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One-Nation, One-Election: Changing Rules to Win

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
11 Sep 2023

Former Presidents in India are afforded the privilege of residing in a government house located in Delhi, complete with essential infrastructure and amenities. Additionally, they are provided with a dedicated support staff and they receive a substantial pension. These measures are in place to ensure that they continue to enjoy a certain level of comfort and security following their tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a sprawling residence known to be one of the largest in the world. 

Among the list of former Presidents, Ram Nath Kovind stands out as a figure who elicited mixed reactions during his presidency. His nomination as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for the presidential office, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, caught many by surprise. It became evident to many that his primary qualification was his staunch affiliation with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). 

His presidency was notably uneventful, marked by a subdued demeanour and a propensity to sign off on the documents presented before him. Whether he can be categorised as a textbook President is a topic of ongoing debate. However, it is evident that his tenure was marked by unwavering support for Prime Minister Modi, often seen as his most ardent follower, readily endorsing the policies and initiatives put forth by the government. Notably, his presidency lacked memorable speeches or significant moments that would have left a lasting impression on the nation's collective memory. 

With Droupadi Murmu now firmly established in the role of president, Kovind had seemingly faded from the public's consciousness. However, his recent resurgence as a topic of intense speculation has been nothing short of remarkable, commanding extensive media coverage regarding his future plans and intentions.

Contrary to the heightened expectations, Kovind had not embarked on any remarkable endeavours during his retirement. Instead, he had been savouring a tranquil and private life, cherishing the moments spent with his grandchildren. It was during this peaceful period that Prime Minister Narendra Modi approached him with a specific request. How could he, a man who owed his elevation to the presidency to Modi's discernment, possibly decline the appeal of the very individual who had identified him as the ideal presidential candidate? 

Modi is known for his distinctive preferences, and one of his firm beliefs centres around the concept of "one nation, one language, one religion, one culture, one heritage," despite his own unique fashion choices. It's a well-known fact that Modi never repeats the same outfit, making his wardrobe as diverse as the cultural tapestry of India.

In a significant development, Modi approached Kovind with a request. He asked him to lead a committee tasked with exploring the feasibility of implementing "one-country, one-election" in India. It was an offer the former President couldn't refuse, given his long-standing association with Modi and the pivotal role Modi played in his life. 

The committee boasts an impressive line-up of members, including Home Minister Amit Shah, renowned senior advocate Harish Salve, former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap, chairman of the 15th Finance Commission N.K. Singh, former Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) Sanjay Kothari, and former leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Recently, Amit Shah met with the former President to discuss and finalise the intricacies of the committee's work, signalling the commencement of detailed deliberations on the subject. This move underscores the government's dedication to exploring the potential benefits and challenges of "one-country, one-election" for India. 

In all fairness to Modi, this is not a newfound idea. He has consistently championed this concept, and to gain public support, he often highlights the potential financial savings it could bring. After all, who wouldn't be inclined to support measures that promise to rein in unnecessary expenditure? 

Modi's vision of a unified election system has garnered the backing of individuals who view periodic elections as cumbersome and disruptive. For this group, the idea of reducing the frequency of elections holds great appeal. In their eyes, less frequent elections could streamline governance and reduce the strain on resources. 

The Central government has put forth a proposition suggesting that elections in approximately 10 states would coincide with the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for 2024. Modi is an advocate of amalgamating these elections into a single grand event. For instance, some states, including Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, are slated to go to polls in the coming months, and Modi's intentions are crystal clear. 

His vision is for the entire nation to participate in this synchronised electoral process. On a designated day, voters would cast their ballots for various levels of governance – from choosing local panchayat or municipality/corporation members to their State Assembly representatives (MLAs) and Members of Parliament (MPs). Subsequently, a five-year period would elapse before citizens could exercise their electoral rights again, selecting a new set of leaders. This is what Modi refers to as "one-nation, one-election." 

While this concept carries the promise of reducing electoral frequency and streamlining the election process, it is not without its complexities and challenges. Implementing such a massive synchronised election would require meticulous planning, constitutional amendments, and widespread consensus among political parties and stakeholders. It remains a subject of considerable debate and deliberation, as its implications for the democratic process and governance efficiency are weighed against the practicalities of its execution. 

Modi's rationale behind advocating for the synchronisation of elections across all levels of governance is rooted in the belief that it could lead to substantial cost savings. His assertion is underpinned by his confidence in his nationwide appeal, and he appears to view himself as a political figurehead unmatched by any opposition leader. However, it's worth noting that this perspective doesn't always align with the reality on the ground. 

While Modi undeniably enjoys a considerable following across India, his popularity has faced its share of challenges and setbacks. Instances such as the electoral outcomes in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya have highlighted the limits of his influence and the fact that local factors, regional dynamics, and the appeal of regional leaders can significantly shape electoral results. 

