Why this Desperation for 'One Nation, One Election'?
by Dipankar Bhattacharya

Even as representatives assembled in Mumbai for the third meeting of the united opposition, now known by the acronym INDIA, the Modi government announced an extraordinary session of Parliament from 18 to 22 September. The way the session was announced close on the heels of the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament, and that too absolutely unilaterally without any consultation with the opposition and in brazen violation of established parliamentary norms, has understandably raised suspicions about the government's motive. The five-day session will not have either the daily question hour or the customary zero hour and will be used exclusively to conduct an agenda that has not yet been made public. With every passing day, the Modi government is reducing an elected parliament in a democratic republic to the status of an emperor's royal court.

In another sudden move, the Modi government has announced the formation of a High Level Committee under the chairmanship of former President of India Ram Nath Kovind to make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections to Parliament, State Assemblies and rural and urban local bodies. Getting a former President to chair a committee to make recommendations on a constitutionally suspect and politically contentious subject reveals the desperation of the Modi government to impose its political agenda in utter violation of the basic spirit and structure of the Constitution. The committee had only one representative from the opposition, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who has refused to join the committee in view of its dubious mandate which is designed to endorse the 'one nation, one election' agenda, and selective composition - excluding the current leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha while including a former leader of the opposition in RS who is now close to the BJP.

'One Nation, One Election' has been a pet agenda of the Modi government for quite some time. From the Law Commission to the Niti Aayog, several bodies have already examined the subject and found it to be a tricky and contentious proposition needing a series of constitutional amendments and broad consensus involving opposition parties and state governments. The current exercise seems to be to find ways to impose the idea without building a consensus. The committee is completely packed with BJP leaders, pro-government members and known advocates of the 'One Nation, One Election' idea and the opinion of the committee is thus a foregone conclusion. By introducing electoral bonds the government has already rendered electoral funding completely opaque and unaccountable. The proposed bill regarding the selection of the Election Commission would rob the EC of all autonomy and neutrality and make it subservient to the executive. And now by imposing simultaneous elections, the Modi government wants to make further mockery of the election process.

The government's basic argument in support of the 'One Nation, One Election' idea is that it will reduce cost and expedite the pace of 'development' by sparing it the pauses imposed by the election code of conduct. Both these arguments are highly spurious. The bulk of the election expenses is borne by the political parties and the BJP which is flush with electoral funds from dubious sources is the principal culprit for the escalating role of money-power in elections. The election code of conduct (which restricts the announcement of new policies and schemes) affects only poll-bound states and there is no nationwide 'pause' on development. The temporary disruption supposedly caused by elections anyway is nothing compared to the long-term havoc played by ill-conceived measures like demonetisation and protracted lockdown.

We are also told that till 1967 India actually used to have simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies. The point is there was no such constitutional requirement, but elections just happened to coincide. The cycle changed after 1967 owing to a number of reasons - the need for mid-term elections as several governments lost power before completion of their terms, creation of new states and rise of regional parties and arrival of coalition era (which changed the erstwhile pattern of single-party domination) and institutionalisation of elections to local bodies as the third tier of representative democracy, to mention three key factors. Even if the clock is once again artificially set back, the cycle cannot be maintained unless mid-term elections are ruled out by denying people the right to have elected governments and subjecting states to President's rule or rule by Governors or Lieutenant Governors. This is precisely what has been inflicted on Jammu and Kashmir since 5 August 2019. Is the 'One Nation, One Election' formula just a ploy to institutionalise over-centralisation of power and application of the J&K model to the whole of India?

It is common knowledge that the Modi government is permanently in election mode and addressing election rallies in poll-bound states is always the topmost priority for Narendra Modi. While Modi found no time to visit Manipur, he kept on hopping from Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to Rajasthan to address poll rallies, road shows and booth-level cadre conferences. Why then suddenly this desperation for clubbing Assembly and Lok Sabha elections? Clearly it has a lot to do with the growing fear of losing power with more and more states slipping away from the regime's control. Empirical evidence apparently suggests that the party ruling at the Centre has better prospects in the event of simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections than separate elections. It is also clear that the ‘Modi factor’ works better at the Lok Sabha elections than in Assembly polls. Hence this desperation to leverage the advantage by changing the system.

Driving this project of course is the Sangh-BJP scheme of over-centralisation of power and systematic weakening of India's diverse culture, plural politics and federal framework. Every election has its own context. Panchayat and Assembly elections are bound to reflect immediate local conditions and not be swayed by the Sangh-manufactured so-called 'national reality' unless the cacophony of the latter becomes overwhelming. By clubbing all elections together, the Modi government seeks to rob elections of their distinct contexts and limit the political choices of the people. Federal India offers the most vibrant opposition and determined resistance to the Modi government's Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan paradigm as can be seen from the growing cultural and political churnings in states beyond the Hindi heartland (as well as increasingly within it). 'One Nation, One Election' is a formula to curb those churnings and subject democratic India to the imperial designs of a fascist regime. This design is of a piece with the whole of range of attempts going on in the spheres of law, governance and constitutional architecture to reduce empowered citizenship to loyal subjecthood and enslave India in a fascist straitjacket. India must defeat this design by all means.

One Nation, One Election