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Modi’s simultaneous polls plan is like changing river course to control traffic on bridge

Call Modi govt’s proposal by its real name: One nation, one election, one party, one leader.

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What do you do with routine traffic jam on a river bridge?
Regulate traffic? Yes, surely.
Open an extra lane during peak hours? Yes, if feasible.
Widen the bridge, or even build a new one? Well, yes, if necessary.
Or change the course of the river? What! Have you gone bonkers?

This sums up the one-nation-one-election debate in India for me. Our election calendar poses some real and nagging problems. These need to be addressed. And there are some practical ways to resolve these, not fully but to a large extent. But you don’t need to change the Constitution and the entire political system of the country. The Narendra Modi government’s proposal of simultaneous elections is the equivalent of wanting to change the course of a river in order to solve the traffic problem on the bridge.

Also read: Modi wants simultaneous polls — here’s why ‘one nation, one election’ works & why it doesn’t

The problem

Here is the problem: the five-year tenure of the central government is cluttered with state assembly elections (eight rounds during the next five years, if all goes well), which leads to frequent interruptions and shortening of policy horizon, which, in turn, worsens the quality of governance. As the model code of conduct (MCC) kicks in, decision-making comes to a standstill, not just in the states that go to polls but also at the Centre. The political class, from the PM down to the MP, goes on an election holiday. More than the formal limits of the MCC, the frequency of must-win polls keeps the central government on tenterhooks. Besides, there is the problem of duplication of election expenses when elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies are held separately.

Although a bit overstated, these are real concerns that need addressing. But let us note that the problem of high frequency of elections during its tenure affects the central government, not the state governments. Let us also note that there is nothing abnormal or scandalous about this divergence in electoral cycles. This is bound to happen in a federal country that follows parliamentary system of government.

Also read: Poll panel chief says Modi’s simultaneous polls desirable goal, but possible only in 2024

The solution

So, how do we solve the problem in the existing system? First of all, we must revisit the draconian restrictions of the model code of conduct on the central government during state assembly elections.

The basic spirit is that there should be a level playing ground, that the ruling party should not take undue advantage of being in power. Instead of a blanket ban on policy decisions, the Election Commission (EC) should ensure that the central government offers no electoral bribes targeting voters in these states. Political parties can revise the MCC, a document that is terribly outdated in any case, for this purpose. Second, the duration of polling can and should be reduced. It is ridiculous for polling in a state assembly election in Uttar Pradesh to be stretched to seven phases over a full month. It’s time political parties prod the EC to give up its complacency and come up with a smart plan to conclude polling within a week.

Finally, the Election Commission can club some of the assembly elections into about four or five rounds over a five-year period, instead of about eight currently. The Constitution allows the Election Commission to hold elections anytime within the last six months of the tenure of the assembly. So, the EC can take political parties into confidence and take a policy decision to bring forward some isolated state elections by a few months. As for duplication of expenditure, we just need to remember that the real problem is excessive spending, way above the legally permissible limits. The solution lies in election funding reform, not in changing the electoral calendar.

Also read: Simultaneous polls will be like striking at root of Parliamentary democracy, says watchdog

The side effects

Is one-nation-one-election a better solution to these problems? Yes, provided this medicine had no side effects and if electoral calendar clutter was the only or the biggest disease in our politics. Neither of these is true. Simultaneous holding of national and all state assembly elections once in five years is not a simple administrative change in our electoral calendar. It requires a fixed five-year tenure for legislatures, which is tantamount to changing our constitutionally mandated parliamentary system of governance.

Even if we are willing to amend this basic feature of our Constitution, how do we deal with situations where a government loses a vote of confidence in a legislature? Advocates of simultaneous elections suggest two options: Either a fresh election may be held, but only for the remaining period of the five-year tenure (Do we want to elect a government for, say, eight months?). Or there cannot be a vote of no confidence in a government unless there is a vote of confidence in a new government (How would a lame duck government get its budget passed?). We can keep debating the merits of each solution. But we cannot deny that this medicine has serious side effects.

The real agenda

Why, then, is the government so keen on pushing this ‘reform’ first thing this tenure? Our elections have far bigger problems that are crying for attention. Election funding reform is surely the one item that should top the agenda of electoral reforms. Instead, our system has taken a giant leap backwards, thanks to the introduction of electoral bonds. Why this priority and urgency to hold simultaneous elections?

