An idea whose time has come

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An idea whose time has come

Tuesday, 19 September 2023 | Maahinkant Dubey

An idea whose  time has come

The idea of “One Nation, One Election” is a reverberation from the past. Though there are hurdles on the way, it is the way to go

While this proposition may appear to be a recent entrant in the annals of public discourse, the concept was, in fact, the status quo in the early formative years of the Indian democratic landscape. From 1952 to 1967, simultaneous elections were the norm, ensuring a rhythm and consistency in the political and governance cycles. However, this period of synchronisation began to disintegrate between 1968 and 1969, when a spate of premature dissolutions of several state assemblies led to a ripple effect that skewed the election timelines irrevocably.

While the merits and demerits of reviving the simultaneous elections are vigorously debated, it's important to recognize the judicial perspectives that have, in an indirect way, endorsed the need for political stability—a cornerstone argument for "One Nation, One Election." Specifically, seminal judgments like Kihoto Hollohan vs. Zachillhu And Others (1992) and SR Bommai v. Union of India (1994) serve as critical touchpoints in this context. Although these cases did not directly tackle the subject of simultaneous elections, their implications are far-reaching.

The Supreme Court, in Kihoto Hollohan, upheld the constitutionality of anti-defection laws, thereby affirming the need for legislative stability. Similarly, in SR Bommai, the apex court circumscribed the discretionary use of Article 356 by the President on the advice of the Cabinet, emphasising the sanctity of democratically elected state governments. In essence, these landmark judgments underline the judiciary's stance on the necessity for political stability and offer an implicit nod to ideas like "One Nation, One Election," which aim to create a more stable and predictable political environment.

The financial repercussions of separate elections are monumental. The figures are staggering, both for the Lok Sabha and the state elections. Let's talk numbers. The 2014 General Elections cost the exchequer INR 3,870 crores, a sum that could have easily funded several crucial social welfare programs whilst the estimated figures on the total expenditure rose to almost INR 30,000 crores. The 2019 elections escalated the costs even further, reportedly costing INR 60,000 crores when considering the total expenditure, including that by political parties and candidates. This is significant in the notion of the concept of ‘One Nation One Election’ because of the exponential rise in the estimated total expenditure during elections rising from INR 10,000 crores in the year 1998 to almost 60,000 crores in 2019. However, let's look beyond mere financials.

A lurking concern that doesn't catch the public eye as much as it should is the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). The MCC comes into effect as soon as elections are announced, freezing all new development activities and policy announcements. Considering that India virtually remains in an election mode year-round, the MCC has a long-term chilling effect on governance. Infrastructure projects face constant delays, policy implementation gets mired in uncertainties, and long-term planning takes a backseat. The MCC, in its current ubiquitous presence, essentially acts as a straitjacket on governance.

To pivot the country towards a "One Nation, One Election" model, a multi-tiered strategy will have to be envisioned. The challenge, constitutionally speaking, is colossal. A slew of amendments will have to be enacted. Article 83(2), which stipulates the term of the Lok Sabha, and Article 172, concerning the term of the state legislative assemblies, will need to be revised. While the constitutional changes form the bedrock of this transformation, the practical aspects cannot be overlooked. Logistically speaking, the transition would necessitate a massive upgrade in electoral infrastructure. The Election Commission would require more Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs).

So, what's the likely timeline for this tectonic shift? The drafting and passing of constitutional amendments alone could take up to two years, considering the political negotiations involved. A pilot phase, involving a few states, could take another two years. If successful, a phased rollout might consume an additional four to six years. Thus, we're looking at a timeline that stretches across nearly a decade, crossing multiple electoral cycles. The "One Nation, One Election" idea, although ambitious, reflects the aspirations of a nation that aims to balance its democratic ethos with administrative efficiency. It's a complex task, steeped in legal intricacies and logistical challenges. Yet, the potential advantages it offers—fiscal responsibility, governance stability, and administrative focus—make it a concept that demands serious attention. In a country as diverse and complex as India, the change will be anything but straightforward.

The prospective advantages of "One Nation, One Election" are multifold and transcend beyond fiscal savings. The idea also promises to bring a certain degree of predictability into the Indian political landscape. This stability, in turn, could make governance more accountable and transparent. But what about the international perspective? One compelling example is the United Kingdom, which had for decades operated under a system of 'snap elections' triggered by various factors including the loss of a no-confidence motion or the decision of the ruling party. This changed with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, championed by then Prime Minister David Cameron. The Act stipulated that general elections would be held every five years on the first Thursday in May. This reform brought a semblance of predictability into the British electoral process and has since been a point of reference for other democracies looking to streamline their electoral systems.

Implementing the "One Nation, One Election" idea would necessitate the realignment of several constitutional provisions. Article 356, which allows for President's Rule, and Article 365, concerning failure to comply with or to give effect to directions given by the Union, could both serve as disruptors to a fixed-term electoral cycle. Thus, modifications to these Articles, likely via constitutional amendments, would be necessary to create a legally sound foundation for simultaneous elections.

Moreover, the Election Commission of India would need to undergo massive infrastructural and logistical changes to implement this mammoth task. Advanced planning, down to the last detail, would be required. An exhaustive database would have to be created and maintained to ensure that electoral rolls are accurate, reflecting the dynamic demographic changes of a nation with a population of over 1.3 billion. Technological improvements, including the potential deployment of blockchain technology for secure and transparent elections, could also be explored. Given the grand scale of this change, one could argue that a decade might be an optimistic estimate for its full implementation. The first two to three years could be devoted solely to building a bipartisan consensus, followed by meticulous legal drafting. The pilot projects, reviews, and nationwide implementation could then be staggered over the remaining years.

The reality is that "One Nation, One Election" is a vision that demands serious contemplation. It requires us to juggle constitutional amendments, tackle logistical nightmares, address political concerns, and yet keep the democratic spirit intact. It's a high-stakes gamble, with the potential for monumental gains. The dividends it promises in terms of governance, fiscal responsibility, and administrative convenience, are too significant to overlook. It cannot just reform but transform the way India administers itself. In a country where every policy and every reform is intensely scrutinised, critiqued, and debated, the road to "One Nation, One Election" will undoubtedly be fraught with hurdles. Yet, it is an idea whose time has come, and it is up to the collective wisdom of the Indian polity to navigate the intricacies and lay down a roadmap for one of the most significant electoral reforms in Indian history.

(Writer is a legal expert; studied law at King’s College, London)

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