September 10, 2023

One Nation, One Dictatorship

THE Modi regime is out to launch a twin assault on parliamentary democracy and federalism by implementing the slogan of `One Nation, One Election’ (ONOE).  The government has announced the setting up of an eight-member committee headed by former president, Ram Nath Kovind.  The terms of reference make it clear that the committee’s job is to recommend how to proceed to implement simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies, the legal and constitutional steps to be taken.  The committee can be expected to do what the government wants as it has been hand-picked for the purpose and includes home minister Amit Shah.

Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, Narendra Modi has been periodically announcing the need for one nation, one election. He had declared in 2020 that this is “not a matter of debate but a necessity for India”.

BJP leaders have been trotting out the well-worn arguments on the need for simultaneous elections: that it will save a lot of expenditure incurred due to frequent elections; repeated elections bring the model code of conduct into play which hampers development work and so on.

There have been three committees which have gone into the issue of holding simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies after Modi came to power.  In 2015, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted a report on the matter.  In 2017, the Niti Aayog made a set of proposals in its discussion paper on `Analysis of Simultaneous Election’ and in August 2018, the Law Commission published its draft report on simultaneous elections.  They all proposed 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.  Some have suggested to hold only two sets of elections in a five year period – one set with the Lok Sabha and half the state assemblies and another set in the mid-term with the rest of the assemblies.

If the steps being proposed to bring the state assembly elections in alignment with the Lok Sabha polls are anti-democratic and strike at the root of the constitutional basis of  representation and accountability, the steps to ensure that there is no deviation from simultaneous elections in the post-synchronisation period is worse.

Both curtailing or extending the life of the legislature, or, the government, militates against the very principle of party-based parliamentary democracy and the accountability of the executive to the legislature. 

Further, to have simultaneous elections and sustaining it would require tampering of the constitutional scheme of accountability of the government to the legislature.  Under the constitution, if a government is voted out on a no-confidence motion, or, loses a vote on a money bill, it is bound to resign and if no alternative government can be formed, the house is dissolved and a mid-term election is held.  There is no fixity of tenure enshrined in the constitution either for the Lok Sabha, or for the state assemblies.

Fixity of tenure would mean that a ruling party, which has a stable majority in the house, cannot recommend for dissolution of the house to have early elections.  It is also proposed by the Law Commission report that if a no-confidence motion is moved in the Lok Sabha, it must be accompanied by a resolution naming the new leader to run the alternative government. This is termed as “constructive vote of no confidence”. What this means is that even if a government is voted out by a majority of the house, there has to be some alternative government, which is unrepresentative of the people’s choice.  Primacy is given to stability through fixity of tenure and the electoral choice becomes irrelevant.  This will work in favour of the ruling party.

The implications of enforcing ONOE are centralisation and concentration of powers at the centre and destroying, in essence, federalism.  The authority given to the president of India, i.e., the central government, to curtail or extend life of state legislatures will completely undermine the right of the states and its elected legislators.  After simultaneous elections are achieved, thereafter the principle of governments accountable to the state legislatures and the right of the people to have the government of their choice will be restricted. 

We are seeing how governors are behaving in the opposition-ruled states violating the rights of the state governments and the state legislatures.  With the changes brought about in the name of simultaneous elections, centralised control will mean governors acting as viceroys for the centre. 

India has 28 states with widely varying political and social conditions (excluding Jammu and Kashmir which was dismantled as a state). The attempt to enforce an undemocratic uniformity is the ideal of the RSS/BJP combine. The concept of `one nation, one election’ is similar to their slogan of  `one nation, one language, one culture’.

To bring about simultaneous elections to parliament and state assemblies, there will have to be a major constitutional overhaul.  There will have to be amendments to the constitution in Article 83 (duration of house), Article 85 (dissolution of the Lok Sabha), Article 172 (duration of state legislatures), Article 174 (dissolution of state legislatures), Article 356 (failure of constitutional machinery) apart from amendments to the Representation of the People Act and other Rules. 

It is evident that whatever the Ram Nath Kovind-led committee recommends, the implementation of these constitutional and legal steps will take time and they cannot be implemented in time for the coming Lok Sabha elections. But indications are that the government is going to begin the process.  A special session of parliament convened from September 18 to 22 may see some announcement in this regard.

The opposition parties should be vigilant and prepare for the Modi government’s next move.  They should immediately go to the people with a big campaign on how the ONOE is dangerous for democracy and federalism.


(September 5, 2023)