Also read: India should abolish state governments since Modi can run the country all by himself

The most plausible answer is that one-nation-one-election fits into the BJP’s long-term political architecture. First, it would release the government, especially its economic policies, from constraints of democratic accountability. With a rapid decline in all autonomous institutions, election is now the only effective mechanism of holding the government accountable. If this filter is also lowered, we are looking at a central government sans any democratic constraints in between two mega elections. This should worry every democrat.

Second, simultaneous national and state elections would tilt the voting preference in favour of the dominant national party (read the BJP). That may not ensure a victory for the BJP, as the examples of simultaneous polls in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh show this time. But it is undeniable that simultaneous polls would reduce the ‘regional’ flavour of the elections by a few degrees and swing some voters towards a nationally dominant party like the BJP.

Perhaps it’s time we called this proposal by its real name: “One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader”.

The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. Here are my takes:
    Elections are primarily about democracy & accountability. Argument to have one nation and one election based on history/past is not valid as this is not about legal precedence.

    Justification to maintain current election schedules.

    A) Enhancing democratic process – Only way to make level playing field in elections is to learn and correct things from every election cycle.

    B) Accountability – Voters should get more than one chance every five year to give feedback to politicians for course correction especially when govt is not responsive.

    C) Build resilient democratic system for following reasons –
    1. Things change with time such as new technologies to reach to voters, new issues, new candidates, new parties. India does not have to wait for every five years to take respond to changes.
    2. When intermediate institutions like CAG, CIC, media etc. fail to take care of interest of citizens and hence hold government accountable.
    Key requirement for Indian democratic election system is to take into reality. It will be naïve or poor design if one ignores reality of current state of intermediate but independent institutions between govt and citizens like Election Commission, ED, CAG, CIC, CBI etc. and fallible human nature particularly politicians and presence/influence of extra constitutional authority during governance.

    D) Voter is the king in democracy
    There is no reason to influence voter by concomitant elections or make any assumptions about voting pattern. Every voter is the main stake holder in all election system as he or she is affected by the election outcome. Every election for every citizen is important. Don’t touch that dial.

    • Summary

      Let us keep in mind unwritten requirement of every voter in a democracy is to have every election free and fair basically without any influence of money and ruling party should not have any advantage plus give feedback to ruling party more than once in five year in case if it is not responsive to citizens issues.

      In short it is unwise to ignore reality of role of money, changing technology, not to mention sad status of various so-called intermediate and independent institution of democracy that exists between govt & citizens, fallible nature of political parties, and advantage of ruling party in power before accepting taking any step for one national and one election. It needs to corrected first for the sake of Indian voters. Things should be correct by design.

  2. Delhi polls can be held this year or Delhi, Pudducherry, Bihar polls can be held together mid next year. It would be 1st step towards 1N1P. We support 1N1P

  3. Be it one two or many tiers election, in the present situation the ruling party has always an upper hand as it continues in power practically.
    The best solution to a fair and free election is to form a national government from the day election are declared. Secondly the cost of compaining by the head of national or state govt. Should be added to the expenses of the party concerned .last but not the least Expensive should be given more teeth.

  4. Just because Mr Yadav despises Narendra Modi any suggestion by the PM is seen through that prejudiced prism. Give the cost of holding elections in India – a still poor country – any suggestion that reduces cost of the democratic process and time lost in the economy – should be welcomed. The Indian voter has proved that they are able to distinguish between state level issues and the national level issues by voting against incumbent BJP state Governments in Dec 2018 and then voting for BJP four months later in the national elections!

  5. Such a @&@&@& article….no solid knowledge, logic..and reasoning. As if just want blame …. someone specific (also with no logic :))

    • Care to elaborate your views, xyz? You can’t because you don’t even know the abc of what yogendra yadav is speaking about.

  6. Yadav is always a critique of MODI, after being kicked out from AAP he has very little left to do. Additionally this mode of election changes his status quo… he is a master of one particular art (which had been proved wrong in recent elections).
    Yadav must come with his own solution if he has problem with current design (specifically as an expert). Irony is that INDIA is fed up with stone pelters like Yadav who has no original IDEA of their own but love to criticize other’s IDEAs (which may not be as good but are always better than having no IDEA).

