Why 'One Nation, One Election' won't work

Each of our states has its own distinct political culture, many have parties unique to their regions, and all are, therefore, likely to throw up results that reflect these local particularities.
(Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
(Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Our editorial pages have been consumed with arguments for and against the government’s proposal to adopt “One Nation, One Election”. The decision to place former President Ram Nath Kovind at the head of a nine-member committee to study the proposal and the immediate resignation of the sole Opposition figure named to it, the Congress’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, has added to the hubbub. So also has the government’s surprise decision to summon a Special Session of Parliament for five days this month without any indication of its agenda. Speculation is rife that one of the main purposes of this session might be to push through a constitutional amendment legislating “One Nation, One Election”.

That seems unlikely since such a far-reaching change in our nation’s electoral arrangements would require extensive consensus of all stakeholders, which has not been built, and multiple constitutional amendments. There is simply no time for the latter to be adopted by both houses of Parliament and then ratified by the minimum number of states required to come into effect. The fact that the Opposition INDIA alliance has come out bluntly against the proposal also means that the states ruled by non-BJP parties are unlikely to extend the support required to make the proposed amendments into law.

So what’s all the fuss about? Hearing the government’s side of the story is easy enough—the PM and several of his ministers have been discussing this idea for years. They argue that there are elections somewhere or the other in India every six months, that such frequent elections involve a colossal waste of time and expenditure, and that the code of conduct rules during elections paralyse governance for six to eight weeks each time. Putting all elections together once every five years would, therefore, be more efficient and more economical.

That’s the “diagnosis”, and it cannot be faulted within its own terms. (Except for one inconvenient fact: at first, simultaneous elections will be more expensive since you need to purchase and deploy far larger numbers of electronic voting machines.) But the bigger objection is that the “prescription” is arguably worse than the ailment itself. The assumptions behind the diagnosis are deeply flawed. They emerge from a unitary view of the Indian polity that privileges uniformity over unity and seems to assume that efficiency and economy are more important than democracy and diversity. They overlook that each of our states has its own distinct political culture, many have parties unique to their regions, and all are, therefore, likely to throw up results that reflect these local particularities. Our states move to their rhythms, very different from the Union drummers in Delhi.

Above all, ours is a parliamentary system in which governments survive only with a legislative majority. And when specific circumstances cause a government to lose its majority, it will fall - and if another majority cannot be found for someone else, the only democratic option available is to hold another election. To impose a long stint of President’s rule instead, to conform to some arbitrary election calendar, would arguably be undemocratic and unconstitutional. And what happens if it is the Union government itself that falls for the same reason, as has happened several times already between 1979 and 1998?

The government’s logic is incompatible with the vagaries of a parliamentary system in a large and diverse democracy. A single election calendar can only work in a presidential system where the survival of the executive is not dependent upon a legislative majority. That’s not the system we have.

When the Constituent Assembly debated the merits of the specific system of democracy the country should adopt, advocates of the presidential system like Dr Ambedkar yielded to the majority who preferred the British Westminster model - from which, after all, the imperial rulers had sought to exclude Indians. Ambedkar himself rationalised that the choice placed accountability over stability: accountability to the elected legislature over the stability of tenure that a directly elected chief executive would enjoy. Having made that choice, we find ourselves today with the worst of both worlds - a parliamentary system being run presidentially by a chief executive who, far from being accountable to the legislature, uses it as a rubber stamp. “One Nation, One Election” would simply set the seal on this travesty of parliamentarianism by making stability more important than accountability to the people’s representatives.

There is, however, an even larger problem. Elections have become the only real manifestation of democracy in our country. Democratic substance (as opposed to form or process) is largely absent in the work of the legislature. Most laws are drafted by the executive - in practice by the bureaucracy - and parliamentary input into their formulation and passage is minimal, with many bills passing after a few minutes of debate. The ruling party inevitably issues a whip to its members to ensure unimpeded passage of a bill. Since defiance of a whip attracts disqualification under the Anti-Defection Act, MPs loyally vote as their party directs. The accountability of the government to the people, through their elected representatives, suffers.

Worse, for those MPs who do not get into the government and realise the outcome of legislative votes is a foregone conclusion, Parliament or Assembly serves not as a solemn deliberative body but as a theatre for the demonstration of their power to disrupt. The well of the house becomes a stage for the Opposition members to crowd and jostle, waving placards and chanting slogans until the Speaker, after several futile attempts to restore order, adjourns in despair. In India’s Parliament, many Opposition members feel that the best way to show the strength of their feelings is to disrupt the lawmaking rather than debate the law.

Given this sad reality and the hollowing out of the RTI, public accountability between elections is minimal. The government sees elections only as a means of acquiring power to rule the country as it wishes. But elections are literally all that we, the Indian public, have available to assert ourselves against the overweening power of the government -- and that’s what makes abridging their frequency through “One Nation, One Election” such an undemocratic proposal.

Shashi Tharoor is a third-term Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Sahitya-Akademi winning author of 24 books, most recently Ambedkar: A Life. He can be reached at office@tharoor.in.

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