One should keep in mind that India is not just one nation, it is a nation with 29 states.
The urgency with which the discussion on holding simultaneous polls for the Lok Sabha and state Legislative Assemblies was initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives a clear signal that this is one of the top priorities of the Modi 2.0 government. The widespread discussion which the country witnessed over the issue of holding simultaneous elections showed there are visible advantages, but at the same time many concerns over holding simultaneous elections. The argument put forward in support of holding simultaneous elections are: a cut in governmental expenses on holding elections and enabling the government to pay more attention to development work. But there are concerns about holding simultaneous elections affecting the federal structure of the country, affecting the autonomy of states and the possible concentration of powers in the hands of a few big political parties, as smaller regional parties may get marginalised in the electoral contest. There are also issues about feasibility — whether this is practical, and can be implemented. If elections are to be held simultaneously for all states along with the Lok Sabha elections, what would happen if there there is an untimely dissolution of the state Assembly in one or more states? At the moment, it is neither possible to estimate how much money could be saved if the elections are held simultaneously and how much faster could be the pace of development, nor is it possible to assess the extent of the impact this might have on the electoral prospects of regional parties and the federal structure of India if elections are held simultaneously.
As there are no clear estimates about the extent of financial gains the country may enjoy and speculation about what may be the losses, convening an all-party meeting in an effort to build a consensus to bring about this big electoral change should be seen as a welcome step. It is heartening to note that the even Congress leader Milind Deora welcomed this discussion and went on to state that “our democracy is neither fragile nor immature and debate on ‘one nation, one poll’ calls for an open mind on either side of the spectrum.” I am sure a discussion with an open mind would help in having better understanding on this issue, but some hard facts are always helpful for beginning a discussion.
Let’s look at some hard facts about simultaneous elections. Since the 1989 Lok Sabha polls, there have been 35 instances of simultaneous elections for the Assemblies in different states along with the Lok Sabha elections held in this period. These are Andhra Pradesh (1989, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019), Odisha (2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019), Sikkim (2009, 2014 ad 2019), Arunachal Pradesh (2009, 2014 and 2019) Karnataka (1989, 1999 ad 2004), Tamil Nadu (1989, 1991 and 1996), Maharashtra (1999), Assam (1991 and 1996), Haryana (1991 and 1996), Kerala (1989, 1991 and 1996), Uttar Pradesh (1989 and 1991), West Bengal (1991 and 1996) and Telangana (2014).
When simultaneous elections were held in these states in 27 elections, the major political party of the state polled a similar percentage of votes both for the Lok Sabha as well as for the Assembly elections. There were only eight instances of people expressing different political choices even when they were voting to choose their local MLA and their Member of Parliament at the same time. There are exceptions when people have voted differently for the Lok Sabha and Assemblies, but such instances are fewer than instances of people voting similarly both for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha election. In the most recent 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Odisha was the only exception while voters in Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh voted in a more or less similar manner both for the state Assembly and the Lok Sabha. Going by these figures, it seems that the fear of national parties dominating both the national and the state elections resulting in smaller regional parties getting marginalised in the long run in not totally uncalled for. Concerns over a large number of fake or dummy political parties are justified, but a diverse country like India, with 29 states, a larger number of political parties does not seem undesirable. Unfortunately, there is no formula to suggest how many political parties India should have. Regional parties do play an important role in Indian democracy as they represent the aspirations of the marginalised sections of society and different regions of India. Holding simultaneous elections does pose some challenge for the survival of these regional parties in various states, especially in states where the national parties have a sizeable presence.
One can hardly disagree that holding simultaneous elections would help reduce government expenditure on holding polls, reduce the burden on the administrative setup and security and may allow the government to devote more time on development activities, but to build a stronger argument and a large consensus in favour of “one nation, one election”, it may be appropriate to come up with some roadmap regarding this. It is true that the government spends a huge amount for conducting free and fair elections. As per estimates, over Rs 6,500 crores were spent on holding the 2019 general election, which was more than double the amount spent on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But it is also true that besides this expenditure, political parties and candidates also spend a huge amount to contest elections, and efforts should be made to put a check on that expenditure as well. Holding simultaneous polls should reduce government expenditure on holding elections, but it is still not clear to what extent and how one would ensure that money could be saved and this money would be used for developmental work.
Building a consensus on “one nation, one election” should be welcome. What may be worrisome is that this may be implemented without careful consideration. One should keep in mind that India is not just one nation, it is a nation with 29 states. We do have one election to elect the national government, and we have elections to elect state governments as well. Any effort making it mandatory for elections to be held simultaneously will have to be very carefully thought through.