The special Parliament session has created enough buzz and the issue of One Nation-One Election was the primary discussion in the country until the G20 and the issue of changing the name of India to Bharat took over. Now, the Women Reservation Bill dominates the national discourse.
However, the discussion of One Nation-Election is poised to come back, for two reasons. One is the affinity of the top leadership of the ruling party with the idea of One Nation- One Election. Another reason is that the recent committee constituted by the government on One Nation-One Election is going to submit its report. While that might take time, this article aims to present what has already been said by various committees on the issue of One Nation-One Election.
Before that, there are some provisions of Constitution regarding the duration of Council of People – Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies of the State, that need to be understood.
Article 83 deals with Duration of Houses of Parliament. It states that Rajya Sabha is not subject to dissolution; the Lok Sabha however can be dissolved before the period of five years from the date of first meeting of the Lok Sabha. Article 83(2) states that the Lok Sabha cannot be continued for a period of more than five years except in cases of proclamation of Emergency.
Article 85 deals with Sessions of Parliament, Prorogation and Dissolution. It states that President shall summon houses of Parliament to meet, and may dissolve the House of People i.e., Lok Sabha.
Article 172 deals with duration of State Legislature. It states that Legislative Assembly of a state can continue for not more than 5 years unless it is dissolved sooner. The five-year period can be extended in cases of proclamation of emergency. Article 174 states that the Governor shall, from time to time, summon the legislature to meet and may dissolve the legislative assembly.
What does these articles have to do with the issue of simultaneous elections?
These articles prevent legislative assemblies and the Lok Sabha to continue for more than 5 years unless in case of an Emergency. And currently, if the country is to go through the process of simultaneous elections, say in May 2024, Telangana which has its elections scheduled in December 2023 will have to wait until May 2024, with the same government in power despite crossing the five years mark, set by the Constitution.
The constitutional way is to amend these articles to allow the extension of tenure of legislative assemblies for the purpose of simultaneous elections. The same requirement for amendment would apply if the tenure of Lok Sabha is to be extended to make simultaneous elections possible.
While the ones discussed above are the articles that may need to be amended, according to various committees, in order to make simultaneous elections possible, Article 356 of the Constitution was used to disturb the flow of simultaneous elections in 1968 and 1969, starting the chain of unsynchronised elections in the Country. Article 356 deals with the power of President in case of failure of Constitutional Machinery in State. It states that if the President, on the receipt of a Report from the Governor of a state, is satisfied that the a situation has arisen in which the government of a state cannot be carried on in accordance with the Provisions of the Constitution, the president may proclaim that all the powers of the governor- the head of the executive of the state would now be vested in her or declare that the powers of legislature would be exercisable under the authority of the Parliament. This, in popular parlance, is called imposition of President’s Rule in a State.
In the landmark Supreme Court case of SR Bommai vs. Union of India, the court held that the President’s power under this article to dismiss a state government is not absolute and that this power should only be exercised only after such proclamation is approved by both the houses of Parliament. This acted as a check on the powers of President to dismiss a legislative assembly of the state, like it was done in 1968 and 1969 and in other instances thereafter.
Given that this is the process, let us now understand what different committees have recommended on the issue of simultaneous elections.
This committee, in essence, recommended the amendments to the Constitution to make simultaneous elections possible. An important remark that the committee made while vouching for simultaneous elections is that the situations and eventualities of the using Article 356 in future cannot be conceived and provided for. It however relied on the SR Bommai case to argue that the usage of Article 356 has come down considerably. The committee also seems to have recognised the challenges in making simultaneous elections a reality. It stated “Undoubtedly, the desired goal of one election in every five years cannot be achieved overnight in the given circumstances. It has to be achieved in stages.”
Another interesting recommendation by the committee was that it stated that the results of Legislative Assemblies and Lok Sabha be withheld until the expiry of the term of legislative assembly provided the withholding period is not more than 6 months.
To understand this recommendation, let us take the example of Jharkhand, which is scheduled to have the elections for its state assembly in the period of November-December 2024. If this recommendation was to be followed, the General Elections of Lok Sabha that are to be held in May 2024 and the Jharkhand state elections should be conducted simultaneously. However, the results to Jharkhand state elections would only be declared in the period of November-December 2024. That leave a six-seven month lacunae. The committee’s recommendations leave out various issues such as who would govern the state during the period in which election results are being withheld; if the chance is given to the existing government, whether it would be unduly disadvantageous to the opposition in elections etc.
The committee gave limited sets of recommendations without a comprehensive analysis of the consequences.
II. 79th Report by DEPARTMENT-RELATED PARLIAMENTARY STANDING COMMITTEE ON PERSONNEL, PUBLIC GRIEVANCES, LAW AND JUSTICE on Feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Elections to the House of People (Lok Sabha) and State Legislative Assemblies, December 2015
This report, presented to the Rajya Sabha and tabled in the Lok Sabha in December 2015 exclusively dealt with the issue of Simultaneous Elections. One of the main reasons for needing simultaneous elections, as stated by the committee, was that elections have become big budget affair and expensive and in most of the cases, expenditures by the candidates are exceeding the ceiling fixed by the Election Commission of India. Another reason that the committee stated is that elections lead to imposition of the Model Code of Conduct in the poll bound state or area, and such imposition puts on hold the entire development programme and activities of the Union and State government in the poll bound state affecting normal governance, leading to policy paralysis and governance deficit. Additionally, reasons that public life can be left undisturbed when elections are conducted one time and that simultaneous elections would free the crucial manpower which is often deployed for prolonged periods on election duties- were also given.
