Why We Need To Debate The ‘One Nation, One Election’ Idea Further

In Politics, Swarajya by Praveen ChakravartyLeave a Comment

“One nation, one tax”, “One nation, one curriculum”, “One nation, one language”. This ‘one nation’ oratory seems to be the cornerstone for all new initiatives of the government. The goods and services tax (GST) was sold as a ‘one nation, one tax’ idea. The New Education Policy is apparently a ‘one nation one curriculum’ construct. Promoting Hindi in official communication is evidently a ‘one nation, one language’ virtue. The latest in this ‘One nation’ series is “One nation, one election” – a call for simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all state legislatures.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee report presented in the Lok Sabha in December 2015 has recommended that elections be held at the same time to the Lok Sabha and all the state legislative assemblies. Subsequently, a discussion paper authored by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai has been published by Niti Aayog outlining the “what, why and how” of simultaneous elections. The Niti Aayog paper refers to my research study of voter behaviour during simultaneous elections. Essentially the argument is that India is on a permanent election mode with elections to its 29 different states at different times. This implies a ‘huge’ cost in terms of time, effort and money.

The typical arguments in favour of simultaneous elections are three-fold – it will be more cost efficient, it will reduce ‘policy paralysis’ and improve overall ‘productivity’. This is yet another case of using a hammer to kill a fly that is likely to end up with a broken surface and not a dead fly.

It is first important to examine the veracity of the claims of problems of the current system. Then analyse if the recommended solution will indeed solve these problems without other unintended consequences and produce net significant gains.

The “huge costs” fallacy

The cost incurred by the Election Commission of India for conducting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was Rs 3,870 crore, as per the discussion paper. Estimates for conducting the 2015 state elections in Bihar are purported to be Rs 300 crore. Using that as a benchmark for the size of a state and costs of assembly election, we can impute another Rs 4,000 crore at most for elections to all 29 states. This means a sum total of Rs 8,000 crore of expenses incurred by the Election Commission of India to conduct all elections every five years. Roughly Rs 1,500 crore every year or Rs 20 per voter per year. To put this in context, public sector companies lose Rs 30,000 crore every year. India’s annual GDP is Rs 150 lakh crore. The assertion that government expenditure for conducting elections in India is huge is completely overblown.

The “policy paralysis” fallacy

The Election Commission (EC) of India has a “Model Code of Conduct” (MCC) which is charged as the problem child by the Niti Aayog discussion paper. The MCC as an idea was adopted across the country from the 1962 elections. In 1979, the EC after consultation with all political parties added a section to regulate the ‘party in power’ to provide for a level playing field. It is this section that restricts certain capital expenditure projects of an incumbent government once elections are called. It is important to realise that this section in itself is nearly four decades old. It is the relevance of the MCC’s restrictions on government projects in modern day India that has to be questioned and amended, not the entire electoral process.

Further, Niti Aayog has also been championing the cause of greater devolution of resources to the states to determine their own policies and expenditures. If ostensibly, states will soon be masters of their own destinies, then why should an election code of conduct during elections in say, West Bengal lead to a policy paralysis in the rest of India when other states are free to launch projects and programmes? The excuse of policy paralysis at the Centre due to a state election sounds backward-looking and is a mere alibi for the fact that Union Ministers spend time campaigning in election bound states than discharging their ministerial duties in Delhi. But that is the prerogative and the problem of political parties, especially the national ones. That in itself cannot be a reason to force simultaneous elections on all the states of India.

Other Issues

The discussion paper lists three “other issues” as problems of the current electoral process – frequent disruption of ‘normal’ life, perpetuation of caste and communal conflicts and adverse impact on governance. All of thesesound like they are arguments against an electoral democracy in itself, not merely disparate election schedules.

It is clear, as explained above, that the very premise for an argument for simultaneous elections is feeble. To then, propose a solution to these imaginary large problems that entails further costs of impingement on federalism and a potential impact on voter behaviour sounds rash and imprudent.

Mandating state elections to be held only alongside Lok Sabha elections removes the powers of the state government to call for elections, as they deem appropriate. Today, a state government can recommend dissolution of its assembly to the Governor and call for elections under Article 172(1) of the Constitution. Though the Niti Aayog discussion paper does not say this explicitly, it is evident that this power will need to be revoked in the case of simultaneous elections. How does this sit well with the idea of greater powers to states, including their right to call for elections? If the concern is this power may be misused, though there is little evidence of it in recent times, that can be addressed by either legislating a two-thirds requirement in the state assembly for dissolution or some other such solution that is deemed appropriate. But entirely removing these powers of state governments to call for elections is an impingement on the political autonomy of the states and goes against the very grain of further de-centralisation.

Our research of 513 million voter choices in 16 elections between 1999 and 2014, covering 2,600 assembly constituencies across six states, shows that 77 per cent of the constituencies chose the same political party for both the state and Centre, when elections were held simultaneously. Only 61 per cent of these constituencies chose the same party when elections are held even six months apart and when they are held wider apart, the relationship breaks completely. The Niti Aayog paper counters this study with the standard refrain that a correlation does not imply causation. My research, spanning a 15-year period and covering six different states, reveals that there exists a relationship between simultaneous elections and voter behaviour. Sure, our study does not imply causation but nor does it preclude it either. Is it then not the onus of the proposers of a simultaneous election solution to show that this does not influence voter behaviour?

To be sure, there is sufficient research literature to show similar patterns even in mature electoral democracies such as the United States in simultaneous elections to the Senate and the President. That does not automatically imply there should be one in India too given our regional diversity. In contrast to the claim by the discussion paper, our study does not claim that simultaneous elections benefit national parties. It merely shows that there exists a visible impact on voter behaviour. Also, the Niti Aayog discussion paper claims that our study wrongly included the 2009 and 2014 elections in Karnataka and Maharashtra in our data set for our study. This claim is false. Our paper makes it very clear that these states were not considered as a case of simultaneous elections but one of staggered elections.

It is evident that the potential ramifications of simultaneous elections in terms of true federalism, impact on voter behaviour and denying a voter to cast her choice at least once more in a five-year period are not worth an annual estimated savings of Rs 1,000 crore every year or a backward-looking claim of policy paralysis.

Efficient governance is the much touted rationale for ideas such as GST, simultaneous elections, uniform curriculum, one language etc.

Efficiency often tugs at the heart of true federalism and decentralisation. Efficiency implicitly demands oneness. Federalism demands acceptance of differences among diverse states. In the 65 years since India became a republic, its large states have diverged dramatically from each other in demographic, economic and social parameters. This “one nation, one policy” notion is deeply flawed and ill-suited for the India of today when the differences among its states are the starkest in the world. It is time to let legitimately elected governments of Bihar or Maharashtra or Kerala decide for themselves when they want to conduct their elections, how their land should be acquired, what their kids will learn, if their poor will get subsidies in cash or kind and how much their labourers will earn. Rajaji’s warning in the early years of the Republic that imposing uniformity is not the way to achieve unity in India still rings true.

Published on 22 November, 2016 in Swarajya Mag