One nation, one election: Modi's plan is neither feasible nor desirable
A look at the Indian electoral system and the pluralistic nature of the country suggests that the idea of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is neither feasible nor desirable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has resumed his "one-nation, one-election" pitch soon after being voted to power. He had mooted the idea in 2016 and there was buzz that some state polls may be advanced to coincide with the Lok Sabha polls.
However, this did not happen as the political situation became fluid after the BJP's poll losses in three states in 2018 and the building up of a hyper-nationalist mood post-Pulwama.
With Modi back with the BJP's highest ever tally, the idea of holding simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is back. The Opposition is not enthused with the idea, however.
A look at the Indian electoral system and the pluralistic nature of the country suggests that the idea is neither feasible nor desirable.
Eminent political scientist Zoya Hasan says that the idea militates against the multi-party, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-regional nature of India's polity.
"This is an attempt to presidentialise and nationalise the election process," she told Asiaville. "The BJP is obviously wanting to ride on the Prime Minister's present popularity to rid state elections of local issues and make the most of the present electoral strength of the party."
This, she added, was anti-federal, as states in India often have unique, local, issues that need to play out rather than be swamped by a presidential-style contest.
"Look at the specificity of the language issue in Tamil Nadu or the unique issues that north-eastern states like Assam find themselves grappling with," Prof Hassan, who retired from the Centre for Political Studies in JNU, said.
Indeed, the entire idea of a federal polity is to lay down the specific legislative and executive powers of the Union and the states. The reason: in a diverse polity like India, the Union can be held together most amicably if people across diverse regions of the country feel that their cultural specificities find expression in their state governments. And state elections become moments when these specificities play themselves out.
The experience of elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh showed that issues like the farm crisis and the unpopularity of the incumbent state government were decisive factors in the way people voted. The Congress was able to wrest all three states from the BJP. However, months later, when the same states voted in the Lok Sabha elections, they voted to elect a Prime Minister more than anything else. The results were a reversal of what had happened in the assembly polls: a large number of voters cast their vote to re-elect Narendra Modi. Congress president Rahul Gandhi paled before Modi in popular perception in an election that the BJP conducted in a presidential manner.
It seems that the idea behind the proposal to have simultaneous polls is to improve the BJP's performance in states with the help of the Prime Minister's popularity among significant sections of voters. The official rationale, however, is that simultaneous elections would cut the costs of multiple election cycles.
The very slogan -- one-nation, one-election -- resonates with the ruling ideology of the BJP, which has for decades seen India as a "single culture". BJP predecessor Jana Sangh's slogan of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan was widely seen as a reflection of this. However, in a nation that has neither a single religion nor a single language -- nor even singular food habits -- the slogan of a single election does sound like a contrived centralisation.
Prof Hasan wondered how the scheme would succeed unless parties that win polls always secure clear majorities. "We have seen multiple cases of MLAs defecting from one party to another. Even the anti-defection law has not been very effective in preventing this. How will you ensure that governments do not fall? And if they do fall, will you amend the constitution to put in place a provision for an extended phase of President's Rule till the next simultaneous election cycle comes up? Will that not be undemocratic?" she said.
Indeed, Lok Sabha and state assembly elections were held simultaneously till 1967. However, some state governments fell soon after. And the next Lok Sabha elections were held before time in 1971. This set in motion the trend of multiple cycles of elections.
One option could be to amend the constitution to provide for a no-confidence motion to necessarily have a proof of an alternative majority to be admissible. However, this would mean that a minority government can stay in power. And even where there is prior proof of an alternative government, there is no guarantee that the legislators who have signed for it stick to their stand.
While the question may not seem relevant today, a future Union government may also fall, and that would again throw the simultaneity of elections off gear.
The Prime Minister says that simultaneous polls will relieve the country of the burden of multiple elections -- and the costs that come with it -- but a single election for the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies will also be a mammoth exercise.
Lastly, a single election will make it difficult for opposition parties that are traditional rivals in a state from coming together against the ruling party specifically for the purpose of the Lok Sabha polls. For, two parties fighting as rivals for the state election and as allies for the Lok Sabha election at one and the same time can confuse voters. To offer an example, the UP grand alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, traditional rivals in the state, would perhaps have been far more difficult to strike if the UP state assembly poll had been held simultaneously with the 17th Lok Sabha polls.
Speaking to Asiaville, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) director Sanjay Kumar said the principle of one election should not be forced. "We can club some elections that are close by in normal course into yearly cycles or one cycle in two years. That is perhaps feasible. But the present proposal isn't good. Data say that whenever Lok Sabha and assembly polls happen together, the party that wins the national election often wins the state election too. Odisha this time is an exception, however. But in 80 per cent cases, the big event of the Lok Sabha election swamps the smaller event. So, simultaneous elections can damage smaller, regional parties. And that isn't good. They are an expression of regional aspirations and identity."
By all accounts, the plan seems more an expression of the BJP's brute majority as also an ideology aiming to foist contrived unity on a diverse nation.
It seems neither feasible nor democratically desirable.