What do you do with routine traffic jam on a river bridge?
Regulate traffic? Yes, surely.
Open an extra lane during peak hours? Yes, if feasible.
Widen the bridge, or even build a new one? Well, yes, if necessary.
Or change the course of the river? What! Have you gone bonkers?

This sums up the one-nation-one-election debate in India for me. Our election calendar poses some real and nagging problems. These need to be addressed. And there are some practical ways to resolve these, not fully but to a large extent. But you don’t need to change the Constitution and the entire political system of the country. The Narendra Modi government’s proposal of simultaneous elections is the equivalent of wanting to change the course of a river in order to solve the traffic problem on the bridge.

The problem

Here is the problem: the five-year tenure of the central government is cluttered with state assembly elections (eight rounds during the next five years, if all goes well), which leads to frequent interruptions and shortening of policy horizon, which, in turn, worsens the quality of governance. As the model code of conduct (MCC) kicks in, decision-making comes to a standstill, not just in the states that go to polls but also at the Centre. The political class, from the PM down to the MP, goes on an election holiday. More than the formal limits of the MCC, the frequency of must-win polls keeps the central government on tenterhooks. Besides, there is the problem of duplication of election expenses when elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies are held separately.

Although a bit overstated, these are real concerns that need addressing. But let us note that the problem of high frequency of elections during its tenure affects the central government, not the state governments. Let us also note that there is nothing abnormal or scandalous about this divergence in electoral cycles. This is bound to happen in a federal country that follows parliamentary system of government.

The solution

So, how do we solve the problem in the existing system? First of all, we must revisit the draconian restrictions of the model code of conduct on the central government during state assembly elections.

The basic spirit is that there should be a level playing ground, that the ruling party should not take undue advantage of being in power. Instead of a blanket ban on policy decisions, the Election Commission (EC) should ensure that the central government offers no electoral bribes targeting voters in these states. Political parties can revise the MCC, a document that is terribly outdated in any case, for this purpose. Second, the duration of polling can and should be reduced. It is ridiculous for polling in a state assembly election in Uttar Pradesh to be stretched to seven phases over a full month. It’s time political parties prod the EC to give up its complacency and come up with a smart plan to conclude polling within a week.

Finally, the Election Commission can club some of the assembly elections into about four or five rounds over a five-year period, instead of about eight currently. The Constitution allows the Election Commission to hold elections anytime within the last six months of the tenure of the assembly. So, the EC can take political parties into confidence and take a policy decision to bring forward some isolated state elections by a few months. As for duplication of expenditure, we just need to remember that the real problem is excessive spending, way above the legally permissible limits. The solution lies in election funding reform, not in changing the electoral calendar.

The side effects

Is one-nation-one-election a better solution to these problems? Yes, provided this medicine had no side effects and if electoral calendar clutter was the only or the biggest disease in our politics. Neither of these is true. Simultaneous holding of national and all state assembly elections once in five years is not a simple administrative change in our electoral calendar. It requires a fixed five-year tenure for legislatures, which is tantamount to changing our constitutionally mandated parliamentary system of governance.

Even if we are willing to amend this basic feature of our Constitution, how do we deal with situations where a government loses a vote of confidence in a legislature? Advocates of simultaneous elections suggest two options: Either a fresh election may be held, but only for the remaining period of the five-year tenure (Do we want to elect a government for, say, eight months?). Or there cannot be a vote of no confidence in a government unless there is a vote of confidence in a new government (How would a lame duck government get its budget passed?). We can keep debating the merits of each solution. But we cannot deny that this medicine has serious side effects.

The real agenda

Why, then, is the government so keen on pushing this ‘reform’ first thing this tenure? Our elections have far bigger problems that are crying for attention. Election funding reform is surely the one item that should top the agenda of electoral reforms. Instead, our system has taken a giant leap backwards, thanks to the introduction of electoral bonds. Why this priority and urgency to hold simultaneous elections?

The most plausible answer is that one-nation-one-election fits into the BJP’s long-term political architecture. First, it would release the government, especially its economic policies, from constraints of democratic accountability. With a rapid decline in all autonomous institutions, election is now the only effective mechanism of holding the government accountable. If this filter is also lowered, we are looking at a central government sans any democratic constraints in between two mega elections. This should worry every democrat.

Second, simultaneous national and state elections would tilt the voting preference in favour of the dominant national party (read the BJP). That may not ensure a victory for the BJP, as the examples of simultaneous polls in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh show this time. But it is undeniable that simultaneous polls would reduce the ‘regional’ flavour of the elections by a few degrees and swing some voters towards a nationally dominant party like the BJP.

Perhaps it’s time we called this proposal by its real name: “One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader”.

The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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