While cost-saving and efficiency are commendable objectives, they need to be balanced with the diverse realities of India's political landscape. This approach should involve a thoughtful and inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders, including opposition leaders, to ensure that any potential reforms respect the principles of democracy and federalism while addressing practical concerns. 

The assertion that simultaneous elections result in significant cost savings requires a closer examination. While it is true that the government incurs expenses in conducting elections, these expenditures are largely circulated within the country's economy. For instance, the deployment of security forces and any additional allowances provided to jawans for election duty contribute to the income of these individuals, making it far from wasteful expenditure.

Elections also serve as a significant source of economic activity. They generate employment opportunities for a range of people, from those involved in crafting posters and printing pamphlets to individuals responsible for setting up election symbols and providing public address systems. Furthermore, those who offer services such as shamiana and furniture rentals, as well as catering for campaign events, benefit from the electoral process. In essence, the money spent during elections directly contributes to the livelihoods of many individuals and businesses. 

It's important to acknowledge that, in some cases, candidates may use black money during their campaigns. While this raises concerns about transparency and fairness, it's a testament to the economic activity elections stimulate. In short, elections play a vital role in boosting the rural economy and generating economic activity within the country.

Indeed, when India held its first elections based on adult franchise, simultaneous elections were conducted for both Parliament and state Assemblies. This approach reflected the aspirations and distinct expectations of the Indian electorate at the time. 

Voters had a unique perspective when it came to selecting their Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). They looked for a grassroots politician who had a deep connection with the local constituency and a genuine interest in its development. These voters sought representatives who would focus on addressing the specific needs and issues within their region. Therefore, the campaign themes and priorities for MLAs naturally revolved around local development, infrastructure, and community concerns. 

On the other hand, voters had a contrasting set of expectations from their Member of Parliament. They envisioned the MP as a representative who would participate in decision-making at the national level, influencing policies and legislation that could impact the entire country. Consequently, the campaign themes for MPs centered on broader national issues, governance, foreign policy, and economic development. 

The process of bifurcating state and parliamentary elections in India was not without its challenges, and it was during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that this significant shift was undertaken. Her motivation behind this change was to ensure that local issues did not overshadow the broader national perspective when voters selected their MPs. 

A telling example of the consequences of this shift is evident in the by-election held in Puthupally in Kerala. This election was predominantly based on the issues specific to the Puthupally constituency. In this scenario, voters were unlikely to engage in discussions about far-off matters such as Manipur or international events like the G-20 summit. 

Indira Gandhi's move to separate state and parliamentary elections aimed to prevent local issues from overshadowing national concerns, but it also highlighted the vital role that local representation and understanding play in India's democratic process. Balancing these factors remains an ongoing challenge in Indian politics. 

What's truly worrying is Modi's intent to resurrect an old system that was previously rejected by the nation. His ambition appears to be sweeping the three-tier elections—panchayat, state, and national—simultaneously. He seeks the support of President Kovind in devising a strategy to implement this vision of "one- nation, one-election, one-leader." However, this idea stands in contrast to the very essence of diversity that the Indian Constitution upholds. 

The Constitution is a testament to the country's rich tapestry of cultures, languages, and regional identities. It recognises the importance of allowing diverse voices and perspectives to be heard and represented in the political arena. The notion of a single leader for the entire nation runs counter to these principles and could potentially undermine the spirit of federalism that underpins India's governance structure. 

Modi's penchant for secrecy keeps his plans shrouded in mystery, and the full scope of his intentions will only become clear when Parliament convenes for a special five-day session later this month. This forthcoming session promises to be a pivotal moment in Indian politics, where the nation will witness debates, discussions, and deliberations on the future of its electoral system and the principles it chooses to uphold. 

The proposals on the table raise critical questions about their potential impact on the fundamental tenets of democracy. The bicameral parliamentary system, which India has adopted, serves as a cornerstone of its democratic structure. It was meticulously designed to ensure checks and balances, as well as to safeguard against the concentration of power. 

Prime Minister Modi's inclination toward implementing the concept of "one-nation, one-election" and consolidating power under a single leader is a matter of significant concern. It suggests a potential departure from the principles of parliamentary democracy, where the executive, legislative, and judicial branches function independently to uphold democratic values and protect citizens' rights. 

Modi's challenges in managing both Parliament and the Judiciary have sparked discussions about the delicate balance between these institutions. However, any move toward centralising power should be approached with caution, as it risks undermining the very essence of democratic governance, which India has steadfastly embraced. 

The concept of "one-nation, one-election" and the concentration of authority in "one leader" warrant thorough examination and robust debate in Parliament and among citizens. These discussions should take into account the foundational principles of democracy, the importance of checks and balances, and the need to protect the diverse voices and interests that form the backbone of India's vibrant democracy.

ajphilip@gmail.com

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