Express View: One nation, many elections

On Thursday, the government announced a special session of Parliament, its agenda undeclared and unknown. And on Friday, it set up a committee under a former president of India to examine the proposal of “one nation, one election”, long-discussed and still controversial. The two events may or may not be tied together — it may or may not be that the proposal to hold elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies simultaneously will come up in the special session of Parliament held from September 18 to 22. But both the sudden revival of a consequential and contentious political idea under the stewardship of an individual who occupied the nation’s highest non-political office, and the contrived uncertainty surrounding the special session, raise important questions.

The government’s big moves need to go through the paces of a deliberative democracy and submit to the checks and balances of a constitutional system. At the very least, they need to play out more transparently. Big policy and political moves should not be scripted like cloak-and-dagger drama, or take the form of an ambush.

The idea of simultaneous elections points to a real problem but the solution it offers is dissonant in a parliamentary system with a federal framework — it promises, or threatens, to give it a more presidential and unitary character. Admittedly, the relentless election calendar in this country is taking a toll.

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An election is always around the corner and with expenditure caps freely given the go-by and campaign finance draped in secrecy, it means higher sums of money and other resources spent. It also means, after the model code of conduct kicks in, a pause, if not a paralysis of governance. Parties and governments with one eye on the impending election give in to the seductions of populist moves and shirk long-term policy and planning.

But making elections simultaneous will, for one, impose an artificial fixity on the terms of legislatures in states and at the Centre — at odds with a system that, given its staggering diversity, must remain responsive and accountable. It will also raise questions like this one: What happens if, after simultaneous polls, a five-year term in an Assembly is interrupted by political realignments? Then, simultaneous elections are likely to help the dominant national party and incumbent at the Centre, and disadvantage the regional issue and player. They could flatten the diversity of format and politics that marks India’s federal polity ever since the Sixties when the synchronicity of the election calendar was first broken along with the appearance of the first dents in the Congress-led one-party dominance system.

The Narendra Modi government is reviving an idea that has been taken up, at various times, by a parliamentary standing committee, the law commission, the election commission. And yet, it must also address concerns about the proposal being part of its larger project to bring homogeneity in a diverse country. One nation, one election… one civil code, one party, one leader? In a country where elections bring valuable moments of reckoning for the rulers and much-needed opportunities of assertion by the ruled, why should they be shirked? All eyes and ears are now on the panel to see how it goes about addressing these and many other concerns. Given how elections have an almost talismanic power in the nation’s democracy, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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