Weighing our options on the ‘One Nation, One Election’ proposal: An explainer

Elections in India are a massive exercise. Besides the deployment of manpower to manage the processes and heavy expenditure incurred, police and other security agencies are also required to be on high alert to ensure that it proceeds smoothly. There have been many instances of elections-related violence during the Lok Sabha elections this past year, and with the advent of social media, it is now accompanied by fake news, online trolling, and bickering in the comments section.

In the recently concluded 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the total money spent by political parties and the government of India (GoI) is said to be approximately Rs 60,000 crores. According to India Today, some 20 lakh personnel were deployed during the seven phases of elections.

With a vast and populous country like India, all of these measures are crucial. However, it becomes a major inconvenience when similar measures have to be taken every six months to accommodate various regional and local elections. To avoid this inconvenience, the NDA government has been insisting on the concept of ‘One Nation One Election’ (ONOE).

Read more about What is One Nation, One Election and why is the Opposition against it?

ONOE means that the elections to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha, and local bodies, will happen simultaneously. This means that only once in five years will politicians have to campaign for elections.

Read more about Modi’s newest bold move: ‘One Election’

With an idea this radical and a reform this big, it is necessary to learn why it is needed. More importantly, is the idea any more feasible than when it was first pitched in 1995 by LK Advani?

Why simultaneous election

The idea certainly has a lot of benefits. Proponents cite exorbitant expenditure, logistical reasons, and “policy paralysis” due to imposition of Model Code of Conduct, as some of the reasons to implement simultaneous elections.

All of these reasons deserve deeper inspection before making such an important policy decision.

Elections are expensive: Should we go dutch?

A great deal of fiscal expenditure is involved to conduct elections. The government has to mobilise human resources in the form of polling staff and security personnel, they have to buy new vehicles, replace old EVMs, and buy new VVPATs. Besides all of this, the political parties incur expenditure to organise rallies, mobilise party workers and supporters, and advertisements, among other things.

In fact, India’s LS 2019 elections was billed as the world’s most expensive democratic exercise.

Read more about EVM-VVPAT debate rages on: Opposition parties move the SC again

When the Lok Sabha elections are happening, the expenditure is borne by the central government. When elections to State Assemblies are taking place, the expenditure is borne by the respective state government, and when simultaneous elections are happening, expenditure is divided equally between the central and the state government.

The Law Commission Report published by the Department of Legal Affairs compared five states which went into contention some months after the 2014 Lok Sabha election. They gathered data about the expenditure by government in both the Lok Sabha election and the state elections. The total expenditure during both the elections was divided by the number of Assembly Constituencies (AC) in that particular state. The average amount per AC in both the elections came out to be more or less the same. This proves that if the elections were held together, the expenditure would have been divided between the GOI and the State government, thus providing a big relief to the exchequer. This fiscal amount, thus saved, could be used elsewhere.

If there are simultaneous elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) will have to provide for extra EVMs and VVPATs in every polling stations. The estimate expenditure for this came at a little more than Rs. 4500 crores, but this is nothing compared to the money that the government will save if elections are synchronised.

Providing logistics is a hassle

There are logistical requirements that have to be fulfilled during an election. These include acquiring EVMs and VVPATs, buying stationery, such as election ink, and vehicles for the staff and for the purpose of transporting EVMs and VVPATs.

To fulfil the logistical requirements for simultaneous elections, the government will have to buy extra EVMs and VVPATs so as to accommodate the extravagant polling exercise, which in turn means that the government will have to take care of the storage thus required—something it is already struggled to provide for. So, if simultaneous elections are to take place, the government will have to make arrangements for all these purposes.

Most of the polling staff working on election duty are government employees in different departments. This means that during election season, these employees are carrying out election duties, instead of their regular responsibilities. This is bound to disrupt the administrative business of the state, thus bringing the government machinery to a temporary halt.

From a logistical point of view, simultaneous elections are desirable, but equally difficult to see through as government will have to incur a large one-time expenditure to ensure for a proper and safe storage of EVMs and VVPATs.

Does the MCC cause ‘policy paralysis’?

From when the Election Commission announces the dates for an election, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) immediately kicks in. Imposition of MCC means that the incumbent government cannot announce any new schemes during this period. However, the existing schemes are not affected. Nonetheless, the ruling party does not want to land itself in trouble with the EC, and as a result, decisions regarding existing schemes are also run past the EC, which usually gives its verdict within or after two business days. This slows down the pace of the work on the existing schemes, which is why elections are referred to as periods of “policy paralysis”. The MCC, proponents of ONOE argue, hinders effective governance by delaying the announcement of new policies.

The above mentioned arguments prove that simultaneous elections are a much-needed reform, but the political scenario has stymied the process of debate. Moreover, politics are not the only hurdle on the path to ONOE; the shift in legal process will be a nightmare in itself.

Is the idea feasible

On an average, state assembly elections across India occur approximately every six months. So, to get all states to have elections together seems like a herculean task. The tenure of some of the State assemblies would have to be extended or curtailed to a very large extent. This would require amendments to the constitution.

Article 83(2) and 172(1) of the Constitution pertain to the tenure of the House of the People and the State Assemblies respectively. The articles state that the tenure to both the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies is a maximum of 5 years “unless sooner dissolved”. So, this means that there is a provision for premature dissolution of a State Assembly, but not for the extension of the tenure of the assembly.

