One Nation, One Election: The BJP wants it. Anyone else?
There are sound practical reasons to not go down that road, but foremost, it militates against our federal DNA
In the summer of June 2019, basking in the afterglow of a renewed electoral mandate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi fancied it was time to float the ‘one nation, one election’ balloon one more time. He hadn’t dreamt it up. Nor was it the first time the BJP was talking about it, though Modi possibly believed the time had finally come to realise a dream long cherished by the Sangh parivar.
He even convened an all-party meeting to discuss the idea. Those overtures were obviously rebuffed by opposition parties and the proposal called out as ‘anti-democratic’, ‘anti-federal’ and a likely precursor to a presidential form of government.
Just a year earlier, the Law Commission had submitted a report arguing the impracticality of holding simultaneous elections within the existing framework of the Constitution. A year prior to that, the NITI Aayog had also discussed the feasibility of simultaneous elections in a paper.
In 2020, the Parliamentary Committee on Law and Justice had sought the views of stakeholders. The reason for this roll call is to convey the intent of the Modi government to see the idea through.
When an elected government starts whining about ‘too many elections’, the intention is almost always suspect. But for our beloved current prime minister, it has been a nine-year itch. Modi may not have conceived the idea, but he saw its potential better than his predecessors.
The idea of simultaneous elections was advanced passionately even by first BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and their perennial PM-in-waiting L.K. Advani, and has figured prominently in BJP manifestos for a while.
BJP leaders often point out that elections for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies were held together until 1969, when the dissolution of several state assemblies due to thin majorities, defections by elected members and the resultant political instability necessitated mid-term polls.
But simultaneous elections are no guarantee against mid-term polls either. Depending on the turn of events, governments may fall at any time and an elected Lok Sabha may be dissolved. For those reasons too, setting the ‘one nation, one election’ principle in stone is impractical.
Indeed, even the Lok Sabha elected in 1977 lasted only three years. The next Lok Sabha, elected in 1989, did even worse—it folded up in two years. In 1996, the 11th Lok Sabha lasted 18 months and the next Lok Sabha, elected in 1998, fell after 13 months. Since then, however, the elections have given us stable coalitions and majority (if not majoritarian) governments.
What’s more, under the Constitution, state governments have the power to recommend dissolution of the state assembly and call for a mid-term poll. Can they be unilaterally deprived of this right? Not if you ask former secretary general of the Lok Sabha PDT Achary, who says ‘one nation, one election’ will be a blow to the autonomy of states.
Which brings up another conundrum: “For synchronised elections, state assemblies will have to voluntarily dissolve themselves, with governors giving their assent. While this is possible in BJP-ruled states, why would the Opposition agree to such a demand?” he wonders.
State governments can also be dismissed by the President on the recommendation of the union government. But conditions apply and the Supreme Court has put brakes on such arbitrary dismissals, which have become far more difficult today.
Tiruchi Siva of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) had pointedly asked during a discussion on the subject in 2019, “Will somebody give us an assurance that Article 356 will be removed from the Constitution?”
Synchronised elections would require at least five constitutional amendments—in Articles 83, 85, 172, 174 and 356—with at least 50 per cent of the states ratifying the amendments, as Article 174 deals with the dissolution of state assemblies and Article 356 relates to the imposition of president’s rule in the states. Is the eight-member committee set up with former president Ram Nath Kovind at its head able to suggest how to navigate this minefield?
As for the ‘norm’ of simultaneous elections until 1969, political scientist Suhas Palshikar reminds us that this was less by design and more due to the stable mandates delivered by the electorate until the mid-1960s.
Also Read: Herald View: One nation, many states
Belying the hysteria over the ‘high cost’ of separate elections, the government spends barely a fraction of its budget on conducting elections—Rs 10,000 crore in five years between 2014 and 2019, compared to the union government’s total budget of Rs 45 lakh crore for this year alone.
It is true that opaque electoral bonds have placed staggering sums of money in the hands of the ruling parties. Business, industry and corporate bodies can now legally bargain for favours with the parties in power, in return for anonymous bonds. The Election Commission, which had opposed the scheme up to 2019, appears to have fallen in line, supporting it in the Supreme Court in 2021. The legal challenge in court remains pending.
However, black money in elections is generated by political parties and candidates, not by the government. But no politician or political party admits to using black money or even to high spending, of course. Only four or five of the 6,000-plus candidates in 2019 admitted to having spent more than the expenditure limits prescribed by the Election Commission.
Election spending by political parties, especially the BJP, has clearly gone through the roof since 2014, yes. The expansive ad campaigns (including new media), hiring of consultants and strategists, surveys and publicity, use of private jets and helicopters, bribing voters are just some of the tell-tale signs that indicate where the money is going.
