On August 31, when the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), the 26-party opposition alliance, began a crucial two-day meeting in Mumbai to frame a strategy for the 2024 general election, the Central government made a surprise announcement calling for a five-day special session of Parliament from September 18. It did not specify an agenda but followed it up the next day by setting up a committee led by former President Ram Nath Kovind to examine the feasibility of holding simultaneous general and Assembly elections nationwide, as part of its one nation, one election plan. This sent the political discourse into a tailspin, as the BJP no doubt had calculated it would.
Despite sharply divided responses to the idea, the government went ahead and set up an eight-member committee on September 2. The lone opposition member included in the committee was Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress MP from West Bengal. He withdrew from it with a note to Home Minister Amit Shah saying that the move was a “total eyewash”. Chowdhury said that the idea was “practically non-feasible and logistically unimplementable” and that the government’s decision to push it through just a few months before the 2024 Lok Sabha election raised serious concerns about its “ulterior motives”.
Interestingly, while the government did not include senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge in the panel, which the Congress termed a “deliberate insult and systematic attempt to sabotage parliamentary democracy”, it did include Ghulam Nabi Azad, who left the Congress more than a year ago. Kharge is the current Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Although Law Ministry officials met Ram Nath Kovind on September 4 to brief him on the legal position and details of the issue, the Ministry had sought details from the Election Commission of India (ECI) on manpower and machine requirements at least five months ago, as reports show. The ECI, which has maintained that it is always ready to meet the challenge, carried out a comprehensive assessment and estimated that such an exercise in 2029 would incur an additional expenditure of nearly Rs.8,000 crore to procure EVMs and voter-verified paper audit trails (VVPATs) alone.
Merits and challenges
The present government panel with members such as the jurist Harish Salve, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner Sanjay Kothari, former Finance Commission Chairman N.K. Singh, and former Lok Sabha Secretary General Subhash C. Kashyap has a mandate specifically to examine the logistics and manpower required, including EVMs and VVPATs, to hold simultaneous elections. The committee is also mandated to examine and recommend the modalities of a single electoral roll and electoral identity cards for identification of voters in Lok Sabha, Assembly, and local body elections.
Speaking to Frontline, former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said that while the concept of one nation, one election had some merits such as cost reduction, uninterrupted development, and improved public discourse, it faced significant challenges in the Indian context in the form of substantial constitutional and administrative obstacles that make it a challenging proposition.
He said: “Crucially, in a country where each State follows its own political course, federalism can potentially take a hit with simultaneous elections. What is one to do, for example, if a particular State witnesses an upturned majority after a few MLAs decide to shift loyalties? How are simultaneous elections to be continued in such a scenario? Also, how will ‘one nation, one election’ work in the case of premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha? Would we dissolve all the State assemblies too? This sounds unworkable for a democracy, both in theory and in practice.”
He added that non-simultaneous elections have certain advantages: they hold politicians more accountable, generate grassroots job opportunities, and separate local, regional, and national issues. “In fact, instead of implementing simultaneous elections, it may be more practical to address issues like money power and lengthy campaign durations through targeted methods,” he said.
On the criticism that the composition of the committee was problematic, Quraishi said: “The committee members’ affiliations raise questions about impartiality as most of them have ties to the BJP.” He added that ultimately any amendments to implement simultaneous elections would require approval from the States. This indicates the importance of a collaborative and inclusive approach in such a significant matter.
The committee, if it is to fulfil its mandate responsibly, has to keep in mind the existing framework under the Constitution of India and other statutory provisions. It has to examine and recommend specific amendments to the Constitution; the Representation of the People Act, 1950; the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the rules made thereunder; and any other law or rule that would require amendments for the purpose of holding simultaneous elections.
- Simultaneous elections would necessitate at least five constitutional amendments. The INDIA alliance said the idea posed a threat to the country’s federal structure.
- The BJP reminded the Congress that simultaneous elections had been held until 1967 and that the idea was discussed again in 1982.
- SP leader Akhilesh Yadav said that the BJP should first hold simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh on an experimental basis.
As per the recommendations of the Law Commission, it would necessitate at least five constitutional amendments: in Articles 83, 85, 172, 174, and 356. The Law Commission’s 2018 draft report on simultaneous elections also suggested that at least 50 per cent of the States should ratify the constitutional amendments. Among these, Article 174 deals with the dissolution of State Assemblies while the key Article 356 is concerned with the imposition of President’s Rule in States.
Hence, the current committee will have to examine and recommend whether the amendments to the Constitution require ratification by the States and analyse and recommend a possible solution in a scenario of simultaneous elections emerging out of a hung House. It will have to examine how issues such as adoption of a no-confidence motion, or defection, or other such event impact the idea.
Besides, the committee will suggest a framework for synchronisation of elections; specifically, it will suggest the phases and time frame within which simultaneous elections may be held. Safeguards will also be required to ensure the continuity of the cycle of simultaneous elections.
“The Law Commission has said that the idea would require at least five constitutional Amendments and that at least 50 per cent of the States would have to ratify them.”
The government’s plan drew sharp criticism from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who said that it was “an attack on the Union and all its States”. Others in the opposition alleged that it was a “conspiracy to postpone elections”. The INDIA alliance said the idea posed a threat to the country’s federal structure.
The BJP was quick to dismiss such criticism and reminded the Congress that simultaneous elections had been held until 1967 and that the idea was discussed again in 1982, when the Congress was in power. The premature dissolution of some Assemblies and the subsequent advancement of the general election in 1971, after the Congress party split, led to the holding of separate elections for the Lok Sabha and Assemblies since then.
