Ifs and buts about simultaneous polls

Let’s see if I can present the pros and cons of One Nation, One Election simply, accurately and fairly. This could help you understand the concept and its desirability.

One Nation, One Election narrows our democracy by reducing the opportunity for citizens to vote and choose governments. (PTI)

Supporters of the concept rely on two arguments. First, cost. Clearly, one election every five years is cheaper than multiple elections at different times. However, Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Praveen Chakravarty argue the savings are insignificant. It’s under 5,000 crore a year. For an economy of India’s size, should this be a deciding concern?

The second argument is that the model code of conduct’s restrictions will apply for a limited period. But, as things stand, they only apply nationwide when there’s a national election. At the state level, they’re a minor concern. More importantly, is the code observed? The Opposition alleges it is not rigorously implemented when the transgressor is the ruling party.

The arguments against are philosophical. Voting, it’s said, “is the most fundamental freedom of expression in a democracy”. One Nation, One Election puts limits on that right. For instance, if a government loses its majority, ways might be found to keep Parliament functioning, denying voters the right to elect a new one.

The concept also contradicts the desired trajectory of our democracy. We need to expand and deepen it. For instance, we should have a right of recall, something Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted 50 years ago in 1974. One Nation, One Election does the opposite. It narrows our democracy by reducing the opportunity for citizens to vote and choose governments.

Let’s now come to the implications of the constitutional amendments necessary to create One Nation, One Election. First, are amendments needed to synchronise elections. In some cases, state assemblies would get extensions, in others their terms would be contracted. Surely, that’s arbitrarily playing with their mandate? Voters gave them a five-year term which will be unilaterally reduced or extended.

A second set of amendments is needed if a government loses its majority before five years. Clearly, the President’s Rule for the remainder would be undesirable at the state level and impossible at the central.

One solution is the German concept of a constructive vote of confidence, which means you cannot vote out a government unless you vote one in at the same time. This sounds fine in theory but will it always work in practice? For instance, what happens if the ruling party splits but the breakaway faction refuses to side with the Opposition? In those circumstances, the government will have lost its majority, but because no other can take its place, it will limp on. Or suppose a coalition with differences over the budget cannot pass it? In a parliamentary democracy, such a government must resign. But now you could end up with a government that can’t pass the budget yet can’t be thrown out because it still has the numbers.

The Election Commission has suggested that in such cases, elections could be held only for the remaining part of the five-year term. But won’t that play ducks and drakes with the value of a vote? On some occasions, the vote would be for a five-year term, on others, for a part thereof. Can a democracy have two types of voting?

These are fundamental concerns that arise out of the core of this concept. There are three others specific to the sort of democracy India has become.

First, with parliamentary elections becoming increasingly presidential, isn’t there a danger that simultaneous elections will exacerbate that trend and destroy our parliamentary democracy? Second, when there’s a wave behind a national party, could simultaneous elections turn a multi-party system into a one-party State? Third, we’ve come to believe elections ensure our legislators are responsive and accountable but if they’re only held once in five years, no matter what happens in between, might they become aloof and arrogant?

Think carefully about these issues. You need to reflect on three concerns in particular: The desirability of the concept, the implications of implementing it and the consequences that could follow. Then answer the question — is it worth it?

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story. The views expressed are personal

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