Simultaneous polls against spirit of federalism : The Tribune India

Simultaneous polls against spirit of federalism

Prime Minister Modi has for the last six months kept a continuous refrain for holding Lok Sabha and state assembly polls simultaneously and the supposed advantages that would flow from it.

Simultaneous polls against spirit of federalism

Simultaneous polls give an unfair advantage to national parties as against state parties.

Rajindar Sachar

Prime Minister Modi has for the last six months kept a continuous refrain for holding Lok Sabha and state assembly polls simultaneously and the supposed advantages that would flow from it. As was to be expected, a number of newspapers and persons are picking up this matter. It is unfortunate that the Election Commission of India and Niti Aayog should have gone along with this suggestion without even the minimum constitutional requirement of a public debate, and more unforgivably, without a discussion of the issue with other major political parties and the state governments. In order to have a worthwhile debate, it is necessary to know the legal and factual situation at present. 

The present life of the Lok Sabha expires in May 2019. Modi’s repeated emphasis on simultaneous polls is actuated by the realisation that the mood of exhilaration that he was able to create in the 2014 parliamentary poll is diminishing very fast. The UPA regime (2004–2014) had seen so many scandals, both financial and administrative, that people were unhappy with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh because of the domination of the Gandhi family. The exposure by the Supreme Court of the telecom and coal scandals had made the BJP task easier. By itself, the BJP under a leader other than Modi (helped fully by the RSS) might not have done that well. But Modi had created an illusion of a strong and honest government in Gujarat that people were willing to ignore or even forget one of the worst periods under Modi, namely the state-supported mass slaughter of Muslims in 2001. Such was the communal passion aroused by the RSS that the country which was already disgusted with corruption and inefficiency of the UPA government and also heightened by the split amongst the various political parties that Modi romped home with an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha with just 31% of the votes — of course greatly helped and boosted by corporate funding.

That illusion has now been exposed. Even ardent supporters of Modi now do not place a hundred per cent bet on Modi winning the Lok Sabha poll in 2019 — that is why the effort of Modi to work out a strategy so as to keep his rivals caught up with state assembly polls so as not to put up a combined pressure on him in the Lok Sabha poll.

But this strategy of Modi is not constitutionally permissible. After the Emergency, the Constitution (44th Amendment) has provided in Article 83 and Article 172 that the Lok Sabha and state legislatures shall continue for five years from the date of their first meeting and no longer. Thus the factual situation at present is that it is constitutionally not possible to hold simultaneous polls in May 2019.

This is because it would require an extension of the terms of the state assemblies of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (by five months), of Mizoram (by six months) and of Karnataka (by 12 months), which is constitutionally not possible. Of course, the terms of the assemblies of the BJP-ruled states could be curtailed in Haryana and Maharashtra (by five months) and Jharkhand (by seven month) but Delhi would not agree to it. 

Five states, including Punjab and UP, are set for fresh elections. Obviously no one can expect Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and Kerala to agree to simultaneous polls unless opposition parties approve of the move. Assam can go to the polls in 2019 though its assembly’s term is until 2021, but will Modi agree to curtail its term? The BJP has for the first time come to power in Assam. 

The non-BJP states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where the term of the assemblies expirers in 2021, will never agree to the proposal. The Central Government whose term expires in 2019 cannot continue thereafter without holding fresh elections by May 2019. 

If, however, Modi is so keen on holding simultaneous polls he can hold these with some states by dissolving the Lok Sabha and the assemblies in the BJP-ruled states. If Modi is not willing, why is he trying to cover his government’s failures by conjuring up these illusory, undemocratic solutions? 

A greater principle of democracy is involved in holding simultaneous polls to Parliament and state assemblies unless by fortuitous circumstances the five-year periods of the Lok Sabha and state assemblies happen to coincide on their own. This contrived situation being brought up by Modi has very dangerous implications and is against the basic structure of our Constitution. 

According to Article 1(1), India is a Union of states, which means a federation of states. Our Constitution empowers the Central Government to legislate exclusively on certain subjects in the List-I in the Seventh Schedule. The states alone can legislate on subjects under the list-1I.  Both the Centre and the states can legislate on subjects mentioned in the List-III. The state list includes very important subjects like agriculture and law and order on which the Centre has no jurisdiction. Obviously, voters have different priorities when voting for state assemblies and Parliament. In the Delhi laws Act the Supreme Court of India (1951) specifically held, “The state legislature under our Constitution is not a delegate of the Union Parliament. Both legislatures derive powers from the same Constitution. Within its appointed sphere, the state legislature has plenary powers”. 

Modi wants to deny this strategic advantage of states and weaken decentralisation, which is the core of our constitutional jurisprudence.  

Examples of the US and European countries would show that it is constitutionally recognised that the priorities and interests of a state in day-to-day governance are emphasised differently. Thus in the US a rather extreme position prevails that the law and medical degrees of one state are not even recognised in the rest of the states. As far elections, they have different laws in each state. They have separate laws for elections to the President’s office, the Senate and the House of Representatives and also different laws for various states. Of course, this is an extreme example borne possibly of history of the US which had witnessed a civil war. 

We wisely did not go that far. Also, the priorities of the Centre and the states are different. The sooner Modi relinquishes this idea of simultaneous polls the better. This gives an unfair advantage to national parties as against state parties and distorts the sentiment of voters that a government be close to the people of the area concerned.

The writer is a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court

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