The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

One Federation, One Election? Narendra Modi’s Push for Simultaneous Elections in India

The (unlikely) introduction of simultaneous elections in India would favor the richest national parties at the expense of regional parties.

Krzysztof Iwanek
One Federation, One Election? Narendra Modi’s Push for Simultaneous Elections in India

People wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus queue up to vote for local elections in Kochi, Kerala state, India, Thursday, December 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/R S Iyer

A political scientist can never be bored in India. True, the main dish –  elections for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the parliament – is served only once every five years, but every year there is at least one election to state-level legislative assemblies, often more. There is thus nearly always some political mobilization activity to follow. India is a federation in which selecting candidates to each representative body follows its own schedule.

This was not always so, however. During the very first elections in independent India (1951-52), voters simultaneously cast their ballots for candidates to both the Lok Sabha and the assembly of their respective state. Yet retaining this system proved to be challenging and unfair toward the state governments. If elections in a state had to be held mid-term – for example, because the ruling coalition broke up and majority was lost – the new state government would not have a full term of five years to serve but only until the next national elections. Conversely, should there be a mid-term collapse of a national government, necessitating fresh national elections, all state assemblies would have to hold their elections as well. While the latter option was hypothetical, as this never happened in the first decades of independence, the idea of one election was rightly questioned. 

But such sweeping reforms usually occur only when policy goes side by side with politics: when structural changes are conditioned, or forced by, political circumstances. These factors coincided in the eventful years of 1969-71.

The last simultaneous election was held in 1967. In 1969, the ruling party – the Indian National Congress – split in half due to infighting centered around the person of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A bold, daring, and Machiavellian politician, Gandhi was aware of her immense popularity with the masses, as well as of the fact that the party rank and file went with her to join Congress (R) while most of the old establishment stayed in Congress (O). She could thus assume that a national popular vote would favor her party while she could not be sure of the result on in state assemblies, in some of which her rivals were firmly entrenched. Indira Gandhi thus ordained fresh national elections at the beginning of 1971 but detached it from voting on state levels. Elections have been held separately ever since. 

Thereafter, with many governments losing the majority during their term at various occasions, the schedules started to branch out; eventually the Lok Sabha and each state assembly was following its own timeline. Now, however, the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has suggested resurrecting simultaneous elections. The idea, termed “One Nation, One Election,” has been raised by the BJP in both its previous (2014-2019) and current term.

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Despite this recurring suggestion, so far no new legislation has been passed in this regard and it would be unlikely to succeed if tabled. A change of this sort would require a constitutional amendment which, in turn, needs a vote in support from two-thirds of lawmakers present in each house of the parliament. The BJP, despite its firm majority and a coalition of smaller partners at its side, does not have these numbers. This is perhaps why so far it is only signaling and mooting the idea – to test whether it can count on the support of other, non-allied parties. In short, it probably cannot. 

The supporters of simultaneous elections point out at least three major benefits, which boil down to reducing: (1) costs, (2) engagement of the security apparatus, and (3) disruptions caused by many elections to the administrative work of governments. Elections are not only a highly costly affair in the world’s biggest democracy but a security challenge. The national vote, as well as those organized in larger states, are thus held in phases, so that the forces deployed to guard them may be shifted from one voting zone to another. Should citizens cast their vote in two (or more) levels of elections in the same booth at the same time, this financial and organizational burden would be reduced, it is argued. 

The other point in support of simultaneous elections is how nearly continuous political agitation reduces the focus of any administration. It is not just political scientists who are never bored in India, but national parties are also always busy with one election or another, while ideally their respective chapters should focus on governance in the bodies which they rule. Indeed, when the term of a given state government happens to end close to that of Lok Sabha, elections to them are held simultaneously.

But a strong counterpoint to this proposal is that it would certainly favor the dominant national party –  which currently is the BJP. Elections are costly not only for the state apparatus but especially for parties. The BJP not only enjoys an incumbent’s advantage but also massive financial resources, more than all of its rivals. Conversely, the regional parties have no chances to win in a national election – and usually stick to their state. But some of them are able to defeat the BJP on their own turf during state-level votes. Should the elections take place at the same time, the regional parties would not have any more resources to fight in more constituencies than what they already contest, while the BJP would not have to split its focus between the national vote and a great number of state-level elections.

Thus, a simultaneous election could not only reduce the term of given state governments (by wedding them to the term of the central government) but would also favor the biggest and richer players by shifting all fights to one battlefield. But this is also why such a reform is unlikely to be widely supported: no party other than the BJP will benefit from it right now. Thus, to make this reform happen, Modi’s party would first have to reach an even higher majority in the central parliament in future elections.