One Nation, One Election – Concept, Merits and Challenges

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The concept of ‘One Nation, One Election‘ was proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while speaking to the Chief Ministers of 23 states and two union territories, at the fourth governing council meeting of the NITI Aayog held on 18th June 2018.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President, Amit Shah wrote a letter to the Law Commission, earlier in August, stating that holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly Elections will curb expenditure and make sure that the country is not perpetually in ‘election mode’.

‘One Nation, One Election’ is the concept of holding simultaneous elections of the Central and State governments, with the aim of consolidating effective governance between the Centre and States; where India can ‘compete with other nations by being an effective democracy’.

The concept of ‘One Nation, One Election’ is not a novel concept as it was the first election in independent India and was conducted in 1952 after the formation of the constitution, keeping in context the Centre and State assemblies. The practice of simultaneous elections was practiced, first, from 1952 to 1970, i.e. In 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967.

The practice was annulled during the tenure of Indira Gandhi‘s Prime Ministership, where the fourth Lok Sabha was liquidated early.

During the 1967 General Elections, the fourth Lok Sabha under Indira Gandhi’s leadership saw the Indian National Congress (INC) win a fourth consecutive term in power. This was also during a time where the party suffered significant losses in seven states, indicating a visible decline in support for Congress.

This led to the then Prime Minister taking the decision to hold elections for Lok Sabha and state assemblies separately – a decision, among others, that led to the party being split into factions.

The issue of simultaneous elections was raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016, with the notion being supported by former President Pranab Mukherjee, and current President Ram Nath Kovind. The issue was raised keeping in mind the heavy expenditures incurred in election processes, and also the perpetual state of elections that the country is in.

The idea of holding simultaneous elections between the Centre and State assemblies was put forth by the Election Commission, as early as 1983. The Law Commission headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, in its report in 1999 stated, “We must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once.”

The concept of reviving the ‘One Nation, One Election’ by the BJP-led NDA government has, expectedly, caused a push back from Opposition parties with the Congress being vehemently opposed to the notion stating, to the Law Commission, that it is against the basic structure of Indian federalism.

While the BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK), Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United), Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) have supported the proposal; the Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), Telugu Dasam Party (TDP), Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), Janata Dal (Secular) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have opposed the notion.

The concept of ‘One Nation, One Election’ has its own set of merits and challenges that come with in, in light of the present political context in the country.

Merits

I. Reduction in Government Expenditure

Apart from being a strenuous exercise, the processes of preparing for and conducting elections are an expensive affair. The consolidation of Central and State elections will greatly reduce the costs involved, and public funds can be better utilised for policy implementation rather than political campaigns.

II. Shift of focus from Campaigns to Policy

With the continuous series of elections taking place in various parts of the country, and in different phases; political parties and ministers are more focused on appeasing the masses through promises in campaigns, rather than effecting policies through governance.

The constant expenditure involved in political campaigns results in the lack of funds for effective policy implementation. Consolidation of Centre and State Assemblies will enable effective governance through policy implementation due to the availability of funds.

III. Reduction in Communal and Caste based Politics

Political parties are known to rise from, have affiliations to and engage in the appeasement of various communities- given the extensive diversity of the country, where it sometimes can be a cause of ideological and communal differences.

The ‘One Nation, One Election’ policy can remove the element of the divisive nature of election campaigns, by consolidating voters under one category.

IV. Lessening the burden on Security Forces

The continuous nature of elections in India warrant the need for and presence of security and para-military forces, for monitoring and maintaining security during election seasons.

Having a single time frame for Lok Sabha and State Elections can greatly reduce the burden of these security forces, and their services can be directed towards core issues of national security, rather than deal with the chaos of regional or internal security.

V. Ensuring Model Code of Conduct (MCC)

The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is a set of guidelines issues by the Election Commission of India for the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections – mainly with respect to speeches, election manifestos, processions and general conduct regarding the polling day and polling booths.

MCC cannot be enforced as it is not legally binding. The ‘One Nation, One Election’ notion will help maintain Model Code of Conduct without the need to enforce it.

Challenges

I. Constitutional Challenges

a. Dissolution and Postpone-ment

The Constitution of India is the supreme custodian of all Law. It states that every law should be in conformity with the Constitution, and derive power from it.

