One Nation, One Election: Attack On Federalism And Democracy

BACK in power for the second successive term, the Modi government seems to be in a hurry to pursue some of its pet ideas. If privatisation and labour reforms seem to be high on the economic agenda, ‘One Nation, One Election’ appears to be the key political obsession at the moment. The Modi government did try to push the idea in its first term itself. The Niti Aayog and the Law Commission both tried not only to present a case for this innocuous-sounding ominous idea but also to suggest a road map with a list of constitutional amendments needed to implement the idea. But with the government already convening an all-party meeting on the subject and the President pushing for it in a big way in his first address under Modi 2.0, the bid has already acquired considerable momentum.

Following the adoption of the Constitution when our Republic began its journey as a parliamentary democracy, Lok Sabha and Assembly elections used to be held simultaneously. If the calendar changed by the second half of the 1960s, it was not because of any constitutional amendment. This was how the polity evolved. The overwhelming domination of the Congress began to erode, and as old parties split and new parties emerged and political realignments took shape, we witnessed a proliferation of parties, and the arrival of mid-term elections and coalition governments. Apart from the Congress, Communists and Jan Sangh, there emerged a whole lot of regional parties and then parties loosely known as social justice parties. Today in the name of ‘One Nation, One Election’ the BJP wants to set the political clock back and enforce a regimentation of the polity through constitutional amendments.

The government’s arguments for simultaneous polls basically revolve around some presumed cost reduction and less interruption in ‘development’ through election time intervention of ‘model code of conduct’. Both arguments are rather spurious. Model code of conduct does not interrupt or slow down development; it only places certain restrictions on the government to stop it from influencing the voters with announcements of new projects and policies. Elections enable the people to have a say and express their opinion about a government or its so-called development activities. The Modi government's arguments clearly privilege the government - and whatever it does in the name of development - over the people’s basic right to have their say. And how exactly does the government propose to make sure that elections will not become necessary before the scheduled expiry of a government's five-year term?

This is where Constitutional amendments will come in to enable a minority government to stay in office, to make defections easier, and when no government is possible, to run a state through President's Rule or central intervention. All these measures will clearly render democracy hollower and governance more centralised. Indeed, the very idea of simultaneous elections is tilted in favour of increasing centralisation. Elections to local bodies, state Assemblies and Parliament have their own respective contexts and popular concerns. Mandatory scheduling of simultaneous elections will mean subordinating all elections to the overwhelming central/national context. The parliamentary system has already been under pressure with CMs being projected as CEOs and electoral politics becoming increasingly personality-dominated. The growing domination of PMOs and CMOs has steadily been corroding the cabinet system of collective decision-making and accountability. The 'One Nation, One Election' bid is aimed at further consolidating this presidential pattern by promoting centralisation over the demands of decentralisation and federalism.

The BJP is aware of the disproportionate domination it has gained at the present juncture because of a concurrent weakening of the entire non-BJP spectrum - from the Congress and the Left to the wide range of regional parties and parties belonging to the social justice camp. Having grabbed this juncture, the BJP is now looking for ways to perpetuate and deepen this domination by all possible means. The bid for simultaneous elections is a significant step towards a systemic reshaping of the Indian polity.

It is quite revealing that while the government is pushing for simultaneous elections, the Election Commission plans to fill the two Rajya Sabha vacancies from Gujarat caused by the resignation of Amit Shah and Smriti Irani, following their victories in Lok Sabha elections, through two separate ballots, thereby significantly increasing BJP's chances of bagging both seats as opposed to the standard procedure of preferential and transferable voting where the leading opposition party would have considerable chance of winning one seat.

It is significant that as many as 19 of the 40 parties invited to the all-party meeting on simultaneous elections chose to boycott the meeting. The CPI(M) and CPI attended the meeting but categorically rejected the idea. All forces committed to the defence of democracy and federalism will have to come together and firmly resist this sinister bid of the Modi government.