April 2018
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Simultaneous Elections: Striking at the Roots of Parliamentary Democracy

It has become an article of faith with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that elections must be held concurrently to the Lok Sabha and the State assemblies – ostensibly to achieve the twin-objectives of minimising the expenses involved and eliminating the disruption caused to governance and development goals by frequent elections. The idea of a single common election originated in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 election manifesto and has since been taken up vigorously on multiple forums, among them the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, the Election Commission of India, the Niti Ayog, the Law Commission and at internal meetings of the BJP. As Jagdeep Chhokar, a founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), points out in this Issue Brief, although Modi has disavowed a direct role in pushing the idea, his imprint is clearly visible in the sequence of events aimed at kick-starting the exercise as well as in the urgency shown by the various arms of the government, not to mention an autonomous institution like the Election Commission: “Modi himself nudged and pushed the idea at every stage and on every institution”. As an example of the pressure that institutions have been facing on supporting and advocating simultaneous polls, the author cites the divergence in the views of former President, Pranab Mukherjee, held while in office and after retirement. As President, Mukherjee endorsed the holding of combined polls but on retirement rejected the same idea as undemocratic and against the interests of the States. In this Issue Brief, Chhokar questions the submissions made in favour of combining Union and State elections and holds the move to be seriously flawed – both conceptually and in terms of its practicality. The exercise will require extensive amendments to the Constitution which will upset the balance of power between the States and the Union in the latter’s favour. This encroachment into federal rights has the potential to alter the basic structure of the Constitution, which has been held to be inviolable by the Supreme Court. In practical terms, it will mean artificially cutting short or extending the terms of elected assemblies which strikes at the root of Parliamentary democracy. The author asks whether the conduct of elections, intrinsic to the survival and life of a democracy can be sacrificed at the altar of ‘development’ or administrative compulsions. Chhokar also dismisses the argument that the Model Code of Conduct enforced in the run up to elections is an interference in governance by pointing out that the code imposed no restrictions that affect governance. On the spiralling cost of holding elections, a reason cited repeatedly by the proponents of synchronised polls, Chhokar asks: “Should the nation be looking to create the ‘most effective’ democracy or the ‘least expensive’ democracy?”

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