative and the executive to lose distinction. Deliberately, the Rajya Sabha was made a permanent house, whose elections happen once in six years, as against five for the Lok Sabha, for one-third of the members. The difference in the terms of members of both the houses itself means that the framers did not want the same sentiment in both the houses.
But for a moment, let us go back to the year 2014 when the whole country was swept by the Modi wave. In such a scenario, would any political party have been able to come to power in any of the 29 states in the country in case state elections were also held alongside the Lok Sabha election? Would the issue of intolerance have raked Parliament if both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha were occupied with members of only the ruling party?
To be more precise, would the country have seen a face-off between the Union minister Smriti Irani and the Rajya Sabha member Mayawati on the issue of the death of Rohit Vemula?
Mayawati’s party did not win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. If she had lost even the Rajya Sabha seat due to losing the state election – though one can argue that an incumbent member remains at her seat till the end of her tenure, but there would be various similar situations where we would need the likes of Mayawati to stand against the ruling party – would she have been able to challenge an Irani who roared with all the theatrics of a soap opera?
Democracies work through negotiating with pressure groups. The larger the number of these pressure groups in the country, the stronger a democracy becomes. A ruling party may dislike the pulls of different pressure groups, but what the ruling party dislikes does not necessarily harm the electorate. Arun Jaitley, in his frustration of not getting the GST Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha in the first year of NDA rule said, “Differently Elected” Rajya Sabha should not come in the way of popularly elected Loksabha.
There is no limit to the power that political parties demand to deliver development in the country. When the NDA government came to power with 345 seats in the Lok Sabha, many experts believed that it would help the executive to deliver essential projects without any roadblocks of a coalition government. After close to three years in power, a big decision that the NDA took was that of demonetisation of currency. Only time will tell how great the decision proved for the Indian economy, but its immediate impact has halted India' growth by 0.4 percentage points in 2016-17.
Remember that UPA had gone for a mini demonetisation in January 2014 by withdrawing Rs 500 currency notes issued before 2005. The move was even criticised by the BJP then. So what made BJP go for demonetisation on such a grand scale just two and a half years later? The answer is a brute majority in Parliament with 345 MPs.
But wait, these are not the only dangers of simultaneous elections. Demonetisation was still one of the smallest prices our country paid for having a strong government at the Centre. But imagine an RSS-backed government coming to power with two-third majority in the Lok Sabha and having chief ministers in more than half the states in the country. It would be a ‘check-and-mate’ move for secular parties opposed to the idea of India becoming a Hindu-rashtra.
“Such a move is possible by making a constitutional amendment by introducing changes in the Article 360 of the constitution and declaring India a Hindu Rashtra,” says noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
Protecting India’s secular thread
Where India stands today as compared to its neighbours after seven decades of independent existence is because of its choice to be a country with no religion.
The secular thread holds Indians together whenever the communal forces have tried to take India on the path of destruction so visible in the polity of other nations. If the framers of India's constitution had fallen for the idea of a country based on the religion of the majority, it would not have been possible to hold together a country as vast as ours for a quarter of a century.
The party in power seeks to prolong its rule till eternity. And the parties out of power seek its opposite. This is the essence of a democracy. The plot to have simultaneous elections is against this essence.
Saving public money is important, definitely, but not at the cost of democracy.