Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s often repeated advocacy for a new electoral system under the garb of the catchy phrase “One Nation, One Election” needs to be examined carefully.
On November 26, 2020, deliberately choosing the occasion of the Constitution Day, he reiterated his call for holding simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha along with all state assemblies.
The catchy phrase of “One Nation One Vote” has been coined mischievously to muster popular support as in any democratic set up there is a provision of “one person, one vote” and the current slogan of “One Nation One Election” has the potential scope to be misinterpreted as such a good idea like “One Person, One Vote” which was coined by Dr Ambedkar during the Constitution debates.
Anyway, the supposed objectives of the proposed measures are stated to be the reduction in the huge election expenditures incurred in connection with multiple elections, the saving of the valuable time and manpower lost for the completion of the entire election process, the disruption in the development works due to the enforcement of the election code of conduct from time to time, etc.
Prime Minister Modi in fact went to the extent of saying that no further debate is necessary on this issue and it is the need of the hour to go for simultaneous polls without any more delay.
This demand is being made notwithstanding the fact that the system of simultaneous elections for both Lok Sabha and state assemblies cannot be practically run for a long period of time in multi-party democracy like India as the results of the elections often produce uncertain or hung situation in which premature dissolution of any house may necessitate a snap poll.
If the mid-term poll becomes necessary for Lok Sabha then it will be totally undemocratic to dissolve all the state assemblies for holding simultaneous poll. Similarly, if mid-term poll becomes necessary for any state assembly and that poll is put on hold until the Lok Sabha completes its full term, then to it will be a curtailment of the democratic choice of electorates in a state.
Before going into the questions of the ‘wastage’ of time, money, energy etc for the conduct of elections, it is important to comprehend the contexts under which Prime Minister has been raising the issue from time to time.
However, the present PM is not the first person who has raised this issue for the first time. This call was first made by LK Advani in the late 1990s when the BJP-led NDA was in power at the Centre but it was not in power in majority of the states.
Then this BJP leader and Union Home Minister raised this demand at that time ostensibly after checking the voting pattern in various elections which displayed that the BJP usually received more votes for Lok Sabha than for the state assemblies.
However, the party was not happy with enjoying power only at the Centre, rather, since then it has been vigorously seeking to capture power in more and more states.
LK Advani at that time probably hoped that a simultaneous election would help the BJP to capture power in many states as the voters’ preference of BJP for Lok Sabha would also get converted to the votes for state assemblies as well.
It has been observed for a long time that, whenever the state polls are held separately, the BJP can hardly repeat its performance of the Lok Sabha polls.
However, when BJP-led NDA government was dislodged from power in 2004, the issue disappeared from the public discourses as parties other than the BJP has little interest in it
As far as Modi is concerned, he never raised this demand during his long tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat (2000-2014). Had he been really serious and sincere in reducing the election expenditure by holding simultaneous polls, he could have done it in Gujarat by simply recommending the dissolution of the state assembly paving the way for the holding of State Assembly polls along with the Lok Sabha polls in 2004 or in 2009 or even in 2014.
In this context, it may be recalled that in 1991 the state governments of West Bengal and Kerala had asked the respective governors to dissolve the state assemblies before the completion of the full term, and subsequently in those two states, simultaneous polls were held.
However, the present PM, who is so vociferous now for simultaneous polls, did not apply this option himself when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister nor did he ever advise any other state governments run by his own party to voluntarily go for simultaneous polls in the above stated manner.
It needs to be examined carefully the exact timings at which Prime Minister has been more vocal on this issue. In 2018, ahead of assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the PM suddenly raked up the issue again that nobody had talked about ever since 2004.
What prompted him to this? Obviously, the PM was worried about the pre-poll survey which indicated the defeat of incumbent BJP governments in those three poll-bound states which had given the BJP almost all the Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
However, the same BJP was all set to lose these three states when the BJP was occupying the power at the centre. This was worrisome for Modi who realised from experiences in several states that his personal image and charisma were not producing the similar kinds of results in state assembly polls.
This was seen even during the Assembly elections of Gujarat, the home state of the Prime Minister. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won all the 26 seats of the state which was a major support pillar in making Modi the PM.
From the indications of the results of Lok Sabha polls, it was expected that the PM’s own state would give his party a hands down victory. However, it used to be a different ball game when it came to assembly polls.
The BJP could narrowly retained its government in Gujarat despite Modi’s vigorous campaigns in an unprecedented number of rallies in the state.
Thus, the experiences in Gujarat and elsewhere, have taught Modi and the BJP the good lesson that the voting behaviour of the electorates differs from election to election.
During the last two Lok sabha polls, the BJP, under the leadership of Modi, has been able to garner more than 300 Lok Sabha seats, which was until recently unimaginable for any single party or combination.
