Can India benefit from simultaneous elections?

Indian government is exploring the idea of holding simultaneous elections at the national, state and local levels. But the opposition has slammed it, saying it goes against the spirit of federalism.

Can India benefit from simultaneous elections? (photo:DW)
Can India benefit from simultaneous elections? (photo:DW)


Early this month, Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi's government set up a committee to explore the feasibility of its project dubbed "One Nation, One Election" (ONOE).

The eight-member, high-level committee, led by former President Ram Nath Kovind, to meet to analyze and recommend possible scenarios for holding simultaneous elections.

What would the proposed electoral system mean?

The idea has been advocated by India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as Modi since it came to power in 2014.

The ONOE envisages holding elections to India's lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) at the same time as votes for state assemblies, muncipalities and village councils (panchayats) — once every five years.

However, opposition parties and political commentators have slammed the proposal, saying it would take a toll on the federal structure envisioned in the constitution and would affect the autonomy and independence of state governments.

"The ONOE is an assault on the Constitution. We reject it as it is an attack on federalism. It will require at least five constitutional amendments," said Congress leader P Chidambaram.

"The BJP knows it does not have the numbers to pass these constitutional amendments, yet if it puts forward this mirage, it is only to divert attention from the pressing issues and create a false narrative," he added.

"We demand fair election, not 'One Nation, One Election,'" said Sanjay Raut from the regional political party Shiv Sena in the western state of Maharashtra. "This move is being brought to divert the attention from our demand of fair election."

Many regional parties also pointed out that they had limited resources and would struggle to fight both national and state-level campaigns at the same time.

The government supports concurrent elections in order to reduce wasting public funds.

It also argues that frequent elections encourage political parties to prioritize populist measures focused on individual benefits instead of nationalist ones.

Keeping costs down

A report released by the Centre for Media Studies, an independent policy and development research think tank, estimates that at least 550 billion Indian rupees (€6.2 billion, $6.1 billion) was spent for the 2019 general and assembly elections, making them the world's most expensive.

"In 20 years, involving six elections to Lok Sabha between 1998 and 2019, the election expenditure has gone up by around six times from rupees 90 billion to around rupees 550 billion," the report said.

"It is interesting to see how the ruling party gears up to spend much more than others," the report added.

Proponents of the move say that expenditure is one of the central arguments supporting the idea as well as improving the efficiency of governance.

"It is an idea whose time has come. Elections are more and more expensive and a constant election-watch is taking a toll on policy-making. Let the committee examine the constitutional tangles but we must be open minded about this," BJP spokesperson Tom Vadakkan told DW.

"Non-stop campaigning for state elections disrupts the business of government."

Strengthening a Hindu-nationalist identity

But trying to centralize and homogenise a vast and diverse country is not an easy task as it bypasses the federal structure — which is essentially a union of states.

"It is the absurdity of the project, which at its core is about undermining federalism. It seeks to legitimise itself by citing the constraints that democracy places on our systems. We must not allow ourselves to be deluded by the promised gains," Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy research think tank told DW.

Aiyar pointed out that the problem of election costs was better dealt with through reforms in political financing, including scrapping the opaque electoral bonds.

"On the other hand, the problem of political parties being in permanent election mode is an outcome of the wider pathology of centralisation of our political party system, which is hardly going to be resolved through simultaneous polls," she added.

Some believe the move is also an attempt strengthen the central government and promote a pan-Indian Hindu-nationalist identity.

It is perhaps for this reason that the government has been trying to implement policies such as "one nation, one ration card' for subsidized grain, as well as proposing other schemes such as "one nation, one tax," "one nation, one market," and for police officers, "one nation, one uniform."

The committee is expected to assess the requirements in terms of personnel and logistical support, which includes electronic voting machines and other resources necessary for conducting such simultaneous elections.

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Published: 22 Sep 2023, 12:52 PM