Just over a month after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in the 17th Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now urged parties to fall behind his ‘One Nation – One Election’ (ONOE) proposition: that State and national elections be held at a single point.
The idea exposes the subversion of democracy. The ONOE puts the nationally incumbent party at an advantage in State elections, a position that the BJP now enjoys. The incumbent can deploy government machinery for State campaigns, a mega persona birthed for a national campaign can be fed into State ones, and a last-ditch sleight-of-hand that wins the Centre may land victories in the States. Perhaps the BJP sees the ONOE as the remedy to the spectre of its losses in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the 18 months before a national win. Perhaps the party would have won in those States in the currents of an exploitative military nationalism launched in February 2019.
Roots in Gujarat
The ONOE catchphrase harks back to a moniker from Mr. Modi’s rule in Gujarat, where he introduced the idea of samras village panchayats — sarpanches selected ‘unanimously’ or by ‘consensus’. First floated in 2002, the idea was repeated in 2006. Sarpanches command significant resources, wield power, and deliver development largely through clientelism, echoing the workings of elected leaders at the highest level. Elections give voters the same chance to oust a sarpanch who has skewed the distribution of development, as to expel a ruling party at the State or Centre. Samras gave incumbents an advantage in being reappointed as sarpanch (they were already panchayat leaders, had financial and tactical resources, and were networked with government officials and party actors).
In Dahod, a predominantly Adivasi district bordering Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where I was doing fieldwork on how panchayats delivered rural development, bureaucrats confided that samras sprang partly from the Gujarat government’s failure to respond to the floods in Surat in 2006. The government’s incompetence was on display across national TV. Surat could have been the tipping point in a series of anti-people policies, including programmes of purported ‘greening’ and beautification that had displaced the urban poor, and rural schemes such as Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana remaining largely unimplemented, with funds later found to be ‘unavailable’ and the scheme quietly withdrawn.
Panchayat elections were due in December 2006, and Assembly elections in 2007. Political parties mobilise votes for Assembly elections through sarpanches, and as the ruling party, the BJP had close ties with incumbents. Perhaps Mr. Modi feared that new sarpanches would be more equivocal about supporting the party in 2007. Perhaps the act of ousting a panchayat incumbent would make people feel more adventurous about ousting the State’s incumbent. The germs of many of Mr. Modi’s ideas lie in Gujarat, and their finessed forms have been deployed on a national scale since he emerged as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014. The ONOE is the next point in the Prime Minister’s attempt to quash the Opposition that a democratic exercise may throw up.
Why does Mr. Modi seek to reduce the electorate’s verdict on his performance to a single point in time? Does another spectre, this time viewed from New Delhi, haunt the Prime Minister: that of multiple disenchanted constituencies (rural voters, the poor, Other Backward Classes, Adivasis, Dalits, religious minorities, and others) voicing their verdict in State election after another, and the domino effect this may have on the 2024 Lok Sabha poll? Assembly polls are due in Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra in 2019, Bihar and Delhi in 2020, and West Bengal in 2021. Assembly elections are related to myriad pressing issues, the result of complex interactions of State and national government policies.
As the BJP enters a second term at the Centre, several crises loom larger than before such as a banking crisis, unemployment, an economic slowdown, agrarian distress, a water crisis, and privatised health care and education systems. Mr. Modi appears to count on the din of a national campaign that the ONOE would invariably produce to carry both State and national elections for the incumbent at the Centre.
Mr. Modi justified samras by citing extreme spending by contestants and a drain on the exchequer, rationales now used to justify the ONOE. This, while proposals for State funding of elections languish, the Modi government introduced the electoral bond scheme in 2017 which renders donors to political parties opaque, and the BJP ran the most expensive campaign in India’s history in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. In Dahod, voters remarked that samras would simply shift contestants’ spending from voters to other contestants to take them off the race. In the lead-up to Gujarat’s panchayat elections in 2006, block development officers, revenue collectors and local BJP leaders pressured candidates to drop out of the race. Defiant candidates were verbally threatened with jail terms, and defiant villages were threatened with the withdrawal of development schemes.
Despite that, in Mahipura village where I did long-term fieldwork, and many others, contestants rejected samras, knowing that an election rather than ‘unanimous selection’, accorded legitimate power. A common comeback was ‘Why doesn’t Mr. Modi implement samras for his own seat?’ At the end of the panchayat elections in December, Dahod had one of the lowest samras rates across Gujarat. Incidentally, the district is overwhelmingly rural, resource-poor, and inhabited largely by Other Backward Classes, Adivasis and Dalits. Political freedom must appear particularly hard-won to its denizens. One contestant returned to a block development officer, saying, “Consensus pending consent, else not.” Candidates knew that samras gave an edge to an incumbent sarpanch, just as the ONOE would tilt the scale in favour of the nationally incumbent party. Like samras seeks to dismantle the institution of panchayati raj, the ONOE seeks to undermine the institution of a federated government by giving a tailwind to the national incumbent. The question that voters in Dahod posed to Mr. Modi in 2006 inspires another question today: why propose the ONOE a month into an overwhelming national win? Why does the party that has equated punctuated electoral wins with the legitimacy of governance seek to discard punctuated elections?
‘One Nation One Poll’ is a blatant quest to consolidate power by limiting, to a single moment, the opportunities for citizens to judge, evaluate and vote — the essence of freedom that an election promises. Mr. Modi announced a ‘development fund’ of ₹5 lakh to every panchayat in Gujarat that eschewed an election in 2006, roundly seen by the public as a bribe. Of 14,292 village panchayats in Gujarat, about 2,500 are currently samras. A fixture in BJP-ruled Gujarat, samras attempts to minimise the points, in space, of democratic choice. ‘One Nation One Election’ seeks to minimise these points, in time, to a single dot. The catchphrase is a giveaway, suggesting the goal of a single election for the country, and a single outcome from it.
Dolly Daftary is Assistant Professor of International Development at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston, U.S.