From a right-wing authoritarian party like the BJP, simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies have raised concerns about democracy and federalism. Opposition parties, civil society groups, and constitutional experts have questioned this idea’s feasibility, desirability, and legality
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr.
- Simultaneous elections offer a real solution, but it is dissonant with a parliamentary system with a federal structure
- India is not yet a mature democracy where elections can be held without security arrangements. there are many ways of
indulging in foul play
- The govt has already passed a bill on the appointment of election commissioners and their rank in the protocol hierarchy
- Democracy is known to be an untidy system with too many imperfections, but it is far superior to totalitarian single-party regimes
SIMULTANEOUS elections to the state assemblies and to Lok Sabha have been lingering on the BJP agenda for quite a long time. It has been part of the BJP manifesto for the 2014 and 2019 elections. But the manifesto was the least important part of the party’s election drive. It was a Narendra Modi-centred campaign in 2014 and in 2019, and it seemed to have paid a handsome dividend with the party scoring a thumping majority of 280 plus in 2014, and a 300 plus majority in 2019. Prime Minister Modi had harped on the ‘One Nation One Election’ often but prefaced it saying that it cannot be done without the consensus of all political parties.
LONG-STANDING BJP AGENDA
So when the Modi government declared a special session of Parliament from September 18 to 22, 2023, and followed it up with the announcement of former President Ram Nath Kovind heading an eight-member committee, which is weighted in favour of the government and in favour of ‘One Nation, One Election’ (ONOE) to give a report on it. It seemed that the government was in a hurry to implement the idea immediately, and this gave rise to the speculation that the general elections could be called in November to coincide with the assembly elections due in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana.
PM Modi and his colleagues in the government and in the BJP must have been greatly amused by the flutter it had caused in the opposition parties and in the media circles. Modi has established himself as a leader who takes snap decisions on the most vital matters, and it seemed that he would for ONOE here and now.
Ram Nath Kovind had however announced that the first meeting of the committee would be held on September 23, a day after the special session of Parliament, where the first session was held in the new building, was over. And he said that the issue would be considered with the existing constitutional provisions in mind. It seemed that it might still be a long drawn-out process. Whereas Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur declared that the government would complete its term, scotching speculation of an early Lok Sabha election. But it is still possible that the Modi government would want Ram Nath Kovind to submit its report in October or November so that the issue could be taken up in the Winter Session of Parliament, which will be held from the second half of November to the second half of December.
This committee, appointed by the Union Law Ministry, includes Home Minister Amit Shah, Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, NK Singh, Subhash C Kashyap, Harish Salve, and Sanjay Kothari. It’s worth noting that Congress Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury withdrew from it with a note to Home Minister Amit Shah saying that the move was a “total eyewash”.
The question remains whether the assembly elections due in November to the five states will be deferred till March-April, 2024, and the assembly elections due in 2024 will be combined with the Lok Sabha elections. As the BJP enjoys the majority in both the Houses of Parliament, it could push through the necessary amendments. And all of them need not necessarily be constitutional amendments
The committee will also look into the issue of whether the states need to ratify any constitutional amendments for this purpose. It will also explore and suggest possible solutions for situations such as a hung House, a no-confidence motion, defection or any other event that may arise in case of simultaneous polls. The Law Commission of India is expected to submit a report to the committee supporting the concept of simultaneous elections, which involves conducting both the Lok Sabha and state legislative assembly polls at the same time. As per sources, the Commission is likely to frame tentative timelines for simultaneous polls for the 2024 and 2029 cycles.
CHALLENGES AND CONSIDERATIONS
The question remains whether the assembly elections due in November to the five states will be deferred till March-April, 2024, and the assembly elections due in 2024 will be combined with the Lok Sabha elections. As the BJP enjoys the majority in both the Houses of Parliament, it could push through the necessary amendments. And all of them need not necessarily be constitutional amendments. The government has already passed a bill on the appointment of election commissioners and their rank in the protocol hierarchy. The election commissioners now will not enjoy the rank of a Supreme Court judge, but they will be at par with the Union cabinet secretary. The ONOE could be sorted out in phases until all the assembly and parliamentary elections are held on the same day. There will be many logistical issues involved in achieving the single election. It should be remembered that One Nation One Election does not necessarily mean it will be done on a single day though that should indeed be the ideal way of implementing this plan. There could be multi-phase elections, which then could spread over a two-month period as happens now.
The Lok Sabha elections now take place in seven to eight phases. There is also the number of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) that will be needed for simultaneous elections. Apparently, there would be a need for 30 lakh EVMs and Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines if there are to be simultaneous elections.
The Election Commission now has 13.06 lakh Control Units (CUs) and 17.77 lakh Ballot Units (BUs) of EVMs. And with 9.09 lakh CUs and 13.26 lakh BUs in production, there would be a total of 22.15 lakh CUs and 31.03 lakh BUs. There will be the issue of storing the EVMs and it would require a large warehousing space. Then given the law and order situation, the deployment of troops during the election day would remain a huge challenge.
India is not yet a mature democracy where elections can be held without security arrangements. The old-style booth-capture may have become antiquated, but there are other ways of indulging in foul play which need to be prevented. Intimidation of voters remains an issue. There are as yet no fool-proof safeguards against misusing EVMs.