The BJP’s argument is that simultaneous elections will save thousands of crores of rupees of public money and give a new momentum to the nation’s development since the Model Code of Conduct prevents the government from taking policy decisions on time and creates hurdles in the implementation of various schemes.
Speaking to Frontline, P.D.T. Achary, former Lok Sabha Secretary General, said that the idea was a “non-starter”. He pointed out that since the pattern of elections had changed more than 50 years ago, going back to an earlier practice would require all existing Assemblies to be dissolved; they have different tenures and some of them are not even halfway through. He said: “An Assembly can be dissolved either if the ruling government in the State recommends this voluntarily and the Governor gives assent, or when there is a breakdown of constitutional machinery and the President gets involved through a recommendation of the Central government.”
According to him, it cannot be presumed that there is a complete breakdown of the constitutional machinery in all States, and without that the President cannot interfere. The other option then is for the Central government to amend the constitutional provision of Article 172, which says that the Legislative Assembly of every State, unless sooner dissolved, shall continue for five years from the date appointed for its first meeting.
“If you amend that provision,” said Achary, “so that State elections can be synchronised with the Lok Sabha election, my understanding is that Parliament cannot do it as it will be infringing on the federal structure of the Constitution. State governments have federal powers. The Union government or Parliament cannot impose its will on the States. Federalism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution, which Parliament cannot change, and this will be encroaching on the basic structure.”
He added: “Otherwise, the Union government can get only the States ruled by the BJP to voluntarily recommend the dissolution of their Assemblies. But States ruled by the opposition will not agree. So, I do not see it going anywhere.”
In 2018, when the Law Commission organised a two-day consultation on simultaneous elections, only the Shiromani Akali Dal, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) supported the idea. Nine parties, namely the Goa Forward Party (a BJP ally), the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagan, the Telugu Desam Party, the Communist Party of India, the CPI(M), the Forward Bloc, and the Janata Dal (Secular) opposed it, stating that the move was “undemocratic” and against the principles of federalism.
The TRS, now rechristened BRS, is now opposed to the idea, while SP leader Akhilesh Yadav said that the BJP should first hold simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh on an experimental basis.
Some observers see it as an attempt by the Narendra Modi government to switch to a presidential system of government, while others have said it is against the spirit of diversity since simultaneous elections could work to the advantage of national parties, particularly the one ruling at the Centre with a big mandate, at the cost of regional parties. Experts have pointed out that simultaneous elections at all three levels was fraught with the danger of creating a monolithic power structure, which could hurt the spirit of democracy in the long run.
There is also a view in some quarters that if the reverse happens, wherein State realities determine the outcome of Lok Sabha seats in each State, there is the possibility of more fractured mandates at the Centre, which will lead to unstable governments. Besides, if the elections throw up a hung Parliament or Assembly, it would warrant all-round fresh elections, defeating the very idea of reducing expenses.
“Experts have pointed out that simultaneous elections at all three levels was fraught with the danger of creating a monolithic power structure, which could hurt the spirit of democracy in the long run.”
In his joint address to Parliament in 2018, the then President of India, Kovind, had called for a “sustained debate on the subject of simultaneous elections” and held that “all political parties need to arrive at a consensus on this issue”.
In 2018, the 21st Law Commission’s draft report on simultaneous elections said that simultaneous elections, besides saving public money, would also reduce the burden on security forces and ensure greater involvement of the administrative machinery in ongoing development work rather than managing election preparations all the time.
In 2022-23, when the Law Commission again sought stakeholders’ views on the issue, it asked whether holding simultaneous elections would tinker with democracy, the basic structure of the Constitution, or the federal polity of the country. Back in 1999, the Law Commission headed by B.P. Jeevan Reddy batted for simultaneous elections, while the NITI Aayog in 2017 pitched for two-phase Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
Since the BJP has come to power, Modi has consistently backed simultaneous elections. In 2014, the BJP manifesto said: “The BJP will seek, through consultation with other parties, to evolve a method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously.” In its 2019 manifesto, it said: “We are committed to the idea of simultaneous elections for Parliament, State assemblies, and local bodies, to reduce expenditure, ensure efficient utilisation of government resources and security forces, and for effective policy planning. We will try to build consensus on this with all parties.”
It added: “In order to ensure that every citizen gets the right to exercise his/her franchise for all public bodies and to avoid confusion created by multiple voter lists, we will strive to ensure a common voter list for all elections.”
In 2016, the Prime Minister’s Office asked a Group of Ministers to determine whether holding simultaneous elections was feasible. After the BJP won the 2019 election, Modi, addressing the nation from the Red Fort, called for a discussion on simultaneous elections. In June 2019, Modi discussed the issue at an all-party meeting in Parliament. After that meeting, the idea to set up a committee to explore the possibility was mentioned.
The BJP’s repeated pushing of the idea has led some opposition leaders to conclude that the party is trying to move to a presidential system. Opposition circles believe that the BJP, which has a strong presence in the Centre, thinks the Modi factor can help it ward off anti-incumbency in States where neither the party nor its leaders are popular.
In their book The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, the veteran journalist Prannoy Roy and the columnist and consultant Dorab R. Sopariwala claimed that when the Lok Sabha election is followed soon after by an Assembly election, the former’s impact is only minimal on the State election. It remains to be seen whether the pattern will hold if the elections are held simultaneously.