A ‘distraction’ balloon in the winds of federalism

The ‘one nation one election’ proposal, premised on flimsy grounds, is politically unfeasible, administratively unworkable and constitutionally unviable

Updated - September 05, 2023 09:58 am IST

Published - September 05, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘The one election idea smacks of arrogance and ignorance of India’s political diversity’

‘The one election idea smacks of arrogance and ignorance of India’s political diversity’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The ‘one nation one election’ proposal mooted yet again by the Narendra Modi government is deeply flawed. The reasons for the proposal are fallacious. The idea is unimplementable. It is nothing but a ‘distraction’ balloon floated to tide over the negative headlines about the Prime Minister’s cronyism and the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s snub to the G-20 summit.

The government argues that India is in a ‘permanent campaign’, to borrow the words of the American political commentator Sidney Blumenthal. India has had either a State or a national election every year for the last 36 years. This devours enormous financial resources and efforts, and the time of the government and political parties is the seeming concern. An election held constantly in some part of the country with a ‘model code of conduct’ distracts from governance and leads to policy paralysis. This is the essence of the opening argument in the notification issued a few days ago to constitute a panel to study a ‘one nation one election’.

Do not conflate these two

Except ‘India’ does not have an election every year, one of India’s States does. There is a fundamental difference between the two. When there is an election in say Bengal, with the Trinamool Congress, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left contesting, a Tamil Nadu governed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is not impacted. An election in Assam with a model code of conduct does not stop road projects or ‘development’ in Gujarat. So, when there are elections in a few States, ‘India’ is not in an election mode; some of India’s States are. All of India’s major political parties are not in an election mode, only some are. It is important to not conflate the two, since this notion is the basis for all arguments used to propagate the ‘one election’ idea.

The national parties with a Delhi-based high command culture such as the Congress and the BJP are the ones that may feel the pressure of constant elections because municipal or State elections held in any part of the country involve their national leadership — especially, when the campaigners-in-chief of the BJP, for a local body to a State election held anywhere in the country, also happen to have the important jobs of Prime Minister and Home Minister, it can feel like they are being stretched in a ‘permanent campaign’ and sidetracked from governance. But if the BJP chooses or wants to fight all elections in the country with the Prime Minister as their campaigner-in-chief and the Home Minister as their sole election in-charge, it is their flaw and not the nation’s problem. It is certainly not a virtue for a Prime Minister to be so frequently relegating the duties of his office, meant to serve all citizens, to a lower priority such as the electoral interests of his party.

Each of India’s States has different political cultures and parties. Why should the basic constitutional structure of the country be changed for two national leaders to help balance their campaign and governance schedules, under the alibi of perennial elections? The one election idea is only for the convenience of the BJP’s campaign and smacks of arrogance and ignorance of India’s political diversity. Furthermore, this is an attack on and an affront to India’s federalism. Today, an elected Chief Minister of a State has the powers to recommend dissolution of their State legislatures and call for early elections, as Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) did in 2018, breaking the cycle of simultaneous State and Parliament elections in the State. Under a ‘one election’ framework, KCR will not have the right to do this. Why should these powers be taken away from the States and only the Union government have the powers to dictate the election schedule for every State? This is yet another blow to India’s federalism.

Misleading arguments

Yet another misleading argument put forth in support of the idea is that between 1951-52 and 1967, India had simultaneous elections, and hence it is appropriate to revert to that system. That was not by design but by happenstance, since all States started off the block at the same time and had stable tenures in the first two decades after Independence. It is a testament to India’s plurality and the need for diverse political representation that a plethora of regional parties mushroomed over the last six decades to govern various States as per their own election schedules as the State’s politics warranted. It is foolhardy and regressive to forcibly re-synchronise the election schedules of various States by design.

Cost savings is the other reason cited for a concurrent elections proposal, something that even knowledgeable political commentators fall for but one that is deceptive.

Various estimates by the Election Commission, NITI Aayog and the government show that the costs of conducting all State and parliamentary elections in a five-year cycle work out to the equivalent of ₹10 per voter per year. The NITI Aayog report has also said that when elections are synchronised, it will cost the equivalent of ₹5 per voter per year. If any, in the short term, simultaneous elections will increase the costs for deploying far larger numbers of electronic voting machines and control units. So, it is laughable to imply that India’s federalism needs to be subverted, political diversity thwarted, and the constitutional structure amended to save ₹5 for every voter in a year. The government could have saved that amount just by not building the grand ‘Central Vista’ in Delhi. Political parties and candidates may spend a lot more money on elections than the government but that is not the tax-payers’ money. On the contrary, there is economic research to suggest that such election spending by parties and candidates actually benefits the economy and the government’s tax revenues by boosting private consumption and serving as a stimulus.

The government’s logic is incompatible with the vagaries of a parliamentary system in a large and diverse democracy. A single election calendar may work in a presidential system where the survival of the executive is not dependent upon a legislative majority. In India’s parliamentary democracy, this is ipso facto a non-starter and one should not be wasting the nation’s time deliberating on this.

Unitarism in the form of efficiency

‘One nation one election’ is a politically unfeasible, administratively unworkable and constitutionally unviable proposition. The idea is premised on flimsy and shallow grounds of cost savings, policy paralysis and governance interference. It is nothing but a deliberate ploy of the Narendra Modi government to move the headlines away from cronyism and China. That it chose to use ‘one nation one election’ to deflect attention is a reflection of its dismal lack of belief in India’s federal democratic parliamentary structure. The real implicit message underlying the Modi government’s ‘one election’ distraction is the clear ideological divide in Indian politics today — the BJP’s “India is a uniform nation and polity” versus the INDIA alliance’s “India is a union of diverse states and polities”. Those of us who believe in the real India will never seek to shoehorn it into a deranged fantasy of unitarism dressed up as efficiency.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of the Congress party’s Data Analytics. Shashi Tharoor is a three-term Member of Parliament (Congress) and Chairman of Professionals Congress

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