Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an obsession: He wants history to remember him as the greatest prime minister our country ever had, greater than Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and even the founder of his own party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
His fervent admirers, bhakts as they are called (Sanskrit for devotees), already believe what he wants posterity to judge him as ─ a leader who transformed India (sorry, Bharat) the most because no predecessor Prime Minister had the courage and vision to take as many bold decisions as he already has.
Moreover, both he and his supporters have fully convinced themselves that there is a third five-year term waiting for him to introduce even bigger changes.
Hence, they believe history will record the following. Who demonetised the currency overnight? Modi. Who repealed Article 370 of the Constitution and made Jammu & Kashmir a fully integrated part of India? Modi. Who paved the way for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya by ensuring the removal of the last judicial hurdle? Modi.
Under whose rule did the Indian economy rise from a global rank of 10 (in 2014) to 5 (in 2023) ─ and is poised to become the third largest? Modi. Who made India the ‘Vishwaguru’ (Teacher of the World) by raising our country’s global power, profile, and prestige? Modi.
In the same sequence of achievements, the PM wants to add one more: Who alone had the guts to introduce ‘One Nation One Election’ (ONOE) ? Modi.
‘One Nation One Election' Isn’t an Innovation
The ONOE idea ─ simultaneous election for the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas (legislative assemblies) of all states ─ is not new. During my long and active association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it often figured in internal party discussions as one of the key components in the larger framework of much-needed electoral reforms.
Its most ardent and consistent advocate was LK Advani, former Deputy Prime Minister who served as the president of the BJP for the longest period.
Advani, an erudite politician, and an avid blogger, wrote a blog in August 2012, making a strong case for holding simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies and urging that "there should be no midway dissolution of either the Lok Sabha or the state assemblies and both these institutions must have a fixed tenure.”
He argued that, with several state Assembly Elections taking place every year, the country “is in a perpetual election mode”, and this affects the functioning of the Union government.
Advani also added that, in 2010, he had discussed this matter with the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and then Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha, Pranab Mukherjee. “I found both of them receptive to the suggestion,” he said. He appealed to President Mukherjee (who had become Rashtrapati in 2012) to take "an initiative” to introduce comprehensive electoral reforms, including a reform on reducing the harmful influence of money power.
Sadly, the Congress-led UPA government did not take the matter seriously. It did not even initiate a wider national debate on it involving all political parties.
Since the major opposition party, BJP, itself had mooted the ONOE idea, the government would have found it relatively easy to evolve a national consensus, if it had chosen to do so. But Dr Singh lacked the political authority to make that wise choice.
Why India Needs 'One Nation One Election’
Any constructive debate on ONOE must begin with the question: Does India need it? The answer is an emphatic YES.
Advani had only pointed out what every Indian knows: our country “is in a perpetual election mode”, which means perpetual campaigning and unending "Tu Tu Main Main” among contesting parties and candidates.
This does not affect regional parties much, because they are mostly concerned with getting, and consolidating power in their own respective states. Who forms the government at the Centre is of secondary importance to them.
In any case, many regional parties have shown considerable expediency when it comes to supporting national alliances for parliamentary elections and joining national coalitions for forming central governments. DMK, AIDMK, Trinamool Congress, National Conference, Telugu Desam, and several other state-specific parties have partnered with both the Congress and the BJP at different points in time.
But it is a different matter for national parties ─ and there are now only two of them left, BJP and Congress. A perpetual cycle of State Assembly Elections each year places a big burden on them and also poses severe challenges to policy formulation and decision-making by the Union government.
Central leaders of national parties, many of whom have ministerial responsibilities, are compelled to spend their time and energy on preparing for and campaigning in, recurrent Assembly Elections.
In the current dispensation, Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, especially, have found this burden too heavy because they have taken upon themselves the sole responsibility of ensuring the BJP’s victory in states ─ with increasingly unsatisfactory results.
Indeed, the fact, that former President Ram Nath Kovind heads the committee adds to its difficulty in reaching out to all the political and non-political stakeholders. It was clearly improper on the part of the Modi government to involve him in what is essentially a contentious political exercise, since Kovind held the country’s highest Constitutional (and non-political) office that must always remain above controversy.
This is all the more so because there are credible reports that the government had begun work on how to implement the ONOE proposal several months ago.
Challenges in the Past
An added reason makes the ONOE idea desirable: the growing cost of elections. Not only does the exchequer bear a heavy financial burden if elections are conducted every year, but political parties (both national and regional) also are compelled to raise resources for separate parliamentary and assembly elections.
This increases opportunities for political corruption and makes governance more vulnerable to the baneful influence of moneybags.
Then there is the common voters’ perception. Ask the man or the woman on the street, and they will say that excessive and repeated spending on elections is a major cause for the rise in the prices of essential goods and services. If a referendum were held on the subject, a majority of Indians would back the ONOE proposal.
