The Case against Simultaneous Elections in India

The Case against Simultaneous Elections in India

Originally Written here

During his address on National Law Day 2017, PM Narendra Modi reiterated the push for implementing simultaneous elections in India, where Lok Sabha elections and Assembly polls of all states will be synced to happen once in 5 years, citing administrative difficulties and cost to exchequer. In the later half of this year, there has been much discussion about it, with Nitish Kumar 2, the Vice President 3, the controversial India Foundation 4 and other allies in support and regional parties and the left voicing their protest 5. It is speculated that this bill will come up in the winter session of the parliament, and might be the next big reform of Modi.

Cover of an India Foundation event on the same topic

Here’s why this is a bad idea for democracy:

  1. It is well known that moods of people change rapidly and the public and media have short term memory. Issues and concerns fluctuate over time too. This move would be disastrous for democracy because it essentially translates to ‘winner takes all’, and winners change over time. For example, Modi wave was a real thing in 2014, and that would’ve flipped all if not most states saffron. Recent by-polls 6 7 favoured opposition due to dip in economy( fall in growth, non-performance of demonetisation and the mess that is GST) and other reasons, because the dissatisfaction was real and it showed in results. Having assembly and LS polls conducted asynchronously means governments, idealogies and policies are evaluated at different instances of time, and the feedback loop is shorter than 5 years. People needn’t wait for 5 years to get their voices heard. I think this quicker feedback is very essential for effective democracy. It directs leaders towards what works and what doesn’t work with the people, even as they are in power, and gets people a chance to take down a government or register their disappointment instead of waiting several years while moods are washed over.
  2. Secondly, having continuous evaluation means governments are forced to perform well continuously, over the threat that if they implement bad policies they may lose states. So quick fix solutions/bogus policies/popular payouts/PR campaigns near the time of election will not seal the deal. We have seen many this quarter, from decrease in GST rates of dhokla & khakhra to all the pampering and pay-outs during floods in election-bound Gujarat. Imagine the level of populism that can be expected if elections, from Panchayat to Parliament, as the VP suggests 3 were clubbed! On the contrary, after the suit of elections are done, it’ll be hard to hold the rulers accountable. For example, a day after the civic polls in UP, the Yogi government announced a huge power tariff hike of up to 150% across the state, punishing rural consumers but leaving the tariffs for industrial consumers untouched 8. Having simultaneous vs continuous elections is the difference between having JEE(6 hours to decide your future, no accountability after) and having semesters(you can improve and have to do consistently well).
  3. Thirdly, I think this proposed step will be a threat to federalism( a founding principle of our constitutional set-up), adversely affect regional politics and kill smaller parties. There is evidence that in years where LS and assembly elections overlapped, national parties have had higher vote share than usual compared to regional parties 8. Assembly elections give space for regional parties to raise their issues. For example, in Kerala voting sentiments are very different during LS and assembly polls. A lot of people vote CPIM for assembly and Congress for LS, because CPIM isn’t a national presence and can’t do much in LS for Kerala. Issues discussed are also very different, and having separate assembly elections really helps bring focus to solving the internal problems of the state. This move will divide the pie between national parties, as the moods of LS elections and assembly elections will now be mixed, and move regional problems to the background.
  4. Fourthly, simultaneous elections will pose a barrier to entry to new players, as new parties are generally small and regional, often starting ot with local by-elections, before expanding to a national presence. Often, they start out of a movement, such as the AAP after India Against Corruption Movement, or the Dravidian parties after the Anti-Hindi agitation. Simultaneous elections would hurt these new entrants the most as they would have to wait for five years( or an expected 2.5) to test the waters, by which time, moods would have been washed over and an electoral entry may be hard. . This will kill the birth of new idealogies, the evolution of democracy, the spirit of experimentation and involvement of the youth.
  5. Even if elections are synchronised, what happens when a vote of no-confidence is filed against a ruling party? This can happen in multiple scenarios, such as when a coalition fails ( eg Nitish vs Lalu earlier this year), when a leader passes away( eg Jayalalitha), lack of majority, when a government is failing in its duties, etc. If we allow the incumbent to rule, we risk prioritising stability over popular mandate, going against constitutional values. In such cases, elections will essentially get asynchronised again.
  6. As per the status quo, the EC already clubs together assembly elections that fall within a 6 month period, as a safeguard against one influencing the other.
Election-time populism?

One reason why the NDA might be intent on passing this bill may be because it has shown a blatant apathy and neglect of duty towards the parliament and legislative procedures by significantly delaying the winter session of the parliament on account of Gujarat elections. The winter session, which generally commences in the third week of November and ends in the third week of December 9 has only started just now on December 15 10. Parliamentarians and the party seems to forget that running the parliament is their number 1 official job, for which the people of the country elected them.

Let me also register my discontent with the tone of this discourse. Many proponents who favour simultaneous elections seems to belittle the importance of elections, treating it as a routine, a liability and a hindrance to governance. Why should politicians waste their time by “running around for elections”? They seek have very little of it by clubbing them together, citing costs and stability as reasons. If you think about it, elections are one of the most important activities in a democracy. It is the only one where, people at large, for whom the whole idea of democracy exists, directly participates. It is their way of making their voices heard in the form of the vote. To treat that the mandate of people and their participation is a waste of time, a nuisance, is arrogance and a distorted sense of priorities by those in power. They seem to forget that their boss is the people, that they need to listen carefully to people’s content/discontent and that the very reason they are in their chairs is because of this voice of the people that they’ve decided is a liability.