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Saturday, Aug 17, 2019

How ‘one nation, one election’ could alter our political system, writes Karan Thapar

Simultaneous elections will be considerably cheaper than separate state and national polls. No one disputes that. However, cost ought not to be a prime consideration in determining how and when elections are held

columns Updated: Jun 30, 2019 08:20 IST
Ours is a federal system where state assemblies are as important to the constitution as the national Parliament
Ours is a federal system where state assemblies are as important to the constitution as the national Parliament(PTI)
         

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phrase, “one nation, one election”, sounds beguiling and perhaps that’s why many people think they’ve understood it. But it’s neither as simple nor as straightforward as it sounds. The more closely you examine it, the more complex it becomes. Only then can you discern how it will alter our political system.

First, it will have two positive outcomes. Simultaneous elections will be considerably cheaper than separate state and national polls. No one disputes that. However, cost ought not to be a prime consideration in determining how and when elections are held.

More importantly, simultaneous elections would reduce the time the paralysing Model Code of Conduct is in operation. When elections are held separately, it seems one or other part of India is almost permanently covered by it. But, again, the fact that this impedes good governance could be tackled by revising the code and reducing the long duration of elections. It doesn’t necessarily call for changing the character of elections.

I would identity one other positive outcome. Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi says it’s during elections that communalism, casteism and corruption peak. If you have frequent elections, there’s no respite. But elections only every five years will keep them in check.

These would be important gains, but do the negative consequences of simultaneous elections outweigh them? Let’s begin with the possible impact on our democracy.

Ours is a federal system in which state assemblies are as important to the Constitution as the national Parliament. Each of them has a constitutional right to determine its own fate. But won’t that be abridged if you link the terms of Vidhan Sabhas to the Lok Sabha? And that raises a deeper concern. Could this violate the basic structure of our Constitution? Since federalism must definitely be a part of it, the answer is arguably yes.

The negative consequences are equally serious when considered at a more political level. What would happen if a government falls before its five year tenure is completed? At the Vidhan Sabha level, you could place the state under President’s Rule till five years are over. But President’s Rule is not a representative government and, therefore, it’s a denial of democracy.

More importantly, what happens if the Central government falls before its five-year term is completed? There’s no provision for President’s Rule at the Centre. In that event, you would either have to disrupt the system of simultaneous elections or force all 29 state and two Union Territory assemblies to hold fresh elections at the same time.

The solution, it’s said, is to adopt the German concept of a constructive vote of confidence which means you can’t vote out a government unless you can vote one in at the same time. This, of course, would require a constitutional amendment, but will it solve the problem? A constructive vote of confidence might ensure there’s always a government, but what would happen if it’s a coalition with serious differences over the budget or taxation? You could end up with a situation in which a government can’t pass a budget but also can’t be thrown out.

To the above, I would add three specifically contemporary concerns. At a time when our parliamentary elections are becoming increasingly presidential, might simultaneous elections exacerbate that trend and distort our parliamentary democracy? Second, when there’s a wave behind a national party, could simultaneous national, state and local body elections turn our multi-party system into a one-party state? Third, if repeated elections ensure our legislators are responsive and accountable might holding them only every five years make them aloof and arrogant?

Seen in this light, Mamata Banerjee is right in demanding a comprehensive study of this idea. It should be discussed outside of politics that should be done by an independent commission comprising acknowledged constitutional authorities. Politicians, who could gain or lose, should not be involved.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 29, 2019 19:57 IST

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