The larger project of subverting the idea of India

The government’s ‘simultaneous elections’ agenda goes much further than the other ideas of ‘oneness’ it propounds; it will spell a deepening of centralisation

Updated - September 11, 2023 01:53 pm IST

Published - September 11, 2023 12:16 am IST

“It is only the electorate that now has the power to decide if they want to live with this particular idea of ‘One India’.”

“It is only the electorate that now has the power to decide if they want to live with this particular idea of ‘One India’.” | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The government’s ‘simultaneous elections’ agenda goes much further than the other ideas of ‘oneness’ it propounds; it will spell a deepening of centralisation.

It would be dangerous to dismiss the fresh impetus to introduce “simultaneous” elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies as yet another gimmick in the run-up to the next general election scheduled for 2024.

Editorial | Tiers apart: On the ‘one nation, one election’ trial balloon

While several committees since 1999 have examined the proposal, the push to introduce and make permanent simultaneous polls once every five years has come over the past decade, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi often speaking about its desirability. This, however, is perhaps the first time that a high-level committee is headed by a former President of India, a most unusual appointment that is meant to impose a stamp of legitimacy on the recommendation.

The selling of a simplistic idea and the truth

Of all the “One India” decisions taken by the Union Government since 2014, this proposal is the most important. If carried through, it will further centralise power in New Delhi, strengthen the hold of national parties when in office, and reduce the importance of regional parties. This is the immediate political purpose behind putting in place and codifying a system of simultaneous polls.

The idea is being sold under the garb of saving expenditure and avoiding the disruption of administration during elections. The argument that elections somewhere in the country throughout the year disrupt ‘hard work and good governance’ and are an expense we can ill-afford is a simplistic one. It yet appeals to a section of an electorate that is unhappy with bureaucratic and insensitive governance.

However, there has been a substantial body of analysis by independent commentators pointing out both the false rationale for and negative implications of introducing such a system. The burden of government expenditure on elections is not so large as to warrant such a change. The Model Code of Conduct need not come in the way of governance ahead of elections. Governance does indeed become affected when elections happen to be held in one State or the other every year. But this is only when the party holding office in New Delhi is forever in an election mode. When the ruling party or coalition at the Centre refuses to take national decisions fearing what impact it will have in one State or the other, then governance is disrupted. And it becomes an even bigger problem when the ruling party sees every election from a municipal election upwards as a must-win poll and all its senior functionaries spend as much time on campaigning as on governance. (As Y.V. Reddy, the chairman of the Fourteenth Finance Commission, pointed out five years ago in a wide-ranging discussion of this idea, elections are meant to hold governments accountable for their record of governance, and yet when they turn out to be frequent they are being faulted for disrupting governance.)

An argument made in favour of legally mandating simultaneous polls draws on evidence from one study conducted of voting percentages between 1971 and 2004 which showed that voter turnout in the States is lower when Assembly elections are held separately from those to the Lok Sabha. But this argument is only a rationalisation for the simultaneous polls idea. A higher voter participation is to be welcomed but it should be increased through other means rather than with a set of measures that will turn parts of the Constitution upside down.

A number of scholars and commentators have also pointed out that one way or the other, major constitutional changes will need to be made to the constitutional terms of the legislature and rules for unseating a government. After the first round of curtailing/extending the tenure of elected State governments, making simultaneous polls a permanent feature will require either fixed term governments, or the end of no-confidence motions, or “super-majorities” to unseat governments, or greater powers in the hands of the President/Governors, or a combination of such drastic changes. The alterations will in effect change the Basic Structure of the Constitution. All of this will reduce the importance of State governments, with the idea of federalism being given a body blow. There will be a corresponding concentration of power in New Delhi.

A project to wipe out diversity

The entire “One Nation, One X” agenda is part of a political project with the message that only one government, one political party and one leader can deliver and will transform India. The steady expansion over the years of Union government into the States’ domain in providing social and economic services, the intolerance of the Bharatiya Janata Party towards any political party unless it is a supporter, and the multi-dimensional projection of the Prime Minister as a leader who will change India as no one has before are part of this political project.

There is the larger well-known ideological agenda of denying India its strength in heterogeneity. It is instead a complete homogeneity that is valued — one nation with one dominant religion and one dominant language, if not one nation with one religion and one language. Where earlier the unifying message was unity in diversity in this land of heterogeneous peoples, communities, traditions and languages, the aim now is to impose a unity with a ‘oneness’. A stamp of homogeneity to wipe out the unique Indian character of diversity.

This will not be an easy task to accomplish even for a political formation with a 100-year-old ideological programme. To turn one of the current slogans on its head, the character of a civilisation with some thousands of years of history cannot be changed during a few terms of a government, however brute its majority in Parliament. This will not be for want of trying though.

The “One Nation, One Election” agenda goes much further than “One Nation, One Tax”, “One Nation, One Ration Card” and the like in imposing this “oneness”. If implemented, it will permanently increase multifold the administrative and political centralisation of power in the hands of the Union Government and correspondingly weaken the States.

We have been in the midst of a fortnight of frenetic political activity. A special session of Parliament has been convened by a government which has still not laid out its agenda. This will be an unusual sitting convened by a government which is otherwise only interested in ramming through legislation without debate. We have had the noise about “Bharat” and whether henceforth the country will be officially called only Bharat and not, as now, “India” and “Bharat”. All this on top of the new push for holding simultaneous polls which has been bandied about since 2014.

When and what will the high-level committee on simultaneous polls recommend? We do not have to guess what a committee that has been given a set of made-to-order terms of reference and seems to be packed with the king’s men will come up with. (The lone member from the Opposition had little option but to opt out of a committee that was suddenly announced without any prior consultation.)

The last word

How do we deal with such a proposed subversion of the Constitution? A Parliament that has been neutralised, a judiciary that is supine, a media that is largely subservient and a civil society that has been emasculated will not be able to resist the government’s plans. It is only the electorate that now has the power to decide if they want to live with this particular idea of “One India”.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is a senior journalist

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