Political Line | Reversing democracy for stability

(This is the latest edition of the Political Line newsletter curated by Varghese K. George. The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

September 03, 2023 06:57 pm | Updated September 05, 2023 02:33 pm IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is committed to ‘one nation, one election’. The idea is to have polling for Parliament, State Assemblies, and local bodies in one go every five years.

The reasoning for this is the following: simultaneous polling for all representative bodies will reduce election expenses; frequent polling cycles are not only expensive for the state and participants but also distract government officials and disrupt development work; hung Assemblies and unstable governments slow down the progress of the nation. These can be valid points depending on one’s vantage point.

The link between democracy and capitalist development is a complex one, though the western propaganda is that one leads to the other. It is a different matter that western capitalism is sustained through its deep linkages with the authoritarian political economies of Arab countries and China. There are many who believe that too much democracy is bad for growth and development. For instance, if displacement of a community is necessary for a new project, it is easier when its democratic rights are limited.

The mechanism of representative democracy is not uniform across societies that are democratic. Some are two-party systems, some are multiparty; life of Parliament and voting age vary from country to country. Some countries have proportional representation according to votes scored by parties; in some countries, whoever gets more votes wins. How constituencies are delimited also determines the outcome of elections. 

The mechanism of representative democracy continues to evolve — for instance, in India there is a debate on reserving seats for women, apart from the already existing quotas for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In the U.S., Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy proposes raising the voting age to 25. Congressional elections take place every two years, and some people think it is too frequent and makes governance difficult. Now, India is debating fixed five-year terms for all representative bodies, but there used to be a periodical demand that voters should have the right to recall their representatives even before the end of the five-year term. Anarchist political movements led by Jayaprayakash Narayan, and Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal demanded the right to recall, which they claimed would increase political accountability.

India’s vast diversity results in numerous parties. Often, this leads to fractured verdicts in which no party is able to get an absolute majority in Parliament. The BJP and its co-travellers think the situation can be remedied by mandating a fixed term for the legislature. The Law Commission, in 2018, envisaged a five-year process starting in 2019 and maturing by 2024, by when India would have synchronised all State and Parliament elections. It requires several constitutional and other legal amendments, but that is beside the point. The BJP has demonstrated that it can be innovative when it comes to achieving its objectives, regardless of the constitutional barriers. So when and how this plan can be achieved is less pertinent than why at all.

What happens if an incumbent government loses the trust of the legislature? One proposal that is being mooted is that any no-confidence motion in a House will have to be accompanied by a positive proposal for an alternative government. In other words, an incumbent government remains in office not until it loses majority, but until someone else can prove their majority. The Indian political system is already tilted in favour of the incumbent and this proposed mechanism will tilt the scale further in the same direction.

Yes, it might be good if all elections are synchronised and take place only once every five years. But the health of a democracy is not determined by the regimentation of elections. Hung verdicts and numerous parties in India mirror the vast diversity of the country. The proposed ‘one nation, one election’ restricts the most fundamental freedom of expression in a democracy — voting. Arguments for limiting elections are all arguments against democracy itself — it is messy, slow, and often undermines the collective interest of society itself. But that is a slippery slope.

What if we extend the same logic and seek more ways of making elections efficient so to speak? Universal adult franchise is a very recent phenomenon in the world. For instance, women secured voting rights in France only in 1945, though we count the French Revolution of 1789 as a key milestone in the evolution of modern democratic rights. Should only people with a certain level of education be allowed to vote? Should people be tested for their patriotism to be eligible to vote? Should voting age be raised or lowered? Should there be a retirement age for voters? These are not mere conjectures. The National Population Register-Citizenship (Amendment) Act combination that is being proposed in the context of Assam will create a large number of residents without voting rights. Altogether, the idea of ‘one nation, one election’ could reverse the ongoing expansion and deepening of Indian democracy. That is too high a cost for stability, if at all that is achieved in the process.

Federalism Tract: Notes on Indian Diversity

The last of the Kuki-Zo people, who had stayed put in Imphal after ethnic violence erupted in Manipur on May 3, said they were forcibly evicted from their homes by security forces in the early hours on September 2. 

State-building needs categories and labelling of people and places; nation-building requires expanding categories. The propensity, always, is to subsume smaller groups as part of bigger ones. ‘The ethnic conflict in Manipur between the Kuki and Meitei communities since May 3 has put six minor tribes — Aimol, Chiru, Chothe, Kharam, Koireng, and Kom — at the crossroads. The unease for these minor tribes has been triggered by the bid to identify them as either Kuki or Naga. The Nagas are the largest tribal group in Manipur followed by the Kukis’.

There is a shrinking community of Tamils in Manipur, in the Moreh town bordering Myanmar. What is today Myanmar was once part of the British Empire, and there was also a debate during the national movement whether it should also cover that region. Tamils who happened to be in Burma (as Myanmar was then called) ended up in a peculiar situation of identity confusion, which continues till today, and they are caught in the crossfire of the Kuki-Meitei conflict

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