The midterm system not only preserves but also facilitates federalism, retains the power of citizens, establishes a unique check on ruling parties at both the tiers and delivers significantly over the current system.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, the law commission and many political commentators have been advocating simultaneous elections, occurring in 60-month cycles. We propose a third option with election cycles that are 30 months apart. A midterm system of elections that schedules polls for all the 30 Legislative Assemblies (except Jammu and Kashmir) at a Lok Sabha's halfway mark. It strikes a balance between the two extreme periods, addresses problems in both the systems and also possesses advantages over them.
These frequent elections have many direct costs: human resource, campaign travel and security personnel. Then there are indirect costs: scant incentives for risky reforms, time spent on campaigning, stalled development due to the implementation of the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct and the political desire to announce populist measures.
The supporters of simultaneous elections speculate that such a system will amend the problems of the current system in which states go to polls at different times in a five-year period. Political parties spend six months on campaigning before the joint elections, and focus on development activities for the other four-and-a-half years.
Adopting the new system also means that a politician's true incentive for performance — election pressure — will be suspended for the majority of the five-year term. The existing feedback channel of frequent polls and by-polls, which keep the parties aware of voters' sentiment, would be closed. Thus, the proposed system would subvert the voters' ability to signal their impression of the ruling parties' performance and curtail their power to place a check on the ruling party during its term. From a citizen's standpoint, this change is a losing proposition. Moreover, staying with the current system is not a solution either.
A midterm election will act as a referendum on the incumbent parties. If the voters are unhappy with the party ruling at the Centre after 30 months, they will have an opportunity to vote against it in the state elections. If the voters are unhappy with the ruling state party after 30 months in power, they will have a chance to crush its aspirations of rising to the national level. Thus, the midterms balance the two extremes: the current one of perpetual elections disrupting governance, against the proposed free reign of 60 months.
The midterm system also systematically reduces the honeymoon period effect, which is the grace period immediately after the elections. In the current system, when state elections happen during the honeymoon period of the ruling party at the Centre, it stands to gain significantly. Similarly, when the general elections are conducted immediately after the state elections, the ruling party of the state stands to gain more seats. If the midterm system is followed and elections are spaced two-and-a-half years apart, it would eliminate the advantage of the ruling party to ride on its recent victory.
Midterm polls also address the most significant criticism of simultaneous elections—their potential to undermine federalism. An IDFC institute report concludes: "On average, there is a 77% chance that the Indian voter will vote for the same party for both the State and Centre when elections are held simultaneously."
A midterm system reduces the chances of voters choosing the same party. Moreover, it also strengthens federalism. When all state elections occur simultaneously, scarcity of time reduces the involvement of national-level politicians in campaigning. This will push the state leaders to compete on their own might, and prevent the national agenda from overshadowing regional issues.
Midterms also solve other problems of the current system.
First, the absence of frequent elections will ensure better governance and prevent stalling of policies that are beneficial in the long-run.
Second, the 30-month election cycle will ensure that political parties are not perpetually in election mode. The tendency of the central government to direct grants and infrastructure to states going to polls will be curtailed. As all the states will simultaneously compete for central government funds, the political gain derived out of special allocations would get diluted. Thus it would be less beneficial for the Centre to give allocations to each state before the midterm state elections.
Third, the diversion of security personnel will be less frequent.
Overall, the midterm system not only preserves but also facilitates federalism, retains the power of citizens, establishes a unique check on ruling parties at both the tiers and delivers significantly over the current system.