‘One nation, one election’ is not a new idea, though Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presenting it in a peculiarly nationalistic context. In the first two general elections in 1952 and 1957, polls were successfully held all over India at a time for both parliament and state assemblies. For practical democratic reasons, the practice had to be discontinued. Some state governments fell before completing their 5-year term and went under President’s rule and the polls had to be rescheduled subsequently.
PM Modi’s ‘one nation, one election’ proposal is being viewed with skepticism by most opposition parties, and certain sections of the Indian Intelligentsia, even though, as was expected, President Ram Nath Kovind endorsed it during his address to both Houses of Parliament. The CPM has gone too far and dubbed the plan ‘anti-democratic and anti-federal’ and ‘an attempt to replace the parliamentary system with the presidential one’. The Congress Party sees it as a ploy to divert people’s attention from key issues such as unemployment and farmer suicides. The timing and the tone of the Prime Minister’s proposal have served the purpose he had in mind while serving this proverbial old wine in a new bottle and as intended, it has produced partisan and divisive notes.
True, Elections in the world’s largest democracy are becoming increasingly humongous and time-consuming and their cost is rising astronomically. India, it is argued perhaps cogently, remains in the election mode more often than not and the country’s development gets impeded because of the repeated imposition of the model code of conduct and government machinery is ushered into the conduct of the election at the cost of major policy decisions and their implementation. Considerable savings in money and manpower are possible if the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections are carried out together.
Such was the practice in the 1950s and 1960s when Congress enjoyed almost One-party rule all over India. Then the dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968-69 and the Lok Sabha in late 1970 led to separate elections to Assemblies and Parliament.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh claims that ‘one nation, one election’ is the country’s agenda, not the government’s. He perhaps means that India as a nation will be more united if only one election every five-years is held but he appears to be confusing or equating Uniformity with Unity. In common perception, the BJP “is making a pitch for simultaneous polls with an ulterior motive and …the saffron party wants to cash in on its stupendous victory in the 2019 General Election to wrest control of a majority of the states and union territories”, says an editorial in The Tribune dated June 21, 2019.
The fact is the regional parties upstaged the BJP in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In both these states, Lok Sabha and Assembly polls were conducted simultaneously in 2019. Elections are due in many states for Assemblies and opposition parties presume that they have a chance to overwhelm the BJP with regional dominance and influence the voter with their regional agenda.
The constitution will need to be amended but the amendment procedure is simple and amendments have been passed more than a hundred times and more for changing the constitution. In any case, the constitution does not clearly state whether we can or we cannot have the policy of ‘one nation, one election’. Article 83(2) says that the Lok Sabha shall be for 5 years unless dissolved earlier. Similarly, Article 172 says that tenure of State Assemblies shall be 5 years unless dissolved earlier. However, the state assemblies can be dissolved for specific reasons in accordance with Article 356 of the constitution and dissolving the assembly for simultaneous elections would be a violation of the constitution.
Also, since India is a federal country with a strong central government, ‘one nation, one election’ appears contrary to the spirit of federalism if not a violation of the federal structure.
As to saving of money, Modi’s avowals are doubtful. His own rallies are exorbitantly expensive and remain unaccounted. He must reform his own BJP party before he argues for saving the government money on elections. Money spent or overspent on keeping the elective democracy alive is fully justified and India has borne and can in future bear the financial burden of holding elections.
It is hoped that PM Modi will not make it a big issue and instead let the people and political parties mull over the revival of ‘One Nation, One Election’ practice slowly and gradually arrive at a consensus. It is not an urgent matter and needs general acceptance.
Should India not hold referendums on such issues?