The report listed different suggestions given by the Election Commission of India, and suggestions by different stakeholders such as political parties. The ECI suggested that, in order to avoid premature dissolution of Lok Sabha, a no-confidence motion moved against the government in office should also necessarily include a further ‘confidence motion’ in favour of a government to be headed by a named individual as the future Prime Minister and the voting should take place for the 2 motions together, with the same process applying to state legislative assemblies as well.
It also suggested that if a situation arises where dissolution of Lok Sabha cannot be avoided and if the remainder of the term of Lok Sabha is not long, then the president could carry out the administration of the country on the aid and advice of his Council of Ministers to be appointed by him till the time the next house is constituted at the prescribed time. If the remainder of the term of the Lok Sabha is long, then fresh elections may be held for the rest of what would have been the original term.
The ECI also suggested that the bye-elections that become due in a particular year could be conducted in two windows of one-and-a-half months each. The ECI also suggested that if these proposals are not feasible, all elections falling in a particular period of the year could be conducted in a particular period of the year.
Political Parties that were consulted, according to the committee, felt that simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies is a cost-effective noble proposition but difficult to implement because of our constitutional arrangement. The parties also suggested that the elected government are chosen by people, and they fail for practical reasons, therefore, the will of people should be respected at any cost. The CPI stated that the idea is unscientific and impracticable. The AIMIM opined on similar lines, so did the Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress. The Shiromani Akali Dal, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Khazagam (DMDK) supported the idea with some suggestions while the Indian Union Muslim League supported the idea outright.
This committee too, echoed the observations made by the Law Commission of India report of 1999, and stated that Simultaneous Elections could be conducted in India but such state of affairs will have to be reached in stages. The committee observed that there is a possibility under the Representation of People Act, 1951 where the election to State Legislative Assemblies could be held 6 months before. The Committee also proposed that there could be two phases of elections, one at mid-term of Lok Sabha wherein elections to all state assemblies whose terms end prior to or after a period of six months to one year from appointed date can be clubbed together. Rest of the state assemblies’ elections, the committee recommended, could be conducted along with the general elections.
Essentially, the committee recommended that elections could be conducted in two phases without having to conduct state elections almost every year. The committee finally stated that it is conscious of the fact that “holding simultaneous elections may not be feasible in 2016 or even a decade” but it expressed confidence that a solution will be found to reduce the frequency of elections which relieve people and government machinery being tired of frequent electoral processes.
This report dealt, in detail, with issues relating to simultaneous elections, and various issues and impediments associated with the process. The report stated that the current framework of Indian Constitution does not allow the conduct of simultaneous elections, and if there are to be constitutional amendments, at least 50% of the states should be ratifying such amendments.
To avoid disruptions to state assemblies and Lok Sabha, the committee recommended that an introduction of a constructive vote of no confidence will give the government a better stability and the government will only be ousted when the member or the group of members come forward with the proposal to form an alternative government.
In case of a hung in the Lok Sabhaa i.e., a dead lock as no party gets a majority, and even the largest party is not able to form the government, the report suggested mid-term elections. The committee however did not apply same logic to state elections. It stated that in case of a situation where government is not being formed, President’s rule under Article 356 could be imposed in the state for a maximum period of 3 years. It also noted that in case of mid-term elections, the concept of remainder term should be applicable to the house. This means that if mid-term elections are to be conducted, 2 years after previous elections, the winning party of the mid-term elections will only remain in power for 3 years.
This report’s recommendations to arrive at simultaneous elections to both Look Sabha and State assemblies banked themselves on political consensus and constitutional amendments. If parties agree, state legislative assemblies falling 6 months prior to or after the Lok Sabha Elections could be conducted at the same time, and for the rest of the assemblies, a Constitutional amendment will fulfil the requirement by curtailing or extending the tenure of such assembly. In case if these are not feasible, the commission noted that all elections falling in a calendar year could be conducted at one time.
This report too, stood on the shoulders of its predecessors, in recommending various ways to conduct simultaneous elections. It essentially did not contribute any novelty to the discourse around simultaneous elections as much as it revisited and reiterated established perspectives without broadening the discussion.
The government now formed a fourth committee headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind is set to examine the feasibility of simultaneous elections, yet again.
Most of the opposition recognises that simultaneous elections will save money but also feels that it is not feasible to conduct them.
One important question that arises is as to why the committees and commissions that are discussed above never saw the imposition of President’s rule for whatever time in state to save up some money for the exchequer and unburden the government machinery as a disproportionate step when it is juxtaposed with people’s right to be governed by an elected government, all the time. The same goes for the recommendations regarding the houses functioning for the remained term. If the Model Code of Conduct hampers developmental activities, the remainder term too hampers such activities if the government is to be there for a 3-year term instead of its usual 5 years. It also could be argued that the fact that we do not have a set synchronisation in elections is a feature of our evolution as a democracy and federal structure.
Different power structures i.e., state government and the centre are judged differently as much as possible, during different elections. Since the ruling establishment has called for simultaneous elections multiple times, the discourse on this issue is only going to increase, as long as the current establishment stays in power. However, the constitutional amendments and any step towards simultaneous elections awaits various challenges ranging from political parties’ opposition to legal challenges.