‘One nation, one election’ an undemocratic idea : The Tribune India

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‘One nation, one election’ an undemocratic idea

Simultaneous elections seek to replace political multiplicity with a centralised unitary system which all states must defer to.

‘One nation, one election’ an undemocratic idea

Unfair: Simultaneous polls will end up restricting voting, the most fundamental freedom of a democracy. PTI



Zoya Hasan

Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, JNU

IN a big move, the Union Government has notified an eight-member high-level committee, headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind, to examine and make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, state Assemblies and local bodies. Between 1951 and 1967, India held all national and state elections simultaneously, but the party system changed significantly after 1967, necessitating separate elections for the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas.

The proposal for reverting to simultaneous elections has far-reaching implications for India’s democracy. The Law Commission, NITI Aayog and a Parliamentary Standing Committee have already looked into this proposal.

The Prime Minister has himself strongly pitched for simultaneous elections and repeatedly said that continuous election cycles result in everything being seen through a political prism, even as development works suffer. But despite a strong commitment to the idea, it has made little progress.

The idea is neither practical nor new, but its revival at a time when the government is facing challenges amid the growing consolidation of the Opposition under the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) raises important questions. It seems the idea was suddenly pulled out to spook the Opposition while the third meeting of the INDIA bloc was underway in Mumbai; the meeting had signalled greater cohesion and wider Opposition unity to gain greater credibility.

The committee is not expected to examine the idea itself but recommend ways of implementing it. This is evident from its composition, which is heavily weighted in favour of the idea. It had just one member from a major Opposition party, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who declined to be part of the panel; the other members are likely to support the idea. Leaders of regional parties, who may be the most affected by simultaneous polls, have been ignored. There are no former or current election commissioners on the panel, even though they may be best placed to highlight logistical problems regarding simultaneous polls.

The most crucial point for the committee is to ‘examine and recommend’ whether the consent of the states is required at all, even though simultaneous elections has a direct bearing on the states. The fact that it will also suggest amendments to the Constitution and laws as may be required for holding simultaneous elections indicates that the decision has already been taken.

There are, however, numerous tricky problems with the ‘one nation, one election’ proposal. There is no practical way to implement it in a parliamentary democracy. Its implementation involves not only practical challenges, but also complex legal and constitutional considerations. It will require multiple constitutional amendments, amendments to the Representation of the People Act and other laws.

The proposal cannot be implemented unless a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament votes for the necessary amendments and the state governments, whose tenures will be affected, are in agreement. In 14 states, Opposition parties or those not aligned with the BJP are in power; they are unlikely to agree to a proposal that diminishes their political clout. It will require all existing Assemblies to be dissolved, which currently have different tenures. It will require fixity of tenure for five years for both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas, but there is no provision for this in the Constitution either for the Lok Sabha or for Vidhan Sabhas.

Apart from legal snarls, implementing the proposal is a major political challenge for the BJP, which does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and is not in power in several states. Then why is the BJP pushing the idea? Basically, it wants to ‘nationalise’ and ‘centralise’ elections because the party has very few credible state leaders to lead the fight in the state elections. This has been a matter of concern for the BJP, especially after its defeat at the hands of the Congress in Karnataka. This is a major reason why it turns every election into a presidential style ‘Modi versus who’. It foregrounds nationalism and strong leadership to transcend local issues which can influence voters in a manner that has eluded it so far. State and national elections in India are often fought on different sets of issues; simultaneous elections might change this, as voters may end up privileging national issues over other issues, which can tilt the voting preference in favour of the dominant national party. But there is no guarantee that ‘one election’ will produce this outcome when voters make their ballot choices. ‘One nation, one election’ is a trial balloon that may not fly.

The idea of ‘one nation, one election’ is deeply flawed; it is neither feasible nor desirable in the multi-party system that exists in the country. India’s vast diversity has given rise to numerous parties in the states, whose interests are defined by local particularities of their respective regions. This situation cannot be remedied by mandating a fixed term for the legislature or a fixed election calendar. The Lok Sabha’s term has nothing to do with that of the Vidhan Sabha, which depends largely on the way electoral politics plays out within states. Divergence of electoral cycles will obviously be there in this situation. Simultaneous elections seek to change that by replacing political multiplicity with a centralised unitary system which all states must defer to. This fits into the BJP’s strategy of a Hindu nation-state at the expense of the state-based processes and the federal impulses of the polity. It will accelerate the regimentation of elections, underlining a deep distrust of the heterogeneity and plurality of Indian polity and society. This will end up restricting the most fundamental freedom of a democracy, which is voting.

The idea of ‘one nation, one election’ is fundamentally undemocratic; it is an argument against democracy itself. Both diversity and democracy stand to lose from this exercise. 

#Lok Sabha #Ram Nath Kovind


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