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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 12 New Delhi March 10, 2018

Simultaneous Elections

Monday 12 March 2018, by P.B. Sawant

Our country is a federal state with its constituting units, namely, the States having autonomy of governance in the subjects allotted to them by the Constitution. Federalism is also one of the basic features of our Constitution. The constitution of Legislative Assemblies and of the State governments is also one of the autonomous functions of the State. The Union Government cannot interfere with the governance of the State except when there is a proclamation of Emergency under Articles 352, 355 and 356 of the Constitution.

We have to ignore two instances of the past where the Legislative Assemblies of nine States were dissolved by the Governors of the respective States under Article 174 (2) (b) of the Constitution. In 1977, the Congress party had the majority in these Assemblies and when the Janata Party came to power at the Centre with a majority in the Lok Sabha in the elections held thereafter, the Union Home Ministry wrote a letter to the Chief Ministers of all the said nine States asking them to request the respective Governors to dissolve the Assemblies under the aforesaid provision. Accordingly, the Governors dissolved the Assemblies. When the Congress party came to power at the Centre thereafter in 1980, it repeated the said exercise in the nine States, and accordingly the Legislative Assemblies in the said States were dissolved. It is apparent from these twin exercises, that notwithstanding the federal Constitution and the fact that the provisions of Article 174 (2)(b) are not meant to give the Central Government the power of dissolution of State Legislatures, the Central Government, by the dubious use of the said provisions, had interfered in the governance of the States by blatantly dissolving the Assemblies. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court at that time did not rise to the occasion. The provisions of Article 174 (2)(b) give power to the Governor to dissolve the Legislative Assembly when either the tenure of the Assembly comes to an end or the political situation within the State compels him to do so. The said power is not to be used by the Governor at the instance of the Central Government. As will be apparent, the Central Government on the said occasions wanted to dissolve the Legislative Assemblies in the concerned States because the ruling party at the Centre had won all or a majority of the seats in the Lok Sabha in those States. That can hardly be a reason for dissolving the Legislative Assemblies which continued to enjoy the majority of their members. It is common experience that the people vote differently for the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, for various reasons. To undo the Legislative Assembly because the people in the State concerned have voted for a different political party while electing members of the Lok Sabha, that is, the Central Legislature, is to make a mockery of federalism. The action taken by the Central Government was therefore clearly unconstitutional.

Over the years, the country has witnessed a variety of political developments across its length and breadth. Prominent among them is the dissolution of Legislative Assemblies in various States before the end of their tenure on account of the internal political developments in the States. As a result the elections to these Assemblies have to be held today at different times which do not coincide with the timings of elections to Assemblies in other States or with the elections to the Lok Sabha. The recent and current examples need not be emphasised.

In the circumstances, if it is now decided to hold the elections to the different State Assemblies along with the election to the Lok Sabha, the State Assemblies, whose tenure has not expired, and in some cases, which have been constituted a year or few months earlier, will have to be dissolved for no reason other than the will of the Central Government to hold elections simultaneously. There is no provision in the Constitution, except Articles 352, 355 and 356 as pointed out earlier, which gives power to the Central Government, that is, the President, to dissolve the Legislative Assemblies. Those powers are limited and can be exercised only in the circumstances mentioned in the said Articles. Any attempt to read such power in Article 174 (2)(b) or elsewhere will be clearly unconstitutional. Hence, simultaneous elections are not legally possible.

The next question is whether, when the elections to some or all the State Assemblies are due at the same time as the elections to the Lok Sabha, simultaneous elections should be held. This is not a question of law but of ensuring genuine representation in the Houses at the two levels. Apart from the processual hiccups and the confusion in the mind of the voters 50 per cent of whom are illiterate, as stated above, the voters vote on local issues while voting for the State Assemblies and are motivated by national and international concerns while electing their representatives in the Lok Sabha. They may therefore vote for two different parties for the two Houses. The simultaneous elections may steamroll them into voting for the same party for both the Houses although they desire to vote for two different parties. This may distort instead of reflecting the true opinion of the people. The purpose of the election itself may thus be defeated.

Lastly what can be done if after the simultaneous elections, a need arises in a State/s for mid-term elections? Should the elections be held or postponed till the next simultaneous elections and the State/s concerned should suffer President’s Rule in the meanwhile? Those who are advocating simultaneous elections have ignored all these inevitable consequences in a federal state.

The author is a former Judge (now retired) of the Supreme Court. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India for sometime.

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