As the State Assemblies have to be synchronised with the Lok Sabha elections, there is no need to amend Article 83(2), but Article 172(1) has to be amended. Legal experts argue that the government needs to only add a one-time provision for the curtailment and extension of State Assemblies, and get them in sync with the Lok Sabha elections.

Now even if the government is able to do all this, which is a task in itself as any amendment to the Constitution requires support from two-thirds of the members of both the Houses in Parliament and not less than 50% of the states agreeing to it, there are still some questions that need to be answered.

What if there is premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha, will then all the states go for elections? Or what if a state assembly gets dissolved, will then there will be fresh elections for Lok Sabha and all the other states? After all, for the first 15 years, India had simultaneous elections but due to some state assemblies being dissolved prematurely and then the Lok Sabha also being dissolved before the end of its 5 years tenure, the synchronisation between the state assemblies and the Lok Sabha broke. So, it is safe to say that it is a very strong probability something like this might happen again.

To avoid all of this, there are some ideas proposed by the Law Commission Report and the report by Niti Aayog, but to get those ideas into practice will also require constitutional amendments.

The most common reason for premature dissolution of the assembly is by proposing a ‘no confidence motion’ against the government. If a ‘no confidence motion’ is moved against the PM and his/her Council of Ministers and the motion passes, then the government has no other option than to resign. To ensure stability of the government, there have been recommendations that if the house proposes a ‘no confidence motion’ against the government, it should be accompanied by a ‘confidence motion’. This idea is adopted from the German Constitution.

Even in the 170th report of the Law Commission published in 1999, there was a similar proposal introducing the idea of a ‘confidence motion’. And if any of the motion is defeated, the incumbent government will continue to govern. The report also suggested that once a ‘no confidence motion’ is voted for in the house, there can be no more motion expressing want of confidence in the government for a period of two years starting from the date of the previous motion.

But none of these reports clarify what will happen if a ‘no confidence motion’ passes, will the new government rule for 5 years or for the remainder of the term? And if the new government rules for 5 years, what will happen to the State Assemblies then?

But a ‘no confidence motion’ is not the only reason for the dissolution of an assembly. There are other reasons such as budgetary defeat or a hung assembly. In case of hung assembly in a state election, if no party or group of parties claim to have the majority, the governor can impose President’s Rule in the state. But in the case of Union, no such provision is present. There would have to be mid-term elections. Even in the case of budgetary defeat, the incumbent government will fall and if no alternative government can stake a claim, then mid-term elections are the way forward.

These are some questions which are still unanswered. The success and long-term sustainability of the whole idea hinges on these key questions. The government has done one thing right, by calling an all-party meet, they have encouraged debate on the idea and shown that they are willing to engage in dialogue to find a plausible solution which is acceptable to all. But the opposition parties have not been receptive to the idea.

Criticism and counter arguments

Parties like INC, BSP, CPM, AITC, SP, AAP, etc didn’t attend the all-party meet called by the PM. They all had more or less the same reason to explain their absence. Mayawati of BSP said that it is just a ploy by the government to divert attention from the real pressing issues of unemployment, poverty, etc. AAP says that it is just a “slogan in the absence of clear policy document or white paper”.

Most of the regional parties also believe that simultaneous elections will benefit the national parties a lot as the regional interests might get subsumed by national interests and voters might end up voting for the national parties in state elections also. Even a research published by the IDFC Institute concluded that the tendency of a voter to vote differently for House of the People and for the state assembly is only decreasing with time.

But there are some strong evidences which refute this claim. In this elections, Jagan Mohan Reddy led YSRCP swept the Andhra Pradesh State elections by winning 151 seats out of 175 seats, as well as the Lok Sabha election by getting 22 seats out of 25 when it was evident that there is a Modi wave. Another point to counter the findings of the study can be found from the results in the state of Odisha. Odisha’s state elections were also synchronised with the 2019 Lok Sabha election. In the Lok Sabha elections, BJP won 8 seats out of 21. But, in the state elections, it was a clean sweep by the BJD as it won 112 of the total 146 seats. Even in 2014, the BJD was able to retain Odisha by winning 20 seats out of 21 in the Lok Sabha election and 117 seats out of 146 in the state elections.

This just proves that if a regional party has a well-oiled machinery and a strong presence on the ground, it can give a strong fight in their respective states. This was the election when Narendra Modi’s popularity was at its peak, still BJP could not wrest these states from strong regional parties.

Another reason BSP and SP are against the idea can be explained from their declining popularity. Both the parties claim that simultaneous elections will benefit the national parties, but this claim can also be easily refuted by their performance in 2014 General Elections and the 2017 UP Assembly elections, when there were no simultaneous elections. BSP won zero seats in 2014 General elections and SP won only 5 seats. Even in the 2017 UP Assembly elections, their performance was nothing less than a debacle.

This resistance by the political parties show that the path to simultaneous elections is going to be very difficult for the BJP and allies, and even if they get all political parties to agree with them, introducing so many constitutional amendments is going to be a mammoth task. As of now, the idea of One Nation One Election seems to be a distant possibility.

Dhairya Nagpal is a writing analyst at Qrius

Indian PoliticsOne Nation One Electionsimultaneous elections