  7. India faces lot of problem. The agrarian crisis that needs investment and policy that redresses the farmers problem and they are not faced with the situation wherein they have to commit suicide throwing their family in disarray. India’s Policing problem is at the root of the illegal activities of criminal and throwing the society in disorder instead of maintaining law and order in which the very core of constitutional rights are protected and people feel at peace to carry on with their life with dignity. Unemployment is causing disastrous consequences in our society but no political party seems serious about it. One election, one nation sounds a very fine slogan as is with Narendra Modi whose nomenclature of the issues draw curiosity, like Namami Gange but without any result. Tomorrow are we going to face another slogan and make media continue with the discussion, ‘One nation, One Religion’ ? Since there are lot of problem having many religion and religious practices. It is RSS agenda and very close to the heart of Narendra Modi since he can draw the attention of whole nation and all the media and keep them busy throwing to the dust bin the real problems of the nation. Its a trap in which no Political party should get into.

  8. Power corrupts, absolute power absolutely. This is the reason any democracy should have in-built checks and balances. Simultaneous elections will do away to a great extent with such system of checks and balances. Let us consider the one case: – In a fit of emotions, swayed by high powered campaign, the voters give a massive mandate to one party. Later on if the voters realise their error, how to rectify it? In the proposed system of simultaneous elections, such an opportunity can come only after five years. True, for state government elections the performance of the concerned state government will be the primary factor. But it will be wrong to assume that the performance of the central government will have no bearing on these elections. The anti-incumbency at the Center will have and should have an outlet in the state government elections, so that it can serve as a warning signal to the government at the Center. If one thinks other way around, poor performance in national elections will serve as a warning signal to the concerned state government. Democracy is not that you vote once in five years and forget about it. Why is it that elections to Rajya Sabha are held every two years for one third of the total members of the upper house? The logic is not to hand over absolute power to anybody based on one election results. Rajya Sabha serves as check on such a phenomenon.

  9. Yadav has done a brilliant analysis, and given a telling analogy of the river and the bridge. He has also exposed the hidden agenda – one nation, one election, one party, one leader NAMO NAMO!!

    And what about elections to village panchayats, urban bodies, cantonments etc?

    Talk of election expenses is but a fig leaf to cover the naked truth. Leet us not be fooled.

  10. Why not explore an idea of ‘One Nation, Two Elections’ – one General Election for the Lok Sabha and one Consolidated Elections for all the States (2.5 years after General Election). The second consolidated election for States can be construed as a feedback for the Central Govt for course correction if needed. And at the same time save costs, albeit not as much as the touted ‘One Nation, One Election’

  11. There is no denial that BJP is looking for complete dominance but i think general sense in people has been that INDIA is into election mode for a majority part of the year. Thus, election reform is the need but not necessary. However BJP will push for it to divert some attention from real issues BUT if INDIA gets 1 nation and 2 elections, this proposal stands a lot of merit. we should have only 2 cycles of election in 5 years so as to keep govt accountable as well as governance is a focused objective in the mean time.

    • “general sense in people has been that INDIA is into election mode for a majority part of the year”
      This has become a general sense only after 2014, when PM started worrying more about next state / central election than tasks at hand, started throwing his weight, time, energy in every small / big state and municipal election, his party started spending thousands of crores in general elections, worked overtime to polarize voters before every election.

  12. Single election saves money, man power, time, resources etc. For a poor Socialist country like ours, single election would be a welcome move.

  13. A simple single party majority – two in a row is wonderful, three would be fantastic – is a mandate to rule effectively for a period of five years, as other governments have in the past, will in future. Not only are the basic features of the Constitution beyond amendment – so a Hindu Rashtra is not permissible – but even the structures of politics and governance should be left largely undisturbed, although these should not become calcified. To my mind, lateral entry – which could cover a handful of gifted technocrats each year, men like Dr Montek Singh – is again something which can disturb the delicate balance of the higher civil services. What if the intake is raised to be nearly equal to the regular batches of civil servants recruited through the UPSC. 2. The way our state elections are held is not new. These should be left to state level leaders. In that case, the central leadership will be in election mode only once in five years, for the Lok Sabha. State elections could be bunched to one lot each year, not in summer for sure. If simultaneous elections were such a good thing, it would have been a simple matter to prepone the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand by a few months. Each decision is based on electoral calculations. 3. The more serious issue is the mismatch between accumulation of political power / capital and the inability to convert that into worthwhile governance and development outcomes.

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