Under our Constitution, state governments are elected for five years, unless they fall in the interregnum or early elections are called and the Assembly is dissolved. In such circumstances, chief ministers continue on a caretaker basis or President’s rule is imposed till the time fresh elections can be held. The proposed One Nation, One Election (ONOE) affects this paradigm three-fold. First, it results in deferring elections in such states where elections are now due, till such time the cut-off date is finalised for the single ‘national’ election, and gives such states an extended period in power. Secondly, this cuts short terms of governments in states where the five-year period elapses after the cut-off date. Third, and most serious, should governments fall, there would be long periods of unelected powers in place. These scenarios acutely affect our democratic traditions and lead to questions as to the constitutionality of ONOE. Democracy and federalism have been recognised as part of the basic structure of the Constitution, and ONOE must not offend either to remain valid.
The proposal for ‘one election’ is accompanied in time by the move to introduce a Uniform Civil Code, but skirts other pressing electoral reforms such as codifying the right to vote as a fundamental right, making political parties amenable to the Right to Information Act, introducing greater internal party democracy, reviewing the system of anonymous electoral bonds, doing away with post-poll alliances and revisiting the first-past-the-post model. The corresponding electoral reform that is on the anvil is the Central Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Bill, 2023 which provides for the top brass of the Election Commission (EC) to be appointed on the recommendation of a three-member selection committee with the prime minister and a nominated cabinet minister in majority. The necessarily raises questions as to its independence from political influence. The fact that such an EC will then monitor and oversee ONOE is further cause for alarm.
From the electorate’s perspective, this move is questionable as it assumes (or even aspires) that voters vote the same way in state and national elections. Though the announcements do not say so, the intent is One Nation, One Election, One Party. That one party may today be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in the years to come, the Congress, or possibly some other. This is unhealthy for a republic such as ours where coalitions, diversity and collaboration in politics are sorely required. One knows of voters who may have voted for the BJP in the last general election but for the Congress in Karnataka in 2023; those who have voted for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi but for the BJP at the Centre. They may regard one as being better administrators, while the other may match their religious ideology. At a rural level, a regional party may align well with the voter’s caste identity, while the same voters could favour a central party for its agrarian policies. The voter’s right to choose is a right exercisable at separate times—narrowing this down to a one-time ballot is an infringement of this nuanced right.
The astute Indian voter does not conflate the need for better roads with matters of national security, being aware of the respective roles of each government. That is indeed at the heart of our federal structure where states and the Union enjoy separate and disparate legislative and executive powers. With ONOE, voters would be expected to calibrate their voting patterns with such discretion that they are able now to simultaneously distinguish their choices for the state and the centre. This casts a high burden upon the electorate and can psychologically drive voters to make a common choice. This leads to one nation, one election, one vote. While this works well for large single parties, it could be the death-knell for smaller regional parties. These smaller parties may also have smaller purses and ONOE could play out inequitably in many ways. This also undermines the scope for such parties to have a national role, and transforms our multi-party system to practically a two-party race.
Periodic elections ensure political parties stay on their toes and encourage them to continually keep their constituencies in mind. With the Congress having won Karnataka in 2023, it is bound to be aware that the general election in 2024 would be a review of its ability to scale up its deliverables at a national level. The BJP, having lost Karnataka, would be keen to reclaim its position in, say, Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan in the elections scheduled this year. This builds stronger local leadership and incentivises state-facing policies. A single election diminishes the role and requirements of the states, which violates our constitutional scheme and spirit. We have rarely viewed discriminatory law from the prism of the states. One has grown accustomed to seeing the prime minister and union ministers campaign in state elections, and this would emerge as the default practice. But naturally, the campaigning will also be largely focused on central issues. Scholars have alluded to this as transforming ourselves into a quasi-presidential system of governance, which is alien to our Parliamentary form. The drive towards ONOE is seemingly to treat India as a unitary, unidimensional nation, which it emphatically is not. Overwhelming centralisation can be suffocating for both states and citizens.
This is not to say we have never held single elections. It was the case till 1967, but for historical and practical reasons we have departed from that system. Apart from administrative expediency and possible increase in voter turnout, the most compelling (official) reason to return to it appears to be the cost of holding separate elections. However, the costs of risking our constitutional and federal structure surmount the financial efficiencies on offer. The assumption that all governments will last the entire period of their term is in itself flawed and self-defeating as intermittent elections would cause recurring expenditure in any case—assuming such a provision for re-election is going to be made.
The 2018 report of the Law Commission of India noted that simultaneous elections would not fit the existing framework of the Constitution. An important question in the process of such an amendment would be the requirement of ratification by the states, which is that of a simple majority. Legally required or not, the politically gracious approach would be to seek the consent of all states before such a proposal is mooted. That would meet the loftier requirements of constitutional morality.
In this season of rechristening, it is fair to point to the extended language of Article 1 of the Constitution which reads, ‘‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States…’’ For us, the whole is greater due to the sum of its parts. We are one because we are different. To lump us all together with sanctimonious ideas of one language, one food, one culture and one polity is to undermine the imagination that drives our great people. The temptation for a strong executive to push through sweeping changes is natural. But statesmanship requires one to keep an eye on both history and on the long road ahead. Political tables can turn overnight and what seems like a masterstroke can at times become a millstone.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'One Nation, One Predilection')
Aditya Sondhi is a Senior Advocate, the Supreme Court of India