By Sundar Ramanujam —
Earlier this year, a Parliamentary Standing Committee Report raised the idea of conducting the Lok Sabha (national parliament) and state assembly elections simultaneously. Shortly after, Prime Minister Modi advocated for the change in a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) meeting, and the federal government is actively considering conducting state and national elections on the same ballot. If simultaneous elections had been held in 2014, India’s political landscape would look quite different than it does today.
The CSIS Wadhwani Chair has used the 2014 General Election results to simulate the results of a hypothetical simultaneous election. This post assumes that the contesting parties would have won the same seat share in each state’s hypothetical Assembly Election as they did in the General Election in that state. This assumption was borne out by the results in the six states which actually had simultaneous assembly elections: with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh, vote shares for the major parties were within two percentage points.
Under this projection, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would have formed the government in 19 of 28 states (Arunachal Pradesh is not counted, as the Congress Party won the state but split the two Lok Sabha seats with the BJP), 10 of them ruled by the BJP alone. Six states would be held by regional parties, unaligned with either of the major national parties. And Congress would be left with three states. Simultaneous elections would have certainly given the control over a majority of states to the BJP.
The maps below provide a contrast showing control of India’s state governments in 2014 (Figure 1) compared to projected outcomes (Figure 2) given these assumptions:
The Election Commission of India (ECI) has signaled that a switch to simultaneous elections would be feasible from an administrative standpoint. Logistically, simultaneous elections would be more efficient as they would eliminate the need to deploy resources to each state at least twice every five years. The parliamentary committee report estimates that the ECI spends a total of $670 million on both state and national elections combined over 5 years.
From a governance perspective, there is tradeoff between the present system of staggered elections and simultaneous elections. Should a government come to power at the center on a wave of enthusiasm (as the BJP did in 2014) it is likely to also win a large majority of state capitals. This also has a very different impact on the outcome of the presidential elections and the composition of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament), in favor of the ruling party, as both these institutions are elected by the members of state assemblies. Under such circumstances, the party is able to implement its agenda with relative ease – especially when the agenda concerns subjects that fall under the State List, such as energy, law & order, and land reform. Furthermore, constant state elections distract party leaders and disrupt governance at the center. Governments are unlikely to unveil controversial, but necessary, policies in the months preceding a major state election — which happens at least a few times in every national government’s five-year term.
While simultaneous elections may be superior from a logistical standpoint, it is unclear how they could be brought into being and sustained. The constitution stipulates that a state assembly cannot sit for more than 5 years and may not be dissolved prematurely unless it lacks a clear majority to form a government. This makes putting all 29 state elections on the same timeline a difficult, perhaps impossible task. Further, to implement the entire plan, it would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment passed with the support of two-thirds majority in each of the houses in Parliament and the support of half the state governments.
In order to get state governments on board, the change might have to be postponed until the semi-distant future (say 2030) to ensure that no sitting government is likely to see its term truncated. Furthermore, since the constitution also requires that new elections take place when there is a hung assembly, it is likely that many states’ election cycles could begin to diverge from the national cycle (as happened in 1967) relatively quickly. There are other smaller – but significant – hurdles, such as the fact that the tenure for the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly is for six years.
The concept of merging India’s state and federal elections is still some distance from becoming a reality. There are administrative and financial efficiencies that can be achieved by implementing such a plan and there are real logistical challenges that will need to be addressed. But it also raises the possibility of a massive “swing election” that will empower a political party in a way India has not seen in generations, with uncertain consequences – particularly in times of national crisis.