‘The Election Commission is about 30% short of the 46.75 lakh ballot units it might need if simultaneous polls were to be held in 2024’.
Had it not been for the semi-conductor shortage during the pandemic, the Election Commission’s continuing exercise of acquiring new EVMs would have made the poll body more comfortable in terms of machines needed for conducting “One Nation, One Election” (ONOE). As of now, the EC is about 30% short of the 46.75 lakh ballot units it might need if simultaneous polls were to be held in 2024.
For conducting ONOE in 2024, the EC needs 33.63 control units and 36.62 VVPATs for deployment at 11.8 lakh polling stations. As per EC’s estimates, simultaneous elections in 2024 would need Rs 5,100 crore to procure additional EVMs and VVPATs.
“The process of acquiring and retiring 15-year-old EVMs is continuous,” said a source, adding that simultaneous polls can be held whenever a decision is taken. The election body can overcome the issue by conducting ONOE in two phases.
As per EC’s own estimates, the existing units and the orders placed for new ones added up to 30.78 lakh balloting units, 22.14 lakh controlling units and 23.86 lakh VVPATs by March 2023. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had sanctioned Rs 1,900 crore in the Budget for 2023-24 for EVMs.
Interestingly, an expert discussion paper on whose recommendation the Union government appears to have constituted the Ram Nath Kovind panel on ONOE had foreseen political tribulations and slugfest in the run-up to constructive forward movement on this matter of national interest.
And from the stand taken by Opposition parties like the Congress and its allies in the I.N.D.I.A bloc, it seems Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, who prepared the note, were bang on target while documenting what to expect in the political arena on the matter. “As is the case with long-term structural reforms, implementing this measure would also cause some short-term pain. However, this would be a stepping stone towards improved governance and a larger initiation of ‘electoral reforms’–a desperately needed measure to re-boot the Indian polity,” said the paper.
The note also mentioned the strain on resources that ONOE may cause. “Incremental requirement of EVMs (the balloting units and control units) is likely to pose a bigger challenge to the operational feasibility of simultaneous elections compared to that of personnel and security companies,” it said.
The note also visualised a scenario of holding ONOE in two phases, apparently to make up for the shortage of EVMs and other resources. It said Phase I of simultaneous polls could begin in April-May and include Lok Sabha and 14 states. Phase-II for remaining states could be held in October-November. The whole process may need a one-time extension or curtailment of terms of various state assemblies.
Debroy and Desai also referred to former CEC Sayed Nasim Zaidi’s remarks: “As a Commission, this is our recommendation to the Law Ministry, that elections in the country can be held together for both state assemblies as well as the Lok Sabha. To conduct these elections simultaneously we would need certain logistic arrangements in terms of procurement of more electronic machines… We are on board with our proposal that elections can be held together provided there is consensus, unanimity of opinion among the political parties and also there are amendments in the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, political temperatures over the government’s move to study the feasibility of simultaneous polls started rising ever since the Narendra Modi government set up a committee headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind to study the feasibility of simultaneous polls.
The Opposition alleged that the Modi government was examining the feasibility of ONOE as it feared a loss at the hands of the I.N.D.I.A bloc in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and wanted to hold early elections.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge alleged the Modi government was trying to convert democratic India into a dictatorship. “The idea of One Nation, One Election has been rejected by three committees in the past,” he said.
The note prepared by Debroy and Desai also addressed the issue raised by Kharge. “The proposal to conduct simultaneous elections has not gone entirely uncontested. Critics have argued that such a step may undermine the depth and breadth of Indian democracy and that its operational feasibility is also a challenge. The note gets into details of this criticism and concludes that the above criticisms are unwarranted and can be overcome,” said the note.
Kharge’s party colleague and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot opposed simultaneous elections, saying, “The Prime Minister is so worried due to the I.N.D.I.A alliance that he and the Central government have sensed that they are not going to win the 2024 polls.”
AAP convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the people were not interested in ONOE. “It does not bother us if there is ‘one nation, one election or one nation, twenty elections’; what matters to us is ‘one nation, one education’. All children, whether their parents are billionaires or common people, should get one type of high-quality education,” said Kejriwal.
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said the concept of simultaneous polls will be a disaster for federalism and may finish the multi-party parliamentary democracy. He said the constitution of a committee to study ONOE feasibility is just a formality, as the government seems to have already decided to go ahead with it.