Representation image of election process
Representation image of election process

One nation, one election and the multiple problems it cannot address

The concept proposes that concurrent elections mean better administration and more development. However, there is no research to prove the same.

The synchronisation of poll cycles, dubbed ‘One Nation, One Election’, so that elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies are held together, has long been a BJP/RSS pet project. It was first mooted by its veteran leader LK Advani and found renewed vigour since the BJP formed the government in Delhi in 2014 under Prime Minister Modi. This subject found mention in successive official speeches of both the previous Presidents - Pranab Mukherjee (Republic Day address) and Ram Nath Kovind (joint address to both houses of the Parliament). Such elections are not novel to India - simultaneous elections (both for the Lok Sabha and local Assembly) were held in India during the initial decades after our independence - 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. It changed only in the 1970s, with the mushrooming of numerous regional and national parties, did it change.

The increasing number of political parties led to coalition governments, leading to many unstable governments at both Union and state levels. Since then, it has been impossible to have both elections together simultaneously. Starting from 1967, sub-national governments have been dismissed more than 47 times for various reasons. Some have been explicitly dismissed by the President, just because the sub-national governments opposed the Union government of the day, leading to the travesty of democracy. In 1991, the DMK government was dismissed, just 16 months after coming to power. The Charan Singh government was overthrown within four months. In 2021, the Fadnavis government had to quit within three days.

BJP believes in the oneness of everything: One ration, religion, culture, language, educational policy, fertiliser, tax and now election (proposed). The current policies of this government have made India one of the least federal countries in the world. Not that India was truly a federal country to begin with – we were a quasi-federal country – with more power accumulated at the Union. And, moves such as one nation, one election will erode the existing federalism in this country.

Most opposition parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), have vehemently opposed the one nation, one election move of the BJP government on the grounds that it is anti-federal and anti-Constitutional. Our leader MK Stalin called it a death knell for Indian democracy and requested the BJP and those supporting it celebrate elections as the "greatness" of democracy rather than viewing them as a mere electoral expenditure. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) opposed the proposal, alleging that it was a ploy of the ruling BJP to “legalise the sale and purchase” of elected representatives under its Operation Lotus.

The proposed one election concept creates more problems than it promises to solve. It proposes that concurrent elections mean better administration and more development. However, there is no research to prove the same. Most research points to the contrary - lesser political accountability for regional governments. Research by Emanuele Bracco and Federico Revelli, showcases that when concurrent elections are held to both provincial and national governments, the less salient (provincial) contest stops affecting provincial electoral outcomes. This implies that voters might be less aware of local issues and unconsciously respond to national issues while voting for provincial governments. Apart from impeding growth at a local level, this could be harmful to the growth of individual states (as it would overlook regional interests and aspirations).

There are other unsolved questions. What will happen if a specific sub-national government is toppled within the first six months after coming to power? Will new elections be conducted or will President's rule prevail for the next four years? If new elections are conducted, then what is the term of the newly elected government? What happens if a government loses confidence or is toppled just 16 months before the end of the term? Will there be a President's rule for the remaining 16 months or will fresh elections be conducted? If the President's rule prevails for 16 months, then it is against the basic principles of federalism. If an election will have to be conducted, then how long will the newly-elected government be in power? If it is five years, then what is the purpose of this amendment?

Eventually, it would be a repeat of the existing system. Or, if for just 16 months, then it is a loss of taxpayers' money and would result in administrative paralysis. The bureaucracy might not cooperate as it would be sure that there would be a new government in the next 16 months. The government elected for just 12 to 16 months in power would focus on the impending election rather than long-term policies. It is pertinent now because more and more state governments are being toppled using money power.

Also, what happens if the President dismisses the Lok Sabha, as per article 83(2) of the Constitution, before the end of five years? The 1990s alone witnessed four Lok Sabha elections. In such a scenario, will the Lok Sabha elections be held together with state elections? In that case - all the elected governments - all the 28 states and Union Territories - will have to be dismissed. It is again a travesty to democracy, as it goes against the will of the people who have voted for the respective state governments. As we have seen in our 76-year-old democracy, people vote for different issues in Parliamentary and Assembly elections.

All these probabilities do not make it certain that holding concurrent elections may reduce the cost of conducting elections. There is no empirical study to prove a causal link between concurrent elections and reduced electoral expenses. Neither the government nor its think tank has released research findings based on concrete data to back this hypothesis. Most expenditure incurred by the government in conducting elections is not by the government exchequer but by the political parties themselves. During the 2014 elections, political parties spent Rs 30,000 crore. If the BJP is keen on electoral reforms, it should focus on eliminating illegal money in electoral politics. Instead, BJP has done the contrary and introduced electoral bonds, which have legalised corruption and significantly increased the role of money in politics.

As we all know, resources play a major role in elections in India or elsewhere. A national party contesting in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections would need an enormous amount of resources. As per the Election Commission of India, BJP receives about 57% of the entire electoral funding. The BJP obtained Rs 5,270 crore out of a total of Rs 9,208 crore or 57 per cent of all total electoral bonds sold till 2022. Therefore, one nation, one election will put BJP at a natural advantage in the short term, compared to other parties.

Across the world, most democracies do not hold concurrent elections, because the disadvantages clearly outweigh the advantages. Even Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, etc. which have a system of democracy – the Westminster system – similar to that of India and the UK, do not have concurrent elections. In most of these countries, the institutions of sub-national governments have a greater say (selection of dates, etc.) in organising these elections. In Germany, state elections are held under different rules set by different Bundesland (states). Even the system of democracy (some form of proportional representation) and duration of the Legislative Assembly vary according to Bundesland. States such as Bavaria and Bremen hold elections once in four years, while others like Berlin and Baden-Württemberg hold elections once in five years.

This whole idea, if implemented, will dilute the principle of democratic decentralisation at a time when India needs more decentralisation. Currently, India, despite being the most heterogeneous democracy, has the least amount of decentralisation. Even relatively homogenous countries such as Canada, Germany and Spain have decentralised to a greater extent. India needs more autonomy in how individual states govern themselves and not less of it. We need more plurality than more oneness of anything and everything because our unity lies in our diversity and we should embrace it.

If political parties (BJP here) are keen to enact election reforms, they should keep the nation first and take a non-partisan approach. One nation, one election, tends to favour the mighty incumbent at the Union in the short term. 

Salem Dharanidharan is a DMK national spokesperson and state deputy secretary of the DMK’s IT wing. He is the executive coordinator of the Dravidian Professionals Forum and an alumnus and Leading for Impact Fellow at the University of Oxford. Views expressed here are the author’s own.

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