India File

Who wants 'one nation, one poll’?

The political mood is ambivalent. A clutch of parties feels it will reduce costs while others perceive it as an attack on federalism. BusinessLine reports

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently spearheading what has been dubbed as the single biggest electoral reform with his signature coinage of the catchphrase ‘one nation, one poll’. The first week of the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha witnessed two fervent pitches for the latest coinage.

The first, an all-party meeting convened by the Prime Minister on June 19, culminated in the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement that a panel is being set up to take the consultations forward.

The second was a powerful exhortation from the Prime Minister in his reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President in the Lok Sabha that the “time has come” for India to synchronise elections for State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament.

The pitch in favour of simultaneous elections is that it reduces the cost of conducting elections, both for the Exchequer and political parties, and removes hurdles in governance by way of constant imposition of the ‘model code of conduct’.

The argument against it is that it compromises federalism and threatens to subsume local and regional issues into a larger narrative, hurting the existence and base of regional parties. Taking a more historical view, simultaneous elections, which also implies a fixed term of government, can be seen as a protection for States against wanton dismissal of State governments and imposition of President’s rule, as was the norm in the Indira Gandhi years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Consensus elusive

The response from political parties has been ambivalent. There is an intense churn within the Shiv Sena, a key NDA ally. Senior Sena leader and Member of Parliament, Sanjay Raut, told media persons on Sunday that the plan was not workable as it would be to the disadvantage of regional parties. Raut asked: “Can one have governor’s rule in a State for three years? There are many related issue to the core issue. Today it appears to be impractical.”

However, there are also those within the Shiv Sena who feel that ‘one nation one election’ is feasible but needs intense debate. A senior Member of Legislative Council told BusinessLine that election to various bodies in the country is a huge expense. But, how the term of each body would either be curtailed or extended needs to worked out constitutionally.

The Prime Minister has found powerful backers outside the NDA, such as Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy, for his initiative. This makes his job easier to push the necessary Constitutional amendments to curtail or prolong the life of the State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha with simultaneous amendments in Article 356 pertaining to imposition of President’s Rule.

YSRCP chief and AP Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy termed the ‘one nation one election’ proposal a bold initiative. Jagan says there is every likelihood of the party in power in the State misusing the official machinery for its own benefit if the elections to Lok Sabha are conducted separately, thus disrupting free and fair election process.

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi Chief K Chandrashekar Rao, too, has been supportive of the idea of common elections. The TRS had put forth its views on simultaneous elections before the Law Commission during the NDA government’s previous term that “it would be better to have all polls at one go”.

But with the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Left parties, NCP and DMK vehemently opposing the move, the Government would find it difficult to push the amendments through the Rajya Sabha. Asaduddin Owaisi, President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Lok Sabha MP, reportedly said at the all-party meet that simultaneous elections to the Centre and the States constituted a threat to federalism and the existence of regional parties.

To these criticisms, the Prime Minister said in the Lok Sabha: “I’m amazed at the arguments being offered against this electoral reform. They say it will crush federalism, it will marginalise the regional parties. How do these arguments stand when confronted with the fact that in the Legislative Assembly elections that were just held along with the Lok Sabha, the regional parties have done better. People in Odisha, a State that is largely rural and does not count among the more prosperous or progressive provinces, voted differently for Lok Sabha and State Assembly. The Biju Janata Dal did better in the Assembly polls. In fact, in certain places, the BJP won the Lok Sabha where all the Assembly segments were won by the BJD. Such is the maturity of our voters.”

But Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which has been a strong advocate of State autonomy, is not convinced: “In every forum, we have been expressing our views. We are not in favour of this move. Because the States have certain powers and issues and they are also run by parties which are not national parties,” said TKS Elangovan, DMK Rajya Sabha MP and a party spokesperson.

The party felt that imposition of President’s rule for a longer period citing that the State election schedule needs to be aligned with the General Elections would be against the democratic system. “For example, in Tamil Nadu, BJP has been defeated and people have supported DMK. What if AIADMK government falls in a year? Should the BJP government run the State for the next four years?” he questioned. The AIADMK has not revealed its cards on the matter.

Are we ready for it?

The 79th Parliamentary Standing Committee Report of December 2015 spells out the views of some political parties and the Constitutional implications of the move. For instance, it cites the supportive view of Asom Gana Parishad as saying that it would reduce the financial burden on small parties. It is a fact that simultaneous elections were held from 1952 to 1967.

Premature dissolution or prolonging the term of a government for holding simultaneous elections will require Constitutional amendments (keeping in mind the SR Bommai ruling on imposition of President’s Rule), for which the BJP does not have the requisite numbers in both Houses. The House Panel report oddly argues: “It should be common endeavour to avoid mid-term poll (for which) Constructive no-confidence should be utilised.”

The report appears to cite UK’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 in support of its case.

Under this, an early election is possible only when two-thirds of all members in the House of Commons vote in favour, or when a no-confidence motion is passed successfully against the government, without its being reversed in 14 days. The UK law does not mention ‘constructive no-confidence’, which presupposes offering an alternative. This has been struck down in the UK as being against parliamentary democracy, while the German system incorporates it.

Simultaneous polls are held in South Africa and Sweden. In the US, referendums are clubbed with regular elections.

Perhaps, it is the position of Janata Dal Secular that sums it up. The party’s patriarch Deve Gowda said: “I have my own apprehensions about it. I feel we are not so advanced like others. When paper ballots were used in elections, voters were given coloured paper slips for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, whenever held together, but now that we have moved to voting machines there will be confusion and problems if held simultaneously.”

Reporting by Poornima Joshi, G Balachander, M Somasekhar,

Rahul Wadke, Anil Urs and A Srinivas

Published on July 01, 2019
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