The “loud thinking” of the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, on the issue of simultaneous national and state elections has set the cat among the pigeons. A debate on the issue is welcome and overdue but the way the subject has been raised is bound to ensure it will remain a non-starter.
The first person to propose such a constitutional innovation was the vice-president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, till the other day one of the most widely respected leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. As with his pronouncements on population control, there was little heat over the matter and it died a natural death.
Advani’s case is a very different one. In fact, he took elaborate care to give the proposal the air of governmental authority while clarifying that the idea had not been given formal shape. Neither the party, nor the various constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance had as yet discussed the matter. The government was yet to take a view on the question.
But there is little doubt he was testing the waters. In particular, he singled out the Congress as the key partner of the BJP in the debate about constitutional changes that could further stability. Part of these springs from the compulsions of the situation. The Congress and allies still rule 14 of the 29 states. The party still exerts clout in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is still only on the brink of a majority.
Even more critical is the fact that in order to ensure the passage of a constitutional amendment, the government cannot take recourse to a joint session. The latter was resorted to in the case of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2001, but the passage of a constitutional amendment requires a separate vote in each house. Further, the requirement is for a two-thirds majority, which will prove elusive for the ruling alliance even in the Lok Sabha.
It is difficult to envisage a voluntary surrender of the remainder of the term by all regional parties. These would include the coalitions in Jammu and Kashmir headed by Mufti Mohammed Syed or Rabri Devi in Bihar. Already, there have been murmurs of discontent from the BJP’s own oldest ally, the Shiv Sena. The chief ministers of Orissa and Haryana too, have no direct reliance on the BJP in their states and are unlikely to accept a truncated term in office.
Aside from the barriers to a constitutional amendment as well as the hard realities of politics, the timing of the deputy prime minister’s “loud thoughts” is significant. It is an open secret that the key to power in New Delhi lies in forging durable and stable ties with regional players. The single biggest weapon in the armoury of the BJP is its near total absence on the ground in large parts of the south, east and Northeast. This makes it easier for the party to cede ground to potential allies. They lord it over their respective states, while the larger partner asserts its dominance in New Delhi.
In fact, we are now at a key turning point in our history as an independent nation state. For the first time, there is the prospect of the ruling forces at the Centre ceding the major ground in the most populous state to a smaller partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party. It is still unclear whether such a deal can be worked out. The very fact it is being discussed shows how far things have changed.
But to return to Advani’s calculations, any synchronising of the Lok Sabha and assembly elections will put a spoke in the wheels of the Congress. It will multiply obstacles to any electoral accord with Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. The division of spoils for 80 Lok Sabha seats is difficult enough. But an accord over 400 odd assembly seats will be an even bigger hurdle. There will be no consolidated anti-BJP front in the most populous of states.
It will even contribute to tensions with the left parties who are electoral adversaries of the Congress in three states. As the only national level force willing to extend support to the Congress at the Centre, an offer they made even in 1999, such a denouement will strain pre-poll relations as well as post-poll co-operation.
To add to this, the BJP has managed to hold on to most of its allies. Those that have left, such as the National Conference and Lok Jana Shakti, have an uncertain future. No large partner has bolted or shows signs of doing so. The sole exception is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam but a ready replacement is available in the form of J. Jayalalithaa’s party.
The political logic behind Advani’s suggestion is therefore crystal clear. It exposes the weak links in the new line-up of secular forces being attempted by the Congress. It also gives the BJP the chance of singing the old Congress tune of stability. It also opens the door to an idea long favoured by the party, the idea of fixed terms for the legislature.
Aside from the prosaic realities of politics, there is reason to examine the pros and cons of his ideas. It is indeed true that the first phase under the Constitution of 1950 was a more stable one. Policymaking was relatively insulated from daily political pressures. But a major factor in this state of affairs until 1967 was the omnipotence of the Congress that effectively played both the role of ruling party and opposition.
It was in 1972 that Indira Gandhi forged a direct link between state and national elections. In the wake of the Bangladesh war, she dissolved the state assemblies and sought to consolidate her control of the country and the party. Again, Morarji Desai dissolved several assemblies in 1977 and the Congress did the same again in 1980. In the former case, neither in Uttar Pradesh nor Gujarat had the house completed a full five year term. Since then the process of exercising Article 356 has come under the scope of judicial review and the Union no more had virtually unfettered powers over the life and death of state assemblies.
The issues raised by Advani are indeed relevant in the post-1989 phase. The issue has less to do with the stability of ministries and more to do with the coherence of policy. For instance, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government’s reform programme came to a virtual halt after the defeat of the Congress in the southern assembly polls in December 1994.
It may yet be relevant that there is no correspondence of national and local elections in several democracies, Germany being the prime example. Further, the absence of any congruence of timing in India emerged due to the inability of the political class to secure clear majorities in key states.
It is also the prerogative of the head of government, whether in New Delhi or the states to have the house dissolved. It is in fact ironic that this is precisely what a section of the BJP is contemplating at the moment. The deputy prime minister cannot have it both ways. Synchronising elections with cast-iron schedules militates against the one whip a prime minister or chief minister has in the most divisive of legislatures: the power to have it dissolved.
There is no doubt there is scope for debate on the matter. The real question is not whether elections can be held simultaneously. It is to achieve the right balance between accountability and stability. The latter cannot be achieved by diluting the former.
The author is an independent political analyst and researcher