Modi's 'One Nation, One Election': Death knell for cooperative federalism?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
The idea of ‘one nation, one election’ has once again captured the headlines after suggestion from President Ram Nath Kovind and its reiteration by the Modi government. The proposition is backed by several arguments ranging, inter alia, from its ‘historical evidence’ to ‘the mounting election expenses’ to ‘the obstruction to the smooth governance’. On the other hand, observers are criticising ' One nation, one election', terming it a political gimmick of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government ahead of general elections 2019. Some of their central objections revolve around issues like resource constraints, lack of political consensus, constitutional requirements, etc. Even the Law Commission of India has acknowledged the hitches in the proposition of simultaneous elections. It is surprising to witness that much of the political debate has revolved around the modality and feasibility, and there has been a conspicuous absence of larger policy questions involved. Hence, it becomes imperative to bring into debate some of the fundamental issues.

Questions of federalism

Federalism implies mutuality and common purpose for the process of change with continuity between the Centre and states, which are the structural units, operating on balancing wheel of concurrence and promises to resolve problems and promote social, economic and cultural advancement of its people and to create fraternity among the people.

In the landmark case of S. R. Bommai v. Union of India, the Supreme Court observed “the states have an independent constitutional existence, and they have as important a role to play in the political, social, educational and cultural life of the people as the Union. They are neither satellites nor agents of the Centre.”

Further, the Court added, “…the fact remains that as per the provisions of the Constitution, every state is a constituent political unit and has to have an exclusive Executive and Legislature elected and constituted by the same process as the Union Government.”

Under the existing system, a legislative assembly is elected for a period of five years. It can be dissolved only when the government in that state cannot carry on, as per the provisions of the constitution, and also when no alternative government is possible. In a hypothetical scenario, if the constitutional machinery in states break down, after simultaneous elections are held, necessitating dissolution of the assemblies prematurely, will these states be under the President’s rule or will fresh elections just for the remaining period be held? Or, in the case where the Lok Sabha dissolves prematurely and there is a need for fresh general elections, what will happen to the state assemblies? Whatever be the answer, it definitely gives an impression that state legislatures might appear to be subservient to the lower house wherein the former’s existence and tenure are contingent upon the latter. The proposition has the capacity to make India unitary in spirit, if not in letters.

Impact on Voters

It is lamentable that even in 2018 we witness lack of awareness in the electorate, which gets testified by their low turnout even after election commission’s marathon campaigns. In the absence of a right to recall, the ordinary voter might be the most vulnerable entity in case of simultaneous elections since it will have to wait for five more years to decide their fate. Arguably, under the existing system, the fear of being thrown out of power acts as a check for the representatives. If there are no more elections for five years, the people will indisputably be ignored for that duration. Hence, it is important to be cautious about the larger ramifications.

Our nation has, from time to time, witnessed several ‘waves’ (as popularly termed) of leaders and parties. Be it 1977, 1984 or 2014, the poll results suggest enormous overlapping of the results of general elections and state assemblies whose elections were held together.  Any such kind of wave in future might result in pan India legislative homogeneity, which can have serious repercussions on our democratic fabric. It is apprehended that the provisions for amendment of the Constitution might be misused in those situations. Coupled with the existing anti-defection law, the proposition potentially has a centralizing tendency which is detrimental to the interests of the parliamentarians. Periodic and regular elections do not obstruct, rather it promotes and strengthens democratic fabric.

It is argued that one of the prime reasons behind the problematic appearance of the periodic and regular elections had been the over-involvement of the executive in the election campaigns, be it union or state. Since, the heads of the government belong to the country and not to a mere party, their marathon campaigns in every election do not do justice with the gravity of the post and established conventions.  The same logic can be extended to other ministers as well. A suggestion in this regard can be made wherein a legal mechanism should be devised so that the head of the governments and ministers at centre and state should only be allowed a limited campaign. Their over involvement not only hampers the functioning of the government but also gives an undue edge to the party in power. It won't be an overstatement to say that the proposition has not only opened a Pandora’s box but also possesses the capacity to sabotage the edifice of our democratic polity. More than ONE NATION ONE ELECTION, we need electoral reforms, that too at the core.
Aid and Awareness.
Farheen Ahmad is a research scholar at South Asian University.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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