As stated earlier, the elections in the Centre, and especially states are spread across various timelines; with Assembly Elections being conducted months before, or around the period of General Elections. Certain Assemblies may have expiry dates well before the General Elections.

The Central government will have to impose President‘s Rule for six months, if it decides to postpone elections, as accorded by the Constitution. The move has to further be approved by both the houses of the Parliament in six months.

Article 83(2) states that the tenure for Lok Sabha is for five years unless dissolved, and Article 172 states the same for State Assemblies. States can dissolve assemblies before completing five years, but the dissolution of State Assemblies for the purpose of holding simultaneous elections is in violation of the Constitution. According to Article 356, the President can dissolve the state assembly in case of an emergency, but this also means that the President is bound by the Constitution.

b. Centre vs. State

The problem with the idea of holding simultaneous elections, in light of the various cultural demographies, is the fact that voters might differ in their decisions to elect Centre and State governments. Voters might want to elect a candidate in the state, which might not have the possibility of coming to power in the Centre.

Voters have a tendency to vote for similar parties at the Centre and State Assemblies. The biggest problem in simultaneous elections will be in regards to consent and coordination of regional parties, in light of the Lok Sabha polls. The existence of various regional parties presents a tough situation, where simultaneous elections might give existence to a one-party rule in the whole nation, without opposition to any action.

This can go against the very principles of Democracy in India.

II. Logistical Challenges

a. Three-tier Government – Centre, State & Local Self-Government

The structure of the Indian government can be seen as largely, Central and State government. However, the governance within states differs across regions and constituencies. Within states, local self-governments exist across districts and villages, which form the third tier in the system of governance.

The responsibility of holding elections in the third tier belongs to the state, and any modifications to the existing system can lead to tinkering with the federal scheme.

b. Voting System Driven by a Gamut of Factors

On the feasibility of simultaneous elections, a note prepared by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai for NITI Aayog concludes that simultaneous elections would harm the federal democratic structure of the Indian political framework as ‘it would benefit larger national parties at the cost of regional parties’.

The note further states that in context to elections in India, voting is a complex phenomenon driven by a gamut of factors such as; incumbency / anti-incumbency of governments, organisational strengths- the presence of alternate political options within states, perception of voters in regard to key leaders and candidates in Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies, the stance of political parties on various important state and national issues, political pacts between parties and so on.

Furthermore, diverse social aspects exist in regards to caste, religion and local community dynamics where vote banks and vote briberies can exist.

c. Additional expenditure on EVMs and VVPAT machines

The Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is a method of providing feedback to voters, where an independent verification printer machine is attached to Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). This allows voters to verify if their vote has gone to the intended candidate. VVPAT machines can be accessed by polling officers only.

The Election Commission, in its reply to the government’s proposal of ‘One Nation, One Election’, has said in requirements to EVMs and VVPAT machines; 12.9 lakh BUs, 9.4 lakh CUs and 12.3 lakh VVPAT machines need to be procured in the event of simultaneous elections. The estimated cost of these requirements would amount to 4,554.93 crore rupees.

Apart from this, the Commission stated that a lot of existing EVMs and VVPAT machines would have to be replaced with new ones. Additionally, there would be an increase of 14% in the number of polling stations for every round of simultaneous polls due an increase in the number of voters, and in regard to the delimitation process.

d. Hung Assemblies and Coalition Shifts

The aspect of simultaneous elections does not necessarily address the issues in situations that call for fresh elections before the five-year term lapse, like hung assemblies or coalition shifts – where the assembly may be dissolved due to a no-confidence motion.

These aspects seem inevitable and will result in the breaking of the system, if occurred. Hung assemblies can result in the imposition of President’s Rule in India.

III. Other Concerns

a. Expenditure can be reduced without Simultaneous Elections

Arguments have been made on the reduction in expenditure, favouring the conducting of simultaneous elections. However, a counter-argument states that expenditure can be reduced without ‘One Nation, One Election’, through strict regulation, and transparency and accountability of political parties.

Bringing a strict limit on election expenses, and promoting transparency in funding can help make the parties more accountable; thereby reducing expenditure.

b. Complacency among Political Leaders

It can be stated that political leaders are kept busy with the series of continuous elections across the country in different states and constituencies.

There is a fear that holding simultaneous elections may further cause complacency amongst politicians during their tenure where once elected, will only try to facilitate good governance during the election period.

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