Elections are crucial in a democracy. In India, a society and polity where traditional markers like caste and religion still carry weight, elections are often the only sign that democracy thrives here. Elections are modern India’s most significant carnival, involving millions of people across the country. When the first elections were held, the general elections to determine the government at the Centre, and state elections to decide governments at the provinces were held together. Political vicissitudes have complicated the elections timetable and elections at both levels seldom converge across the country. The rhythms of political change at the Centre and the provinces move to different beats. There is, however, a strong case to bring them together once again and the government of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee is, according to reports, contemplating such a move by seeking a new term when state elections are held in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. This will not, of course, be a nationwide convergence but will be a step in that direction. The arguments in favour of such a convergence are easily reiterated. Elections are expensive and costs can be reduced if elections across the country are held in one go.
Arguments against are equally strong and also based on practicalities. Conducting elections in a country as large as India is an operation of enormous magnitude. The Election Commission is stretched to the limit during a general election. Simultaneous state elections can only become a burden on planning and resources. Elections also demand a mobilization of the law and order machinery and deployment of forces across the country may not be possible and convenient. More important, state elections are fought on provincial issues, and general elections on national ones. The focus of the two elections are different. Holding the two together might blur the distinction between the two. In India, because of the immaturity of the polity and the fragility of the democratic ethos, there are a number of obstacles to the exercise of individual choice in an election. The holding of state elections and general elections together will only reinforce this tendency. Millions of people, uneducated in the importance of exercising individual choice, will easily stamp on the same symbol at both levels and ignore the distinctions that exist between the Bidhan Sabha and the Lok Sabha.
The National Democratic Alliance government, when and if it makes up its mind on the matter, will look beyond practicalities to political mileage. The regional parties that form the bulk of the NDA may not favour a process that blurs the distinction between local and national issues. The Bharatiya Janata Party might find the blurring more convenient. Elections, as the deputy prime minister, Mr L.K.Advani, has hinted, force governance to the back seat. This is the inevitable price in a democracy where elections are won on populism and not on performance.