Furthermore, yet another fact proves that ONOE is not an altogether new idea.
After all, parliamentary elections and State Assembly Elections were held simultaneously in 1952 (two years after the adoption of the Constitution), 1957, 1962 and 1967. Thereafter, the election cycle was repeatedly disrupted.
The fifth general elections were scheduled in 1972. But parliamentary polls had to be held in 1971 because Indira Gandhi’s government recommended the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
In subsequent decades, many state governments could not complete their five-year tenure either because of internal instability (coalition partners drifted apart) or because the Centre imposed the President’s Rule by invoking Article 356 of the Constitution.
After the 1970s, several coalitions at the Centre, too, collapsed either under the weight of their own internal power struggles or when parties lending them outside support withdrew it. Such was the fate of the governments led by Morarji Desai, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda, and IK Gujral.
Two Vajpayee-led governments in 1996 and 1998 were also short-lived. All these developments necessitated mid-term parliamentary elections, and further de-linked Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls.
Widest Possible Democratic Consultation Needed
The real problem with the ONOE proposal is not whether it is desirable, but how to implement it now. Three factors will make its smooth implementation extremely difficult under the prevailing political situation in the country.
First, any change of such a drastic nature with far-reaching consequences for Indian democracy should be undertaken after achieving the widest possible national consensus.
The necessary Constitutional amendments should not be rammed through in a hurry without proper debate not only in the Parliament and State Assemblies but also in the larger forum of WE THE PEOPLE. After all, the voice of the people must be heard in a democracy.
If the Modi-led BJP is so insistent on introducing ONOE, let it include it as a promise in its manifesto for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and implement it if it gets people’s mandate.
Sadly, the track record of the Modi government shows that it has little faith in conducting meaningful consultations either in the Parliament or in the larger political and people’s domains. For example, what else can we make of the fact that the government has convened a five-day special session of the Parliament on 18-22 September without any consultation with the opposition and without any information to members about its agenda?
Second, state governments and state assemblies should have adequate opportunity to evolve and express informed opinions on the subject.
Obviously, conducting simultaneous Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections, let us say in 2024, will require the dissolution of all the State Assemblies. In many states, the duly elected governments would not have completed their full five-year term by 2024.
Assemblies of Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur, and Uttar Pradesh have not completed even two years, because elections were held in these states in 2022. Elections to the Karnataka Assembly took place only three months ago. Naturally, there will be resistance from states.
What this shows is that the political landscape in 2023/24 is not what prevailed in 1952, 1957, 1962, and 1967 when simultaneous general elections were held.
The undivided Congress party, which had led India’s freedom movement, was popular all over the country and was hence able to form governments both at the Centre and in almost all the states. Today, not even the BJP enjoys such pan-Indian dominance.
Regional parties are strong ─ and in power ─ in many states. If the Modi government imposes the ONOE idea without holding extensive consultations, the consequences, at least in the short term, could be undesirable in the form of social unrest and political instability.
Centre-State Discordance at its Peak
Sadly, in the Modi era, all institutional platforms for Centre-State dialogue and smooth interaction have become dysfunctional. The tradition of the Prime Minister convening Chief Minsters’ conferences on issues of national importance has been almost done away with.
As someone who worked in Vajpayee’s PMO, I have seen how the then Prime Minister used the National Development Council, Inter-State Council, Chief Ministers’ conferences, and regular All-Party Meetings to gain the trust and support of the leaders of non-BJP parties, and thereby, create a democratic consensus on a wide variety of reforms. All that has become history now.
Centre-State relations were never as disharmonious as they are now. State governments were never as disempowered as now. Dr Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had once alleged that the Centre had reduced state governments to the status of municipal bodies. The charge sounds even more valid now.
Oddly, Modi himself, before he assumed office in 2014, had promised to strengthen "cooperative federalism” by promising, “Team India = PM + CMs”. Now there is no team, only a captain.
Critics, therefore, believe that ONOE is a prelude to One Nation, One Election, One Leader.
Third, the committee appointed by the Modi government to make recommendations on ONOE does not inspire much confidence. Home Minister Amit Shah represents the government and the BJP in it, but it has hardly any representation for non-BJP parties. Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who was named on the committee, was informed about his inclusion by a babu in the PMO ─ and not by the Prime Minister himself. He has declined to be on the committee alleging that its “terms of reference have been prepared in a manner to guarantee its conclusions”, and calling the whole exercise an "eyewash”.
Barring Subhash Kashyap, a renowned Constitutional expert but now very old (age 94), other non-governmental members on the committee have very little political acumen, electoral experience or connect with the common people.
In sum, ONOE is a good idea that is sought to be enforced in an undemocratic manner.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)