Simultaneous elections are a bad idea
‘One nation, one election’ might sound appealing, but it will have a number of anti-democratic consequences
In recent weeks, the push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government for simultaneous elections at the Centre and the states has gathered pace. Recall that as long as a year ago, a paper put out by NITI Aayog argued in favour of the proposal, essentially reiterating the arguments that Modi himself had made. It was suggested that imposing a uniform calendar on elections for the Centre and the states and holding these synchronized elections every five years would involve saving money and administrative expense, would avoid “policy paralysis” caused by elections constantly being fought somewhere or the other under the Election Commission’s model code of conduct, and other similarly themed practical and logistical arguments. More recently, the Law Commission invited political parties to a consultation on the simultaneous elections proposal.
While enshrining simultaneous elections into India’s political structure would require a slew of constitutional amendments, a practical start in this direction could come as early as the next few months—when, so the speculation goes, a clutch of upcoming state assembly elections could be either advanced or delayed to synchronize with next year’s general election, due no later than May. It appears that the idea is gaining traction. If Modi and his government are returned to power at the Centre, one should fully expect that the necessary constitutional reforms will be set in motion.
Apart from logistical considerations, which cannot be a serious reason for a major change to the basic structure of the Indian polity, the most seductive argument in favour of simultaneous elections is the allure of Modi’s phrase, “one nation, one election”. This matches the “one nation, one tax” rationale for the goods and services tax (GST), which, of course, came into force via its own constitutional amendment on 1 July 2017. Just as the GST swept away a raft of state-specific excise taxes and replaced them with a uniform tax structure across the nation (although not a single tax rate), simultaneous elections would sweep away the messiness of a nation always in election mode and replace it with the tidiness of elections everywhere, every five years, like clockwork.
While one can debate the economic costs and benefits of GST, the analogy with elections is logically flawed. Indeed, the concept of simultaneous elections fundamentally runs against the grain of our Westminster-style federal political union. “One nation, one election” would make sense if India were a unitary state. But we are a union of states, which is philosophically and politically an essentially different conception of the Indian nation-state.
Put more simply, “one nation, one election” is anti-democratic. For why should the election calendar in any given state be synchronized with that of the Centre? Doing so would rob a state of one of the essential elements of Westminster democracy: A government may choose to dissolve itself, or a government may fall if its loses its majority, and then the governor, acting on behalf of the president of the republic, will be obliged either to ask another combine to form a government, or must perforce call fresh elections. Keeping a moribund assembly in a state of suspended animation while the governor rules the state, presumably under guidance from the Centre, until the next predetermined election date rolls around, is nothing other than anti-democratic in spirit. It is inconsistent with the basic tenets of Westminster democracy, which are grounded in a government gaining legitimacy from one election to the next by being able to prove its majority.
Indeed, this precept applies not just to the states but at the Centre. Suppose a Union government loses its majority within the middle of a fixed five-year electoral cycle. The normal course of events would be for either a new government to be formed, or for fresh elections if that is not possible. Now, if instead we have president’s rule for the duration of the five-year period under the advice of a council of ministers drawn presumably from the now defunct Lok Sabha and the still functioning Rajya Sabha (which already has its own electoral calendar which this proposal presumably will not tamper with), what you have can better be described as constitutional oligarchy. It will certainly not be Westminster democracy.
Apart from these philosophical considerations, a move to have simultaneous elections threatens the federal character of our democracy at a more practical level. It gives pole position to large national parties, such as the current or previous governing party, which govern and campaign at the Centre and in most if not all states. These parties would reap the economies of scale of one large election every five years, to the disadvantage of regional parties which campaign for Lok Sabha and assembly elections only in their own states.
Likewise, in a single big election, national issues would tend to come to the fore and drown out issues of regional interest. The latter would presumably dominate an assembly election, which occurs organically rather than one forced to fit the Procrustean bed of a single national election.
In sum, “one nation, one election” will only serve the interests of those bent on further centralization of an already overly centralized union, and do a grave disservice to the federal character of our union as envisaged by the founders. This is a bad idea which should be rejected.
Vivek Dehejia is resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com