On the face of it, President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and state assembly polls has much merit.
As the PM has said in several of his recent speeches and interviews, simultaneous polls will save time and effort of bureaucrats, government officials and security personnel, and also the enormous expenditure incurred by the exchequer. Simultaneous polls will also ensure that development work is not stopped every few months because of the imposition of the model code of conduct.
Why then is the Opposition opposed to the move?
For starters, not just the Opposition but several other constitutional experts, have pointed out practical problems in implementing ‘one nation one poll’.
Secondly, the Opposition is deeply suspicious of the PM’s intent in pushing for simultaneous polls. It believes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to lose assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which are due in December. This will weaken its momentum going into the Lok Sabha polls that are scheduled to take place in April-May 2019. However, simultaneous polls would ensure a presidential election type campaign of Modi versus the rest of opposition leaders, and subsume local issues in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The latest example of this was in Gujarat, where the PM’s blitzkrieg of an election campaign was the difference between the BJP’s win and an embarrassing defeat because of widespread anger over farm distress and GST (goods and services tax) implementation.
Let’s first take the Opposition views on the practicality of simultaneous polls.
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram, a noted constitutional lawyer, said on Tuesday that Modi’s ‘one nation one poll’ was yet another “election jumla”, or gimmick. He said it cannot be done under the current constitutional provisions.
Chidambaram said the Constitution of India does not give a fixed term to any government and unless it is amended, one cannot have simultaneous elections. “This is another of this election jumla. One nation, one tax was a jumla. Now, ‘one nation, one election’ is a jumla,” he said, at the launch of a book authored by him.
Chidamabaram said one can artificially construct the appearance of a simultaneous election by advancing some elections and postponing some, and one could hold parliamentary election and elections to five or six states, but not in all the 30 states. “What if a government falls tomorrow? Will you put it under President’s rule for four years? It can’t be done,” he said. Chidambaram pointed out the case of Germany, where provinces go to polls at different times. At the same event, Congress Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor said simultaneous polls was a good idea, but not practicable. He said better solutions needed to be found to some of the practical problems.
Recently, Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury said his party would support simultaneous polls, but only if the Modi government also agreed to repeal Article 356 of the Constitution, that has been misused often to dismiss state governments. He has also termed simultaneous polls as anti-democratic and to subvert parliamentary democracy.
On the second issue of trust deficit, Congress leader RPN Singh puts it succinctly. “They couldn’t ensure simultaneous polls for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat this time, when these two states have gone to polls together for nearly two decades,” he said.
But the real reason that Modi is canvassing support for simultaneous polls, Congress leaders say, is purely from electoral motivations.
“The BJP is on a losing path in Rajasthan, and the Congress will mount a good challenge in Madhya Pradesh as well. If the BJP were to lose these two states, its momentum going into the Lok Sabha polls will weaken,” a Congress leader said.
The assembly polls for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram are scheduled for December. The current Lok Sabha’s term ends in May, and the elections need to be held in April-May. There is speculation that the Modi government might advance the Lok Sabha elections to December, to be held alongside assembly polls in these four states.
In 2014, the BJP had swept Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these three states (Madhya Pradesh 29, Rajasthan 25 and Chhattisgarh 11), the BJP had won 62. But all three currently have incumbent BJP governments, and recent farm protests in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh suggest increasing anger against the state governments.
In 2003 December, the BJP had won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly polls by defeating the Congress. These wins had contributed to emboldening Atal Bihari Vajpayee government strategists, particularly Pramod Mahajan, to convince the top leadership to advance the Lok Sabha polls by six months, from November to May. In the event, the BJP lost the single largest party status to the Congress by a mere half dozen seats and wasn’t invited to stake claim to form the government and 10-years of Congress-led UPA rule had ensued.
It is clear that the BJP would need the support of other political parties to push through the constitutional amendment in the Rajya Sabha, where it lacks numbers. But it also remains to be seen if the BJP would be willing to sacrifice its own governments in states like Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, whose term ends in late 2019, and who are facing anti-incumbency.
The PM, however, is trying his best to build a consensus on the issue. At a NITI Aayog meeting with leading economists on January 10, the PM had appealed for the need to build public opinion on the issue of simultaneous polls. On January 20-21, Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, a Sangh Parivar affiliated think tank and training institute near Mumbai, hosted a two-day seminar on the issue of ‘one nation one election’.
At the seminar, Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi spoke in favour of simultaneous polls. The JD (U) is now an ally of the BJP. But a few days later, Tyagi issued a caveat. He said several issues needed to be resolved to effect simultaneous polls. “Under such circumstances, we are not very comfortable with the idea of simultaneous polls or even early polls as being rumoured by political opponents,” Tyagi said.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a BJP Rajya Sabha member, who heads the think tank, has said that simultaneous polls “should not be looked at as an agenda of a particular individual or political party, but viewed as an important reform.”
Unfortunately, the trust deficit between the Modi government, the Opposition and not even some of BJP’s own allies, is such that this agenda is being perceived anything but that of one individual and political party..business-standard