IN NDA-3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team have hit the ground running and are firing on all cylinders. Within days of taking over on May 30, 2019, there has been a spate of activity—releasing the Draft National Education Policy; preparing lateral-entry of 400 corporate civil-servants; master-minding the defection of six opposition MPs to gain majority in Rajya Sabha and loud re-pronouncement of ‘One Nation, One Election’ theory and convening of an emergency meeting of political parties to discuss this as if heavens are going to fall. Common objective of all these moves is to bring India under one hegemony and convert it from a federal to unitary entity.
Let us look at this idea of simultaneous elections, which ideally would imply that elections to all the three tiers of constitutional institutions—Parliament, Assembly, Village Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies—take place in a synchronised and co-ordinated fashion. What this effectively means is that a voter casts his vote for electing members for all tiers of the Government on a single day at a single point.
Elections for the first two (Lok Sabha and State Assemblies) is directed and controlled by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The third tier (Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies) is a State subject as per the Constitution and elections to these institutions are directed and controlled by the State Election Commissions. Besides, since their sheer numbers in the country is very large, it would be impractical and almost impossible to synchronise and align election schedules to the third tier with that of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
In this article, simultaneous elections is defined as structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronised together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify further, simultaneous elections does not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and State
Assemblies needs to happen on a single day. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice provided voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha the same day.
In 2016, following Prime Minister Modi advocating simultaneous elections, NITI Ayog came out with a discussion paper titled, Analysis of Simultaneous Elections: the what, why and how. According to the paper, simultaneous elections will avoid the following pitfalls of the present practice:
- Suspension of development programmes, welfare activities due to frequent imposition of Model Code of Conduct, leading to sub-optimal governance adversely impacting the design and delivery of public policies and developmental measures.
- Huge expenditures by government and various stakeholders on frequent elections.
- Black money influence.
- Engagement of government personnel and security forces for prolonged periods.
- Perpetuation of caste, religion and communal issues etc.
It is argued that simultaneous election would help in getting out of the permanent election mode, which will be a structural change in mindset that could potentially provide the much-needed space to governments to focus on long term transformational measures without worrying about impending elections.”Simultaneous elections may be an idealist proposition but the question is what should come first—electoral integrity or synchronising of elections? Also, to be asked is what causes sub-optimal governance—timing of elections or the kind of sub-standard leadership that is being thrown up by autocratic and sycophantic political parties?
Be that as it may, simultaneous elections is nothing new since that was what India started with from 1951 to ’67 when Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assembly elections were held together without much fanfare. It was then the cycle of synchronised elections got disrupted. Though, there are major Constitutional hurdles and huge logistics, security, manpower issues to be confronted, resynchronisation of the cycle is feasible given adequate political will and administrative skill.
The question is whether it is desirable? In 2017, the Law Commission conducted consultations with political parties on the feasibility of holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and state elections. BJP, the principal proponent of the idea, was backed by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS)—the former its main rival in UP, while the latter subscribes to an ambiguous position. The Trinamool Congress and the Communist Parties, who do not see eye-to-eye in West Bengal, are on the same page in opposing the concept. Same with the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
THE sharpest opposition during Law Commission consultation came from MK Stalin of the DMK, who in a communication to the Commission called it a “complete misadventure that will decimate the federal structure” of the country. It went on to say that even though the Parliament is empowered to amend the Constitution, it cannot alter the basic features of the Constitution like federalism. The letter also gave the examples of the judgements delivered by the Supreme Court in cases such as Kesavananda Bharati vs. The State of Kerala and Golak Nath vs. The State of Punjab. The letter also took a dig at the examples cited by the Law Commission in favour of adopting the policy: “The combined population of Sweden (1 crore), Belgium (1.1 crore), and South Africa (5.5 crore) is less than that of Tamil Nadu itself. Therefore, any comparison of these countries with that of our nation (130 crore) is logically fallacious, completely misleading and unhelpful to the present discourse.”
This time around Congress president Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, BSP supremo Mayawati, SP president Akhilesh Yadav, DMK chief MK Stalin, TRS chief K. Chandrashekhar Rao, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Delhi Chief Minister and AamAdmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal were absent from the consultation convened by the Prime Minister. The BJD of Orissa, however, continues to support the idea.
CPI (M) general-secretary Sitaram Yechury, who attended the consultation, condemned the move saying that the ‘One Nation, One poll’ proposal is fundamentally anti-federal and anti-democratic, and thus, against the Constitution. “It is a backdoor way of replacing our parliamentary democracy.”
The Law Commission’s draft working paper on the subject outlined several difficulties that are far greater than the current political contest for public perception. At least a dozen laws need to be amended, including changes to the basic structure of the Constitution that may well be a bridge too far, because of the Supreme Court’s Kesavananda Bharati judgment. However, the Parliamentary Standing Committee gave a solution: coinciding elections of half the states to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the rest with the 2024 edition.
DESPITE Modi-1’s best efforts this did not happen in 2019-Lok Sabha. Why then is he in a tearing hurry for Lok Sabha 2024, which is five years away. One theory doing the rounds is that having won a massive mandate, through means fair and foul, Modi and Shah want to destabilise all the non-BJP state governments, which will be due for elections before 2024 and put them under President’s rule in the garb of one nation, one election. Then with the kind of money and machine power the party enjoys, and a subservient ECI in tow, capture all the states and thereby make it “One-Election-One-Party-One-Nation.” This is a recipe for disintegration with the country becoming many nations instead of one.
This is a distinct possibility and the regional parties are mortally scared of the idea, which they see as an existential threat, because India could transform from a federal to a unitary state. In this context, prominent lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan has this to say: “Simultaneous Lok Sabha and state elections are not possible in a parliamentary democracy where governments can fall and mid-term elections are needed in states or at the Centre. That is possible only in a presidential form of government, which is what Modi wants.”
There could also be more earthy reasons for the disturbing hurry for this high-profile discourse on simultaneous election when there is no urgency whatsoever in the matter. Probably, this is a red-herring to distract public and media attention away from the extremely suspicious way Election-2019 was contested and won with a so-called landslide. ECI is coming under intense fire for holding the least free and fair election in India’s electoral history. This election has given an impression that our democratic process is being subverted and undermined by the very constitutional authority empowered to safeguard its sanctity. The role played by money, machine, media and marketing power as well as ECI in ensuring an uneven and distorted playing field is public knowledge. Probably the ruling dispensation wants to prevent too many skeletons falling from the electoral closet that could upset the applecart.
Having partially achieved its purpose, the Modi government is stated to be forming a committee to prepare a roadmap to get this formula accepted, even if it takes 10 years to achieve synchronisation. So, 10 more years of a bogey called One Nation, One Election.
Writer is a former Army and IAS Officer
GOVERNANCE / Democracy / by MG Devasahayam