One election: A lost proposition

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One election: A lost proposition

Post Gujarat victory, the BJP must now once again push for One nation, One election, which is a step in the right direction to enhance administrative efficiency

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sense of renewed political invincibility after its massive win in Uttar Pradesh, expectations were rife of Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushing for what he has long been rooting for: One nation, One election. But two factors may now weigh against the BJP’s enthusiasm in propagating the one-election idea. First, the party’s pyrrhic victory in Gujarat and with the 2G verdict acquitting all the scam tainted of the UPA II, it has pulled out of Modi’s hands the anti-graft moral high  ground which has been a major poll plank that most of his campaign strike is built on. Second, the Gujarat cliff- hanger masks national seedings of farmer and youth discontent. Added to it are concerns of the Indian economy struggling to inch back to seven per cent  gross domestic product with jobless concerns mounting. Despite saffronising 19 States, some of which came under the BJP’s dominance recently, and the rest being ripe for anti-incumbency, it seems unlikely Modi will now push for consensus on One nation, One election.

Prior to these developments, the BJP was confident enough with tail winds favouring its national dominance. Also, as the lone mascot and star campaigner for his party, few Prime Ministers have had to plunge so deeply into State electioneering which could be a possible reason for having contemplated the idea of simultaneous polls in the Centre and States as Indian elections turn more presidential. Synchronised elections were proposed when LK Advani was deputy Prime Minister, as also in 1999, when the Law Commission of India, headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, called for an end to “this cycle of elections every year and out of season.”

In a feasibility report presented to the Rajya Sabha in December 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice declared a concurrence amongst political parties who appeared before the committee for simultaneous elections  to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, as a cost-effective noble proposition, “but difficult to implement because of our Constitutional arrangement.” Recently, even the Niti Aayog offered a detailed study on the merits and demerits of One nation, One election.

Till the 1960s, General and State elections were combined in the period of single-party dominance by the Congress. But the advent of coalition politics led to premature dissolution of Assemblies, altering the timelines for State elections. A call for simultaneous Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections has its merits in curtailing spends by political parties, who own large war-chests used for manufacturing consent through advertisements, rallies and distributing freebies, as also will cut down on the deployment of State machinery needed for administering polls. Besides, frequent imposition of the Election Commission’s model code of conduct months before the elections freezes capital expenditure, which is much-needed for developmental projects.

With 29 States and seven Union Territories holding elections cyclically, Government efficiency is reduced due to campaign overdrive. The cost to the exchequer in 2014 Lok Sabha election was estimated at Rs 3,870 crore, while State elections averaged Rs 300 crore per State, a figure that has been inflating over the years. However, fiscal prudence is unlikely to convince State satraps to consent to convergence, apprehending that voter behaviour is loaded in favour of pan-Indian, mainstream parties, should One nation, One election be implemented.

For example, in 2014, the BJP swept the Lok Sabha poll, but lost the elections in Delhi and Bihar in 2015. Both these losses may not have happened had One nation, One election prevailed because the mood of the nation in 2014 was a resounding Modi wave and Bihar and Delhi could well have been swept with that momentum. An IDFC research, with a sample size of 513 million voters, points to 77 per cent of the electorate choosing the same party if elections were combined.

Given India’s demographic diversity, federalism necessitates that individual States exercise franchise through a staggered three-tier structure more than once in five years by: i) addressing local and civic issues through municipal elections; ii) developmental issues, such as health, housing and infrastructure through State elections; iii) finance, defence and foreign affairs through central elections. Hence, the right of the electorate to exercise their franchise more than once in the span of five years and hold Governments accountable is much more important than limiting their options to One nation, One election because thereafter, voters have no recourse to express their approval or rejection for the next five years. Besides, the rise of regional parties is attributed to the State leaders being in tune with local hardships and local aspirations than a mainstream party. Consequently voters have different preferences for State and central leadership.

So, frequent elections have multiple merits in providing momentary employment, boosting domestic consumption, as also preventing the transfer of power to a single entity due to popularity surge that could help annex both State and Central rule, as against the dual election filter. When a ‘national wave’ phenomenon occurs, transient euphoria tends to cause irrational and momentary sweeps with no interim exit option to overthrow if the incumbent regime underperformed at the level of State governance or Central governance, as voter power is limited to being king-for-a-day in the ‘lustrum’ (the five-year tenure of appointed Governments).

As the BJP rode the momentum after its resounding successes in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, the wins were interpreted as serial referendums that endorsed central policies. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has saffronised 19 States across the country and in 13 of these States, the Chief Minister belongs to the BJP. Now at this stage, with anti-incumbency building up at the centre, the proposed amendment may not necessarily favour the ruling regime and may also be its biggest gamble.

Besides, no Chief Minister would want his term curtailed to less than five years if he has recently won a tough election. Yet, Modi was expected to bring forward and club forthcoming State elections with the General Election, had the party’s internal assessments pointed to a favourable national mood.

In favour of One nation, One election, voters have been fatigued with the ‘revolving door patterns’ in States, such as Mayawati followed by a Mulayam rule in Uttar Pradesh, or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam followed by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam rule in Tamil Nadu, and seem to prefer national and stable formations replicated in States too. Going for One nation, One election could well have been a winner-takes all for the Modi sarkar in 2019 if the reform gets passed, but that was provided the momentum sustained in favour of the Modi sarkar.  Unlike one nation one tax of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the BJP has no consensus on the proposed reform outside NDA. And even for the GST, where most States consented, it took seven years for the Finance Minister to dialogue with his State counterparts to make it a reality.

While the jury is still out on the pros and cons of synchronised elections, if the proposal is implemented with the intent to enhance administrative efficiency, it could be a step in the right direction. But the sheer logistics of holding simultaneous elections could be unmanageable to implement, given that the electorate exceeds 670 million voters and 7,00,000 polling stations spread across varying geographic zones that will have to consider localised weather conditions, festivals and events. Also, local and national issues could get subsumed by each other and fears would abound on the misuse of Article 356 by the Union Government, making One nation, One election an impractical concept to cater to a diverse polity such as India.

(The writer is an author and columnist)

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