In many ways, Modi and the BJP have the dream of being the imperial power in India that Congress had held in the first decade after Independence. There is also the strong belief that it would be easier for the BJP to win in the states if there are simultaneous elections, though this is not true in all cases
It can be argued that the nitty-gritty can always be sorted out if the big idea of ‘One Nation One Election’ is to be implemented. On the face of it, the whole nation of about 900 million plus people voting on a single day across the country conjures up a grand spectacle of democracy in action. And it might seem that it is something that should be possible. The BJP leaders and others who favour a single election in the country seem to believe that it will save costs. But it looks like the cost will be higher for One Nation One Election. The Election Commission officials told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in 2015 that the cost of a single election would be Rs 9,284.15 crore to procure the required number of EVMs and VVPATs. According to information provided in an answer to a question in Parliament, the Union government had given State governments and Union Territories Rs 5,814.29 crore between 2014 and 2019 for election expenditure.
NATIONALISM AND POLITICAL MOTIVES
Why is Prime Minister Modi keen on a One Nation One Election? It is part of his grand scheme to do things to bind the country in a single wrapping as it were because nationalism is the theme song of the leader (Modi) and the party (BJP). The critics view this nationalist scheme with suspicion because it is felt that what the BJP is really aiming at is to unite the Hindu voters across the country, because the ultimate dream of the BJP, and its ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is to create the Hindu Rashtra or Hindu state. If there is a single election, then the BJP feels it becomes easier to campaign on the single theme of Hindutva without having to pay attention to the local issues. Both also nurse the dream of being in power at the Centre and in all the States and Union Territories (UTs). It is to equal the Congress performance between 1952 and 1962.
The Congress lost many of the state assembly elections in 1967. Tamil Nadu in the South along with Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. In many ways, Modi and the BJP have the dream of being the imperial power in India that Congress had held in the first decade after Independence. There is also the strong belief that it would be easier for the BJP to win in the states if there are simultaneous elections, though this is not true in all cases.
A major constitutional challenge with the idea of a single election for the whole country is that it is assumed that there would not be a situation when a party does not command a simple majority as has happened with the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. To turn the lucky turn for the BJP in these two elections into a constitutional paradigm would require a lot of distortions. The way to achieve this would be to reduce the number of parties to two so that one party definitely wins the majority. It is in a multi-party situation that the electoral outcomes would be messy.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah, when he was president of the BJP between 2014 and 2019, had suggested that there should be a debate on the usefulness of a multi-party system. It cannot be ruled out that the BJP would try to undermine the multi-party system on the pretext of One Nation and One Election. It would also mean that there will be no midterm elections. The One Nation, One Election would also ensure that a party that wins a majority will stay in power for five years. The fixed term again was a favourite BJP idea when the party faced quick elections in 1998 and in 1999. Many BJP leaders at the time mooted the idea of a fixed term for Parliament.
The One Nation One Election is not an idea to keep the electoral system in India simple and efficient. In the hands of the BJP, and as a rightwing party prone to authoritarian politics, it becomes an instrument for eliminating smaller, opposition parties. It would mean that regional parties would have no place in the system because of the insistence on national unity. This is indeed the dangerous part of the grand plan of One Nation One Election. For the BJP, nationalism takes priority over democracy, and if democracy is seen as a hurdle to achieve uncomplicated national unity, then democracy would be pruned. This would mean questioning the basis of regional parties. Once the two-party paradigm is established, then the move towards marginalising the second party becomes so much easier. There are clear signs in the BJP that it would like to move towards a single-party rule, and the One Nation One Election is a step towards it.
It is the authoritarian propensity of the BJP, which has become so evident under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, where there is not a whiff of dissent either in the government or in the party that makes the party a threat to democratic functioning in the country. The Modi government very rarely gives way to criticism and opposition.
The only time that Modi relented was in the case of the farmers’ protests when he withdrew the farm laws, which his government had passed and held on to them for a long time despite strong opposition from the farmers. There is no tradition of backbenchers in the BJP, the group of legislators who would dare disagree with the party and national leadership but who have the space for dissent within the party. The BJP functions as a monolithic party under Modi. The One Nation One Election is BJP’s way to consolidate its power at the Centre and expand its footprint in the States. It might tolerate a weak opposition.
There is a need to look back at the experience between 1952 and 1967 when simultaneous elections were held. It shows that though the Congress had an overwhelming majority, the smaller parties had thrived in those four elections, and they could form governments in the states as coalitions after the 1967 election. There was political instability for a short period, and there was administrative chaos. But a strong democratic polity weathers political storms, and Indian democracy did in the first 20 years of its independence. And it survived the coalition era from 1996 to 2014 despite political uncertainties. Modi’s electoral victories in 2014 and in 2019 which ended the era of coalition governments is a natural pendulum swing in Indian politics. It looks like Modi believes that a party with a majority should be made a permanent feature of the Indian legislatures to eliminate the messiness of coalition governments.
Democracy is known to be an untidy system with too many imperfections, but it is far superior to totalitarian single-party regimes. There has to be the fundamental agreement that we prefer imperfect democracy and individual liberties to neat dictatorships. The issue of One Nation One Election is not about tweaking administrative arrangements to hold elections on a single day. It is something deeper than that. It is about keeping India’s chaotic democracy alive. One of the reasons that many countries in the world prefer India over China is because of democracy. What we need more than the slogan of One Nation One Election with its rightwing ideological overtones is a simple National Election Day, without compromising on the multi-party system. And in a multi-party system, there is always the possibility of no party getting a simple majority, which in turn leads to unstable coalition governments and the possibility of mid-term elections. There will be times when the people will give a clear verdict by giving a single party a majority as they did to BJP in 2014 and 2019.