Opinion: Simultaneous Polls May Help Regional Parties Much More Than BJP

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Simultaneous elections are in the news again with the One Nation One Election panel, led by ex-President Ram Nath Kovind, submitting its final recommendations to the current President Droupadi Murmu. The commission has recommended that the government must develop a legally tenable mechanism to restore the cycle of simultaneous elections.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has maintained that the rationale for considering simultaneous elections is that it would reduce election-time expenses, time and energy. But the opposition, led by the Congress, sees this as an attempt by the BJP to nationalise state elections to benefit itself. The parties fear that the BJP, with its pole position in national politics, will eventually overshadow regional players in state battles.

Simultaneous Polls In Recent Years

India saw simultaneous polls in 2014 in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and then again in 2019 in all these but Telangana. Except in Arunachal Pradesh, regional parties not only won the state election in the remaining four states but also went on to register maximum seats in the general elections.

The Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) of Telangana won 53% of assembly seats and 65% of the Lok Sabha seats in Telangana in 2014. In 2019, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) won 86% of the assembly seats and 88% of the Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh. In Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) won 80% of seats in the state elections and 57% in the Lok Sabha polls, and in Sikkim, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) won 53% of assembly seats and 100% of the Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP, meanwhile, won 68% of assembly seats in Arunachal Pradesh and 100% of the Lok Sabha seats there. 

In terms of votes, we see identical vote shares in Lok Sabha and state elections for the top three parties in these states, with the difference between the two being in the ± 2.5% range for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The trend held in Odisha too, but there the BJP registered a much higher vote share in the national elections (6 percentage points more than its share in the assembly polls), largely at the expense of the Congress and others. The YSRCP, the Jana Sena and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, the BJD and the Congress in Odisha, and the BRS, the BJP-TDP combine and the Congress in Telangana registered almost similar vote shares in the assembly elections in their respective states and the Lok Sabha polls. A similar trend is visible in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, where the BJP got a slight boost in the general elections.

The following table shows vote shares in both state and national elections.

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Source: indiavotes.com

The absolute numbers of votes polled also show a similar pattern. The YSRCP, the TDP and the Jana Sena got almost a similar number of votes in both the assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh. The same was the case for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS, now rechristened BRS) and the BJP-TDP alliance in Telangana, as well as the BJD and the Congress in Odisha. Only the BJP got a higher number of votes in Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim in the Lok Sabha polls due to the national character of the elections. Interestingly, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Congress, too, did better in the national elections.

The following table shows absolute number of votes polled.

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Source: indiavotes.com

In Andhra Pradesh, which has been seeing simultaneous elections since 1999, whichever party wins the state elections goes on to win the maximum Lok Sabha seats in the state too. Karnataka also witnessed simultaneous polls in 1999 and 2004, and a similar trend was visible here, too. The Congress won a simple majority in the state elections in 1999 as well as the maximum Lok Sabha seats - 18 of the total 28. Later, in 2004, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the assembly elections and also went on to win 18 of the 28 seats.

History of Simultaneous Polls 

Assembly and national elections were held simultaneously in India from 1952 to 1967. The Congress party ruled at the Centre as well as in a majority of states, except for intermittent periods in Kerala and Odisha. 

It got more than 350 seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 1952, 1957 and 1962. This was because the party had stalwart leaders like Nehru not only at the national level but also in states. Morarji Desai in Mumbai, Neelam Sanjeev Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Bidhan Chandra Roy in West Bengal, Govind Ballabh Pant in Uttar Pradesh, K. Kamraj in Madras, Yashwant Rao Chavan Maharashtra and Krishna Singh in Bihar were a few such politicians. There was also, of course, the fact that political competition to the Congress was much less, initially. The party's leadership helped it win state elections and also elect the maximum number of parliamentarians from their respective states in national polls. 

In the 1952 elections, for instance, the percentages of seats won by the Congress in national and state elections were similar for the top five states - Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bombay, Madras and West Bengal.

The 1967 elections marked the end of the Congress's unchallenged supremacy. The party could not secure a simple majority in eight of the 16 states, where non-Congress governments were installed. For the first time in the Lok Sabha, the Congress failed to muster 350-plus seats, and its tally dipped to 283. 

Regional parties and breakaway groups dented the grand old party's chances in many states, which was also reflected in the Lok Sabha elections. It lost seats in Bihar, Madras, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Kerala and West Bengal. 

Who Benefits From One Election

The results of the 1967 elections and the simultaneous polls in a few states in 2014 and 2019 show that strong regional parties tend to benefit in the Lok Sabha elections when polls are held together, because split-voting, that is, voting differently in state and national elections, is limited to urban centres. Voters choose different parties only when assembly and general elections are held at different times. The BJP's sweep in Delhi in the 2019 general polls, followed by the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) victory in state elections just a year later in 2020, underlines this.  

So, contrary to popular notion, the BJP may not be the sole gainer in simultaneous elections. Strong regional parties stand to benefit too - in fact, it should not be a surprise if they go on to win a few extra Lok Sabha seats as well in their respective states. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.