Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jun 27, 2019
The Modi government appears determined to get the ball rolling on the controversial idea.
Why ‘One Nation, One Poll’ needs greater consensus

Soon after assuming his second tenure in the office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up his pet idea of ‘One Nation, One Poll’ as the top priority of the new government. With the announcement of an expert committee to look at the critical issues involved in the concept, the Modi government appears to be determined to get the ball rolling on the controversial idea. The previous term of the Modi government saw hectic activities including the consultation and recommendations by Law commission, NITI Aayog, Standing Committees of the Parliament, Election Commission among others to get this going.

Proposals among others included shifting of elections in various phases, through which elections to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and Union Territories were to co-occur by 2024. This required alteration in the duration of governments in various states and constitutional amendments and political consensus was furthermore imperative. Another interesting proposal was the plan to synchronize elections in two batches.

Yet, the idea of simultaneous elections is not new to the country. In fact, the idea was propped up during the Vajpayee government in 1999 when the Law Commission Report suggested to conduct simultaneous elections. In a coalition environment, the idea never saw the day light.

Why simultaneous poll?

The votaries of the idea of holding simultaneous elections cite a number of convincing reasons to demand for such constitutional and administrative changes. First, it is well known that frequent elections result in huge financial burdens on the country. Election is an expensive exercise and it is becoming more and more expensive with each passing year. Simultaneous elections would decrease the cost of holding elections. It is also argued that holding one election would help create a situation in which political parties would not require recurrent funding for elections and this, in turn, would reduce manipulative practices attached to raising money by political parties. Importantly, the government of the day would find more time to address its electoral promises than be perennially busy in elections round the year as it is now.

Secondly, frequent elections mean frequent imposition of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). As it is widely seen, once MCC comes into force, general governance takes a toll as welfare schemes and infrastructure projects are postponed. In addition, there are other administrative restrictions such as appointment and transfer of government officials hindering key development works. This results in major policy paralysis and in essence brings the governance to a standstill during the elections.

Finally, simultaneous elections are likely to increase the voter turnout, it may also reduce opportunities for hate, caste politics, communalism etc. It is assumed that all these incidents will just be a one-time event during the elections.

Can it be implemented? 

While the idea on paper looks very appealing, it has many contradictions and has serious implementation challenges. The crux is the uncertainty concerning a situation in which there is a premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha or a State Assembly. It is well known that simultaneous elections were a norm until 1967 but the scenario changed with the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968, 1969 and of Lok Sabha in 1970. The largest democracy is till now not immune to such dissolutions of Governments.

The Election Commission of India suggested that the administration of the legislative assembly, till the completion of the term after the dissolution, must be carried out by the President in office to obviate any obstacle in the path of simultaneous elections. Pertinent to note is the fact that the administration was suggested to be carried out on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers which were to be appointed by the President himself.

There are few serious legal and administrative issues that need a fair examination in the context of simultaneous elections proposal. Firstly, in accordance with the legal position in the country, the Election Commission is required to hold elections within a period of six months from the date of premature dissolution. Therefore, to meet the suggestions, there arises a need to amend the Constitution to meet the recommendations concerning simultaneous elections which might increase this six months period.

Secondly, in the case of UN Rao vs Smt. Indira Gandhi, the Supreme Court had stated that at no time can the President remain without a council of Ministers. Consequently there arises a need of a so called “caretaker government”. It is pertinent to note that in the case of SR Bommai vs Union of India, 1994 the Supreme Court had held that a caretaker government will merely carry on day to day work and refrain from taking any major policy decisions. Therefore, in the events of premature dissolutions, the hindrances which are caused by the imposition of MCC as stated above may possibly occur and remain for a long period of time (beyond 6 months) even if the recommendations for simultaneous elections are complied with.

To counter such a situation, the Law Commission in 1999 had suggested that a confidence motion in an alternative government must be conducted along with the no-confidence motion in the current government in a simultaneous manner.

There has been recommendations even to the effect that if there is a “long period” between the dissolution and the next scheduled elections then fresh elections could be conducted and the term of the new house would be only for the remaining period of the original term.

This, in essence, might lead to a situation when the elected members of the legislature are not able to work in their full capacity since the Constitution framers did decide to include a term duration of “five years” explicitly and specifically to allow the Parliament and worthy parliamentarians a sufficient time to work for the interest of the people.

Hurts federalism

The “basic structure” doctrine of the Indian Constitution also includes the “federal character”. It needs a reiteration that India is a Union of States and under the federal structure, the power has been divided between the State and Centre. Such structure ensures checks and balances especially when there are different political parties ruling the Centre and States. Further, regular elections act as a feedback mechanism to the political parties and often acts as a check on a powerful executive. It was the loss of BJP in various states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh which provided them a democratic feedback.

Further, in the context of federalism, holding simultaneous elections may also be contrary to the interests of the regional parties. The “one election” may give priority to national issues while lowering the importance of catering to specific regional issues. Such practice in itself will be against the interests of the people.

In addition, there are evidences that indicate that simultaneous elections are likely to favour the party that is in power at the Centre. For instance, according to a recent study by IDFC Institute, there is a 77% chance of a voter voting for the same party for both Centre and state legislatures during simultaneous elections.

To conclude, the intricacies attached with conducting simultaneous elections are not yet comprehensively elucidated by the government. While setting up an expert committee is a good idea to study and explore different facets of this complex public policy issue, the idea needs extensive deliberations and consensus. So far, the debate has lacked this.

The author is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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