‘One Nation One Election’ an Assault on Federalism Say Former Civil Servants
The Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG) is a group of former civil servants from the All India and Central Services and is non-partisan and apolitical in nature. Many of its members have conducted, managed and supervised elections to Parliament and State Assemblies during their time in government service.
We have noted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies saying that it is “not only a subject of debate but a necessity for India.”
The main reason given is to avoid frequent suspension of development programs and welfare activities due to the repeated imposition of the Model Code of Conduct by the Election Commission of India. The additional reasons given are to avoid huge expenditure in conducting frequent elections and to reduce the influence of black money, caste, religion and communal issues in elections.
Proponents of this suggestion argue thus: “Getting out of the ‘permanent election mode’ will be a structural change in mind-set that could potentially provide the much-needed space to governments to focus on governance and long-term transformational measures without worrying about impending elections.” Supporting this contention, some quote the American example of simultaneous elections for all electoral offices from President downwards.
We are of the view that these arguments lack sincerity and are being used only to divert attention from the many flaws in our electoral laws and practices, including those relating to safeguards in the use of EVMs and to the use of post-election defections to gain power. To the Prime Minister’s rhetorical question, “Why should the country waste so much money?” the response would be that money is being spent on a number of items other than elections as well, e.g. purchasing aircraft for the President and Prime Minister’s exclusive travel, building massive Parliament and Secretariat buildings in Delhi’s Central Vista and many others.
It is well known that ‘simultaneous elections’ is what India started with in 1951 and continued with up to 1967, during which period Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assembly elections were held together without much fanfare. It was after this period that the cycle of synchronised elections got disrupted, primarily because many state governments (as well as governments at the Centre) could not complete their term of five years. Restoring the status quo ante to synchronise elections to the State Legislatures and Parliament would present major constitutional hurdles, apart from huge logistics, security, and manpower issues being involved.
The ‘One-Nation-One-Election’ proposal, as envisaged, has little regard for the fact that in a federal democracy, once the respective domains of each unit of democracy – small or big – have been constitutionally demarcated and defined, that unit functions autonomously within its domain. The interests, the priorities, the mores and the conventions of each unit are its own and are not subordinate to those of the Union, except where the Constitution itself so mandates. The term of the Legislative Assembly of a state has nothing to do with the term of the Lok Sabha and depends primarily on the way electoral politics plays out within that state.
Holding of simultaneous elections is a political agenda of a state aiming at a unitary polity, in which the Centre is conflated with 'national' and the States treated as its subordinates, with their individual political fortunes deferring to those of the Centre. This is an assault on the fundamental principle of federalism in which each unit of democracy and governance is expected to function with relative autonomy and take its own decisions, whether it is the timing of elections, the framing of its laws and/or formulating its own policies in respect of subjects in the State List/Concurrent List.
What is worrying is not just the disregard for the federal character of the country, which is implicit in the ‘One-Nation-One-Election’ idea, but the barely concealed contempt for electoral democracy itself. The dangerous assumption here is that the need to periodically seek the mandate of the people is an unnecessary burden which comes in the way of efficiency. Governance, here, is viewed as something superior to and outside the practice of democracy and as the preserve of the administrative and political executive which controls it. The implication is that the people, the voters, have nothing to do with it, a totally unacceptable principle in a democracy.
India is a Union of States and the administrative convenience of the Central Government or the Election Commission of India cannot dictate the political processes of a state. Doing so could decimate whatever is left of the federal nature of the country and alter the basic structure of the Constitution as laid down by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati (1973) and the S.R. Bommai (1994) cases.
At the same time, it is common knowledge that there are serious flaws in the current electoral processes and practices, with many electoral reforms being urgently needed. These include the use of money and muscle power in elections, the increasing participation of criminal elements in the election process as candidates, the faulty preparation of electoral rolls, the lackadaisical implementation of the Model Code of Conduct and addressing the mounting concerns on the integrity of EVM voting and VVPAT counting, as well as on the opaque electoral bonds system.
We are of the considered view that it is electoral reforms that are the need of the hour today and not the idea of “One-Nation-One-Election”, which, if implemented, will be destructive of our federal structure. If the Government of India sincerely wishes to improve the operation of the electoral system in India, it should work in tandem with all political parties (and in consultation with the Election Commission of India) to initiate reforms to improve the fairness and transparency of the election process.