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Above: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an all-party meeting to discuss One Nation, One Election in New Delhi/@narendramodi/twitter.com

One Nation, One Election concept, which is being pushed by the Modi government, seems anti-federal and anti-democratic, and thus, against the Constitution

By MG Devasahayam

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, there has been a spate of activities—releasing the Draft National Education Policy; preparing lateral entry of 400 “corporate civil servants”; masterminding the defection of six Opposition MPs to gain a majority in the Rajya Sabha, loud re-pronouncement of the “One Nation, One Election” theory and convening of an emergency meeting of political parties to discuss this. The common objective of all these moves is to bring India under one hegemony and convert it from a federal to a unitary entity.

Coming to the idea of “simultaneous elections”, it 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 coordinated fashion. What this effectively means is that a voter would cast his vote for electing members for all tiers of the government on a single day at a single point.

Elections for the Lok Sabha and assemblies are directed and controlled by the Election Commission (EC). The third tier (panchayats and urban local bodies) is a state subject and elections to these institutions are directed and controlled by the State Election Commissions. As their numbers in the country are very large, it would be impractical and almost impossible to synchronise election schedules to the third tier with those of the Lok Sabha and assembly elections.

So, in this article, “simultaneous elections” is defined as structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to the Lok Sabha and assemblies are synchronised. So the voter would cast his vote for electing members of the Lok Sabha and assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify, simultaneous elections do not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and 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 the assembly and the Lok Sabha on the same day.

In 2016 following Modi advocating simultaneous elections, NITI Aayog 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 and welfare activities due to frequent imposition of the Model Code of Conduct, leading to sub-optimal governance adversely impacting the design and delivery of public policies and developmental measures
  • Huge expenditure by the government and various stakeholders on frequent elections
  • Influence of black money
  • Engagement of government personnel and security forces for long periods
  • Perpetuation of caste, religion and communal issues, etc.

It is argued that simultaneous elections will help in getting out of the “permanent election mode”. There 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 sub-standard leadership that is being thrown up by autocratic and sycophantic political parties?

Be that as it may, “simultaneous elections” is not a new concept. India started with this concept from 1951 to 1967 when Lok Sabha and state elections were held together without much fanfare. Later, 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. The BJP, the principal proponent of the idea, was backed by the Samajwadi Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti—the former was 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 is the case with the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

The sharpest opposition during the Law Commission consultation came from MK Stalin of the DMK. He said in a communication to the Commission that this was a “complete misadventure that will decimate the federal structure” of the country. He went on to say that even though Parliament is empowered to amend the Constitution, it cannot alter its basic features like federalism. The letter also gave the examples of the judgments 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 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 AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal were absent from the “consultation” convened by Modi. The BJD of Odisha, however, continues to support the idea. CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, who attended the consultation, however, condemned the move, saying that the “One Nation, One Poll” proposal was 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 offered a solution: coinciding elections of half the states with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the rest with the 2024 edition.

Despite Modi-1’s best efforts, this did not happen in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Why then is he in a tearing hurry for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls which are five years away? Probably this is a red-herring to divert public and media attention from the extremely suspicious way the 2019 election was contested and won with a so-called landslide.

The EC 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 the EC in ensuring an uneven and distorted playing field is public knowledge.

Probably the ruling dispensation wants to prevent too many skeletons falling out of the electoral closet that could upset the apple cart.

Having partially achieved its purpose, the Modi government is stated to be forming a committee to prepare a road map 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”.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

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