Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most distinguished thinkers wrote in November 2016 that “we are now entering the politics of “permanent revolution.” The public intellectual had critiqued the government’s penchant, “to come up with new and radical moves with increasing frequency.” His political observation could prove to be correct.
BJP government is about to re-launch the agenda of simultaneous elections of ‘Panchayat to Parliament” with a single voters list for all levels of direct and indirect elections all over the country.
In the last fortnight or so India’s ruling party has asked all its spokespersons across state capitals to organise webinars to debate the advantages of the simultaneous elections — also called One Nation, One Election.
Perhaps the most striking character of BJP is its appetite to launch trendsetting but invariably controversial ideas related to the economy or policy-making which inevitably create huge countermoves by opposition parties and the country’s many citizen’s groups.
Be it Dalit scholars-led Bhima-Koregaon convention, Shaheen Bagh agitation against CAA or the current farmers protests against the country’s farm laws, the government with its strong ideological commitment often takes such street-level protests head-on.
But this time it is different. Compared to BJP government’s previous radical moves — from demonetisation to the farm laws, the idea of simultaneously holding elections for the country’s parliament, state assemblies and district bodies and, even village panchayats is the most serious one till date.
It will have a lasting impact on the country’s political and electoral fabric. Local body elections, in particular, are a state subject under the federal arrangement. Attempt to tinker with it could be fiercely opposed.
No trial balloon
On November 26, 2020, Narendra Modi spoke about One Nation, One Election in a webinar of All India Presiding Officers. The Prime Minister said, “One Nation, One Election isn’t just an issue of deliberation but also a need of the country. Elections are held at different places every few months and it hampers the developmental work.”
Unlike many previous issues, this issue is actually quite well-debated at various levels inside and outside the government. In its first annual report published in 1983, the Election Commission of India recommended it. It was simultaneously suggested by the Law Commission in 1999 and 2015.
The most serious debate on it was conducted by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution in 2002. Subhash Kashyap, one of the members, who drafted the report told Gulf News, “Justice Venkatachaliah-headed Commission to review the Constitution had recommended implementation of simultaneous elections in India as it will help in the idea of national integration.”
However, at the political level most in-depth debate was conducted by the parliament’s Standing Committee under the chairmanship of Sudarsana Natchiappan (Congress Member of Parliament). The report on “feasibility of Holding Simultaneous Election” of Lok Sabha and state assemblies was submitted in December 2015.
The Committee recommended “an alternative and practicable method” of holding simultaneous elections. The idea was supported by many political parties with caveats except Trinmool Congress.
Many regional parties, including Nationalist Congress Party told the Commission that the idea is not feasible because it requires Constitutional amendments to curtail or extend the term of state assemblies or Parliament and also because it has inbuilt disadvantages in the Indian style of democracy.
Natchiappan, who travelled all over India with fellow members of the Committee, said, “Almost all political parties felt that simultaneous elections is a cost-effective, noble proposition but difficult to implement because of our constitutional arrangement.”
Stakeholders also pointed out that neither simultaneous election to Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies nor midterm poll is contemplated in the Constitution. India’s principal opposition party, Congress, for instance, is now firmly against the idea.
Overshadowing regional concerns
Natchiappan defends the opposition’s stance, “The Standing Committee never said that the Panchayat election should be held simultaneously. That would be extremely wrong. Even in the report we have said that regional parties are worried that in simultaneous elections, national issue will overshadow the regional concerns. The ruling party now wants all the elections on one date. BJP wants monolithic government, controlling democracy all over India.”
BJP counters the argument by citing examples where people have voted differently in Lok Sabha election and in assembly election that were held at the same time. Niti Aayog, on the request of the PMO, had looked into the issue in recent years. A paper put out by the government’s policy think tank argued, “There are many compelling reasons in favour of simultaneous elections.
Suspension of development programmes and welfare activities due to frequent imposition of Model Code of Conduct, massive expenditures by government and various stakeholders on frequent elections, black money, engagement of government personnel and security forces for a prolonged period of time, perpetuation of caste, religion and communal issues etc”
For the BJP, holding the elections simultaneously is absolutely necessary because it expedites their idea of national integration. The concept is not novel too. Between 1952 and 1967 the Lok Sabha and assemblies election were held simultaneously.
Also, because India has an anti-defection law, making its assemblies and the parliament relatively politically stable, a fixed date to hold uniform elections is not an impossible task. Without any consensus, it may prove to be politically difficult.
Natchiappan contends that there is a democratic way to hold election together in two phases every five years. If during the 2024 Lok Sabha election all those states — that are holding elections six months before and six months after the parliamentary elections — can be clubbed together with Lok Sabha election, then half the job will be done. Remaining states should be clubbed at another date agreeable to all political parties.
Knowing well the fractured political class in country today, there is a need of political consensus over the issue. As the Niti Aayog paper authored by Bibek Debroy, Chairman of Prime Minister’s economic council, concludes, “Without general consensus and wider acceptance, its intent and efficacy could be compromised.”