One nation, one election: Threat to federalism

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The Modi government and the BJP are planning another serious assault on the Constitution and the very basis of parliamentary democracy in India. The BJP has conducted 25 webinars in the last week of December 2020 to propagate the idea of ‘one nation, one election’. This came in the background of Prime Minister Narendra Modi making one of his periodic pronouncements about the need for ‘one nation, one election’. The latest was at the 80th Presiding Officers’ Conference on November 26, which happened to be the Constitution Day. The BJP webinars trotted out the now well-known arguments for the need for simultaneous elections of the Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections that it will save a lot of expenditure. They opined that repeated elections bring the Model Code of Conduct into play which hampers development work and divert officials’ attention and so on. The underlying message is that too many elections are not good for democracy, more important is governance. This is in line with what the CEO of the Niti Aayog, Amitabh Kant who said that there is too much democracy in India with regard to the farmers’ struggle.

The holding of elections at all levels together and the Constitutional changes that will be required to bring it about will fundamentally change the character of parliamentary democracy and destroy federalism in the country. To hold the Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections together, it would require tampering with the Constitutional scheme of accountability of the government to the legislature. A set of proposals have been made by the Niti Aayog in its ‘discussion paper’ in 2017 and the draft report of the Law Commission in 2018. They all amount to shortening of the tenure of some of the existing state Assemblies or extending the life of some, so that they can be synchronised with Lok Sabha elections or at least to hold only two sets of elections in a five-year period. To avoid mid-term dissolution of the House and consequent elections, fixity of tenure is prescribed. In one of the proposals in the Niti Aayog paper, it is stated that if the dissolution of the Lok Sabha cannot be avoided and the remainder of the term of the Lok Sabha is not long, then a provision can be made for the President to carry out the administration of the country on the aid and advise of a Council of Ministers to be appointed by him/her till the next House is constituted. The same approach is suggested for state Assemblies, where the governor can take over the administration for a short period.

The regional parties, particularly those in power in the states, have the most to lose with this authoritarian ‘one nation, one election’ scheme. The limited autonomy that exists for the state governments will go. The exercise of democratic norms such as recommending the dissolution of the Assembly earlier or of framing the political agenda for the Assembly elections will be overridden by hitching the Assembly election to the central election for Parliament. It is due to the spinelessness and opportunism of parties like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, TRS in Telangana and YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh that the Modi government has got away with so many attacks on states’ rights. They should wake up and oppose this draconian anti-democratic, anti-federal move.

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