Election spending by the government, using the taxpayers’s money, has little to do with such expenses or with black money, however. And the failure of the Election Commission to curb money power and to ensure a level playing field in any elections cannot be corrected by holding one election rather than two.
On the contrary, political commentators point to the advantages of holding separate elections for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies.
It is precisely because political parties have to repeatedly go back to the electorate that there is still some accountability left. Political parties and leaders are kept on their toes because of the spectre of the next election, whether for the Lok Sabha or the state. No election for five years together will likely leave them feeling less accountable, so that voters will lose what little power they exercise over them now.
The present system works as a check on wave elections as well. The Lok Sabha election in December 1984, for example, was an abnormal election held following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, historians remind us. The Indian National Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, swept to power with 404 seats.
It was a ‘wave’ in favour of the INC just as there was a wave against it in 1977 in north India. How ‘fair’ would the outcome have been if all the state assemblies had gone to the polls along with the Lok Sabha at that time, when sympathy was clearly a strong factor?
Meanwhile, voters have in fact voted for regional parties in the states and for the BJP in the general election even in recent years. It is possible to think of a scenario, points out senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, in which there is an anti-Modi wave in the Lok Sabha election but a pro-BJP mood in the states, which challenges the notion that the electorate will always come up with a synchronised verdict.
An article by Jagdeep S Chhokar of the ADR (Association for Democratic Reforms) in The Hindu, however, shows that out of the 31 instances since the general elections of 1989 (when elections and by-elections for state assemblies and Parliament were held simultaneously), in 24 cases the same party was voted to the state assembly and to Parliament.
Simultaneous elections will thus work against regional and smaller parties, though they are better aligned to the ground realities of that electorate and are able to highlight local issues better. Above all, as Hegde points out, “the biggest threat is the removal of the biggest safeguard in a democracy—a healthy and strong opposition”.
This is not to say the way elections are currently conducted is flawless. There can be no quarrel on the need for electoral reforms. But are simultaneous polls the answer? Is that the ‘reform’ so urgently needed?
The Election Commission’s monitoring of the misuse of communication tools during elections has been disappointing so far. The antiquated model code of conduct, drawn up before the explosive growth of TV channels, the internet and social media platforms, needs to be updated. But how will simultaneous polls help with either?
Modi has been coy in the years between his first as prime minister and his ninth now, telling television channel Times Now that it was up to the Election Commission to initiate electoral reforms. In practice, his government has ignored most of the recommendations made by the Election Commission between 2014 and 2019.
The Election Commission of India continues to be dependent on the union government for budgetary grants, human resources and approval of reforms. The Election Commission’s proposal to use a ‘totaliser’ machine to mix and count votes registered across 30–40 booths together was turned down. The government needed to know the vote count in every booth for better governance, apparently.
The Commission’s plea for independence too has fallen on deaf ears. The Supreme Court of India observed earlier this year that the Election Commission of India was not free of interference from the executive even in the matter of appointment of election commissioners.
While the constitutional fathers had envisaged an independent commission, subsequent governments and Lok Sabhas failed to enact laws for the appointment of election commissioners. The apex court ruled that till such a law is passed, the appointments would be done by a collegium comprising the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition and the chief justice of India.
The government, however, introduced a bill this monsoon session of Parliament and turned the apex court’s order on its head. The appointment of the commissioners, the bill stipulated, would be made by a committee comprising the prime minister, a union minister nominated by him and the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha—cutting the judiciary out of the equation.
When this government, therefore, speaks of ‘the ‘integrity’ of elections, then, how can one take it at its word?
Achary wonders whether the move to push through ‘one nation, one election' now has something to do with the fact that the BJP has only one star campaigner to fall back on.
“There is only one man who campaigns everywhere and is moved from one state to another,” he quips, echoing a cartoon in which Amit Shah is shown justifying the ‘one nation, one election’ pitch by pointing to a tired Narendra Modi slouching in a corner.
‘It would be foolish to rule out the possibility under the Modi rule,’ writes Ajaz Ashraf in his column in Mid-Day. At the least, a discussion on simultaneous polls could become a national talking point (and takes the focus off more uncomfortable matters), Ashraf suggests, and adds wryly, ‘To prove his selflessness, he could advance the Lok Sabha elections to coincide with the polls in five states in December—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram—saying he has shortened his own tenure for the nation’s good.’
In any case, the speculation on yet another audacious attempt by Prime Minister Modi—which opposition leaders are again lambasting as a threat to the idea of India as a ‘union of states’ and thus its federal structure—is likely to be put to test or rest as early as the special session of Parliament that convenes on 18 September.