President Ram Nath Kovind advocated simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies in his opening address to Parliament at the commencement of the Budget Session. It's the same idea that has been floated many times before by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a few top BJP leaders.
The said motivation for simultaneous elections ranges from minimising election expenditure to freeing government and public sector employees from electoral work and using their time for speeding up of developmental works.
The need to save public resources is pitched as the main reason for holding simultaneous elections. The feasibility of this idea is being studied currently. The government has also asked for public opinion on the idea. This implies that the BJP government is quite serious about this move and hence it merits analysis of its implications.
Most political commentators in the media have already declared this idea impractical, unconstitutional and undemocratic. However, now that the idea has been pitched by the President, it should be taken seriously and a balanced analysis conducted. I use election data of the last 17 years to understand the differences in voter participation in Lok Sabha elections and assembly or Vidhan Sabha elections. This is an aspect that is generally ignored. There is an interesting case for coupling of state and national elections if we go by the difference in voter participation.
In the initial years of Independent India, up to 1967, elections to the states and the Lok Sabha were actually held simultaneously. It was the early dissolution of the national government in 1970, due to a split in the Indian National Congress, and several events that followed it, that resulted in the decoupling of state and national elections.
The founding fathers of our democracy did not think that the practice of having simultaneous elections was undemocratic in any way. It was but a natural way of conducting elections in a newly established democracy. It was the outcome of political instability post-1967 and the Congress' troubles, rather than any desire to enrich democracy by allowing people to vote separately for the state and national elections, that the elections were decoupled.
The difference in voting turnouts for national elections as against that for state elections provides a new dimension. A micro-analysis of voter turnout data for the last three national elections across the states against their closest state assembly elections brings out an interesting trend.
State elections have commanded higher voter turnouts than national elections in more than 90% of the states in all elections after the year 2000. If voter turnout is considered a good measure of peoples' participation in the electoral process, having simultaneous elections can make the national mandate more grounded.
For some of the states, the difference in voter turnouts is as high as 30% while for others it is more than 10%. In other words, there are significantly more voters turning up to vote in the state elections than in the Lok Sabha elections when elections are not simultaneous.
For example, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have sustained 15% more voter turnout on average for the last 15 years in state elections. On closer inspection, it turns out that this difference is much higher for the smaller states than the larger ones. Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir represent the states with extremely high voter participation during state elections as compared to the national elections. It suggests that regional and state issues generate a higher interest among the masses than do national issues.
To put it differently, simultaneous elections will most probably result in better voter participation even in the national elections simply because it is convenient for people to vote for both their Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and their Member of Parliament (MP) at the same time.
The difficulty in having simultaneous elections stems from the federal structure embedded in the Constitution. The possibility of early dissolution of some of the state assemblies seems to be a big hurdle in the functioning of a smooth system of simultaneous elections. To conduct all elections at the same time, we would need to coordinate 35 state elections and the national election, which is easier said than done.
The possibility of national issues overshadowing regional issues is another aspect that many analysts have put forward. It has been found empirically that for most of the national elections after 1989, people have voted for candidates from the same party whenever these elections were simultaneous with state elections. However, the results are quite different when elections take place at different times. People have ended up choosing different parties in the state elections than they did in the national election. This aspect has been used as a case against simultaneous elections.
But this claim rests on vulnerable grounds. How can we be sure that by having both kinds of elections together, we would compromise on state issues? In a way, we are doubting the intelligence of voters, which is also against the very essence of democratic ideas. People should be able to vote according to their will. The outcomes in favour of regional parties cannot be seen as a verdict on state issues. In fact, national parties have been ruling many states regularly and they are as state-specific as the regional parties. Therefore, this argument against simultaneous elections cannot really hold.
Even though the idea of simultaneous elections seems rather impractical today, it will definitely alter the electoral dynamics in regional politics. Having simultaneous elections is expected to increase peoples' participation in the national election, as suggested by hard data, and can prove to be game changer in our electoral democracy.