Behind this outcome, there are several factors. One important factor is that at the national level, there is no viable, strong and well organized alternative to the BJP. The beleaguered Congress with the lacklustre leadership of Rahul Gandhi seems to offer no alternative in popular perception.
The weakening of the Left parties in their own bastions like West Bengal has reduced their capacity to make strong interventions at the national politics through the forming of broad-based coalitions.
Another crucial factor is the larger than life image of Modi which is mostly a creation of the media as well as the silent but vituperous campaign of the Sangh Parivar.
In 2014, another important factor was the promise made regarding the recovery of Black money from Swiss Bank for its subsequent transfer into the account of each voter.
In 2019, the Puluwama incident and the subsequent Balakot retaliation created such an euphoristic ultra nationalist narrative during the election campaign that all other narratives regarding the multiple failures of Modi government did not cut any ice at all with the voters.
It is very interesting to note that the Party which won such a landslide victory in 2019 Lok Sabha polls with more than fifty percent votes in some states could not repeat the same performance in any of the state assembly polls held following the Lok Sabha polls.
The most glaring example is the Delhi Assembly elections. In 2019 parliamentary election, the BJP, riding high on the nationalist euphoria over Puluwama, could capture all the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi.
However, the same BJP could win only three Assembly seats out of seventy in Delhi despite strong effort from the party and the PM and the venomous communal campaign at the ground level.
In Jharkhand, BJP lost power in the state despite magnificent performance in Lok sabha polls. In Haryana, the BJP, which won all the ten seats in Lok Sabha, could somehow cling to power only by notching up post poll alliance with a newly emerged regional party.
The Maharashtra Assembly results too did not give the party the same measure of support and even, after the polls, its long term alliance with the Shiv Sena came to an end.
In Bihar too, the NDA could not retain its Lok Sabha position at all. Rather, it was almost on the verge of losing power to a grand alliance which was very hurriedly formed just ahead of the assembly polls.
Similarly, in West Bengal assembly polls, the BJP failed to repeat its performance of last Lok Sabha election of 2019.
An incisive analysis of the results of two Lok Sabha polls of 2014 and 2019 and the results of Assembly elections held thereafter clearly demonstrates that the BJP is hardly preferred by the voters particularly at the state level during state assembly elections, and wherever there is a strong formidable alternative, such as AAP in Delhi, the voters have a propensity to reject the BJP out rightly at a time even when it is ruling at the Centre.
The Prime Minister and the BJP think tank are deeply worried at this dichotomy reflected in the voting behaviour of Indian voters. Their prescription for removing this dichotomy is the holding of simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies so that voters’ choice for the central government can also influence their choice for the same party or combination for the state government as well.
The BJP and Modi seem to be optimist that no strong alternative to the BJP would emerge at the national level in near future. Therefore, the party wants to take the advantage of this lucrative situation and by holding simultaneous elections, the party wants to capture powers in as many states as possible to complete its hegemonistic grip on the Indian state.
For the BJP, capturing powers in the states or increasing its legislators in state assemblies is the real objective. The reason is not obscure or difficult to understand. The BJP still does not have a clear majority in Rajya Sabha and that is the most worrisome headache for the party.
The party wants to change the basic character of Indian political structure and also wants to enact various legislations keeping in view its aim of establishing Hindu Rashtra and also the interests of the corporates.
But, it is the Rajya Sabha which is currently putting a brake on this by standing like a stumbling block. It is not for nothing that the Farm Bills, passed in September, were pushed through in the Rajya Sabha without any proper voting through division.
The BJP needs an unbridled power, that too without further delay. In its hands to fulfil all its open and hidden agenda and that unbridled power can come to it only when it enjoys a two third majority in both houses of parliament. To have more seats in Rajya Sabha, more wins at the state assemblies are required.
However, this dream seems impossible now if the State Assembly elections are held separately.
Therefore, this bogey of saving election expenditures, time, energy, non-disruption of development works etc is being made just to deflect the attention of the people, the time tested strategy of the current regime, so that the real objective behind the suggestion for holding simultaneous polls can be hidden from the public knowledge.
In a democratic system, polls are essential and indispensable as it is the only weapon in the hands of people which give them some amount of empowerment.
If any restriction or limitation is put on that empowerment under whatever pretext, then this will further erode our democratic system which has already weakened.
According to some political commentators, with the continuous decline of our democratic institutions, India has already been reduced to just an electoral democracy in absence of or in the premature death of all other good democratic practices and cultures.
However, it seems that the present ruling dispensation, which is so moribund to serve the corporate interests to the full, is even finding this nominal electoral democracy a real hindrance towards the fulfilment of its complete goal.
(The author, Dr. Sultan Ali Ahmed, is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Howly College, Barpeta, Assam. He can be reached at email@example.com)