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A government appointed committee that was set up last September to look at the controversial issue of holding simultaneous elections in India is said to be close to ready with its report, which could be submitted within the next few weeks. However, he entire process, starting from the formation of the panel to its terms of reference, has been somewhat questionable, with the outcome seemingly predetermined.

This was very apparent in the government resolution announcing the committee which said “in the national interest it is desirable to have simultaneous elections in the country”. More recently, a senior member of the Law Ministry briefed some reporters a few days ago and claimed that of the over 20,000 responses the ministry had received on the issue, “81% supported the holding of simultaneous polls”.

Look at the composition of the panel. It is headed by former President Ramnath Kovind, and includes Home Minister Amit Shah, former congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior lawyer Harish Salve, former Lok Sabha Secretary General Subhash Kashyap, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner Sanjay Kothari and former Finance commission Chairman NK Singh. All of them, including Mr Kovind, have either openly supported simultaneous state and national elections, or are known to be close to the government.

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The Law Minister is a “special invitee”. The one opposition member who was included in the panel was the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary, who declined to be part of the committee calling the exercise an “eyewash”.

Frankly, this was a bad idea. Even if the panel was skewed in the government’s favour, the Congress should have been part of the committee and voiced its opposition strongly. But the fact is, the panel should have had more opposing voices as well for credibility. The issue of simultaneous pollens not a simple one.

If implemented, it will completely alter the way elections are held and threaten to undermine regional parties, many of whom have opposed the idea. The problem is that the panel has not engaged with all stakeholders in any meaningful way to have a serious debate on this.

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Cost of free and fair elections

The Congress has strongly argued against the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’, calling it “undemocratic”. In his letter to the panel, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge essentially stressed the committee had already made up its mind. He hit back at the argument that holding polls together would save money, saying “the ECI had estimated the cost of conducting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with VVPAT machines to be about Rs3,870 crore …. The argument that the cost of conducting elections is extremely high seems baseless. Considering elections are held once in 5 years, the expenses make up less than 0.02% of the total Union budget for the preceding 5 years. When elections are held separately to the state assemblies, the cost of the election is fully borne by the respective states. The expenses for assembly elections may also be a similar percentage of their state budgets. We feel the people will be willing to consider this small amount as the cost of free and fair elections to uphold democracy”.

India’s democracy has been characterised by its federal structure. The BJP does not want simultaneous polls to save money. It wants them in the hope that national sentiment in its favour can overrun states as well, the only real challenge it faces comes from regional parties.

There are many other issues at stake here such as what would happen if a government falls at the centre. Would elected state assemblies be dissolved too? Would they face extended rule by the centre until elections are held? The answers are not easy and required a much deeper debate especially with opposing voices. In our democracy, the opposition has an equal stake.