Consensus on simultaneous polls would be hard to come by

Consensus on simultaneous polls would be hard to come by
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again revived his pet idea of simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, by making it the first subject at an all-party meeting, which was called as soon his his second term commenced. The Prime Minister had repeatedly aired this idea during the last five years but there were only two or three non-BJP parties which agreed with him. Interestingly among them, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) which had come to power for the first time in 2014 during a simultaneous election, decided to delink the state election from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the party romped home again six months before the general elections which concluded last month. However, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) stuck to the principle of simultaneous elections and its chief Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik proved that the contest for power in Delhi does not influence who rules from Bhubaneshwar, the state capital.

Naveen Patnaik. (File Photo: IANS)
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

After an emphatic victory last month, Modi wants to convince even the skeptical leaders in his own party for conversion to the idea of simultaneous elections, which will ensure there will be fixed-term governments, and reduce expenses incurred for separate elections, make available paramilitary forces for their primary duties without diverting them to protects booths and candidates, and avoid repeated imposition of model code of conduct which restricts government's activities.

The opposition had questioned why Modi has not advanced the elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, all BJP-ruled states which go for assembly elections this winter. But the Chief Ministers, especially Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra and Raghubar Das of Jharkhand are not very eager. While Modi has more political authority within BJP, he may have to convince some of the NDA allies like the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK which are more comfortable with separate Lok Sabha and assembly elections. On the other hand, oldest allies Akali Dal and Shiv Sena are more in favour of simultaneous elections. But opposition parties including Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPM, Janata Dal (Secular) and Aam Aadmi Party which are in power in other states are averse to simultaneous polls.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.

The Congress has always held that the Constitution upholds the spirit of federalism by keeping the elections to Lok Sabha distinct from the elections to the state assemblies, each of which have their own political dynamics. The Congress had rejected earlier suggestions for simultaneous elections from the then President R Venkataraman, then Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and several personalities, saying these were individual opinions. Many regional parties opposed to BJP also feel that local aspirations and issues can get submerged in a national contest. Secondly, they all fear that the BJP with its dominant position will rig the issues of an election more towards the nationalism pattern than regional ones.

Interestingly, the Modi government has not revealed its mind about the changes needed in the Constitution to bring about simultaneous elections. At present there are two main provisions on the tenure of Lok Sabha and state assemblies. It says the normal tenure will be for five years, unless they are dissolved earlier. The power to summon the Houses and dissolve them is given to the President and the Governors respectively. The power of dissolution will come into play when the President or Governor is convinced no leader commands majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha or the state assembly. Dissolution can also happen if the leader with proven majority recommends early elections. In the case of states, the dissolution can happen if the centre is convinced the Constitution has broken down in a state, either due to political reasons or due to collapse of law and order.

If simultaneous elections are held, then new features have to be introduced for protecting the five-year simultaneous terms of the legislative bodies. When Prime Minister I K Gujral had lost majority support in the Lok Sabha in 1998, he had said that he should be allowed to continue until the next PM commanding majority in the same Lok Sabha was chosen by the President. But the then President K R Narayanan had decided that since no other leader had majority, and there was no scope for a minority PM to continue, the House should be dissolved, even though three more years were left.

If Modi's idea goes through, then the power of the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha earlier will be taken away and the Constitution would have to be changed to require that leadership should evolve within the same Lok Sabha, even if it is terribly hung. This has happened in many parliamentary democracies, where leaders who lost majority have continued for months, until there was majority in favour of a successor. This year in Israel, its parliament could not decide on a prime ministerial candidate, and Benjamin Netanyahu continues, even while new elections have been ordered.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Secondly to ensure the sanctity of the electorate's decision for a five-year term, there may not be by elections, but the winning party can fill a vacancy by a person belonging to that party. This would mean a change in the anti-defection law which was brought into the Constitution in 1985. However in the case of states, if a Chief Minister loses majority and there is no viable replacement available, the Governor can recommend the suspension of the assembly and imposition of President's rule. If political chaos continues, technically the President's rule can continue for years until the five-year term of the assembly is over. But there would be strong questions of political illegitimacy. On the other hand, the Chief Minister who loses majority may continue, but he would continuously keep losing on the floor of the assembly.

Modi should have revealed all his cards at the all party-meeting held on Wednesday on how he wants the Constitution to be changed. A decision on whether the term of assemblies which would expire between 2019 and 2024 would be extended till 2024, when the next Lok Sabha election is due, was also expected. His provision would not be to BJP's liking as it would give extra time to governments run by opposition parties including the Left front in Kerala. Unless these cards are revealed, it is unlikely that there would be consensus on the broad issue of simultaneous elections, despite NDA's big majority in Lok Sabha. The meet decided only to set up a committee to look into the feasibility of simultaneous elections in the country.

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