One Nation, One Election


As the world’s largest democracy, India has always been a melting pot of political ideologies, diverse cultures, and vast populations. With every passing election cycle, the nation witnesses a spectacle of democratic fervour, where millions exercise their right to vote and choose their representatives. However, amidst this vibrant democratic process, the debate surrounding the synchronisation of elections at various levels—local, state, and national—has gained significant traction in recent years.

The concept of “One Nation, One Election” (ONOE) has emerged as a potential solution to address several challenges inherent in India’s current electoral system. Advocates argue that simultaneous elections across all tiers of governance—panchayat, municipal, state, and national—can yield numerous benefits, ranging from cost-effectiveness and administrative efficiency to better governance and policy continuity.

In its report on ‘One Nation One Election’, the Ram Nath Kovind-led panel recommended a two-step approach to achieving simultaneous elections in the country. To begin with, simultaneous polls should be held for the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. In the follow-up step, the panel suggested in a report submitted to President Droupadi Murmu that elections to the Municipalities and the Panchayats can be held within a hundred days of polls to the Lower House and assemblies.


“In tune with its mandate to explore the mechanism for simultaneous elections, and keeping in view the existing framework of the Constitution, the Committee has crafted its recommendations in such a way that they are in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution of India and would require bare minimum amendments to the Constitution,” the Ministry’s statement read.

Is this the first time the idea is being tried?


As outlined in the report commissioned by NITI Aayog and authored by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai, the concept is not new. Following the enactment of the Constitution in 1950, elections to the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies were synchronously conducted every five years from 1951 to 1967. However, with the emergence of new states, reorganisation, and premature dissolution of assemblies, this practice came under scrutiny.

From 1952 to 1967, India operated largely as a unitary state, with the Congress party exerting significant dominance both nationally and at the state level. The advent of regional parties and their electoral triumphs at the state level precipitated a shift in the political landscape, rendering simultaneous elections less efficient. This proposal was also endorsed by the Law Commission in 1999, coinciding with the ascent of RSS-BJP in elections, and prominent leaders such as LK Advani voiced their support for it.

Rationale Behind One Nation, One Election

Proponents of ONOE emphasise several key reasons to support its implementation.

  • Cost Savings – Conducting multiple elections at different levels of governance incurs substantial financial burdens on the exchequer. When the first elections to the Lok Sabha took place in 1951-52, 53 parties contested the elections, around 1874 candidates participated and poll expenses were Rs. 11 crore.
    In the 2019 elections, there were 610 political parties and around 9,000 candidates; poll expenses of around Rs. 60,000 crores, as per the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), are yet to be declared by the political parties.

A study by the Law Commission of India estimated that ONOE could save up to Rs 4,500 crores ($615 million) on expenditures on separate elections.

  • Administrative Efficiency: Coordinating simultaneous elections streamlines the electoral process, reducing the strain on administrative machinery and security forces. It enables better resource utilization and minimises disruptions to governance and public services.
  • Enhanced Voter Participation: With elections occurring less frequently, voter fatigue may decrease, leading to higher voter turnout and greater engagement with the democratic process. This, in turn, fosters a more robust and inclusive democracy.
  • Policy Continuity: Simultaneous elections ensure that governance is not interrupted due to frequent polls. Elected representatives can focus on policy formulation and implementation without the distraction of perpetual campaigning.
  • Limiting Political Bargaining: Implementing fixed-interval elections has the capacity to diminish political manoeuvring among elected officials. Conducting elections at predetermined intervals adds complexity to representatives’ attempts to switch allegiances or forge alliances solely for personal benefit, thereby reinforcing current measures against defection.

Despite the perceived benefits, the implementation of ONOE is not without challenges

  • Constitutional Amendments: Synchronising elections across all levels of governance would necessitate significant amendments to the Constitution of India. It requires consensus among various political parties, which has proven elusive thus far. Article 83(2) and 172 of the Constitution outline a five-year tenure for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies unless dissolved earlier.
    The concept of ONOE raises questions about the repercussions if the Central or State government collapses mid-tenure. The dilemma of whether to hold elections in every State or impose President’s Rule complicates the constitutional framework.
    Simultaneous elections are an attack on the autonomy and independence of state governments. This can not only weaken this federal structure but also increase the conflict of interest between the Centre and states. The terms of state governments vary, and some states are given special provisions under Article 371 of the Constitution.

The Law Commission, under Justice B. S. Chauhan, reported that simultaneous elections are not feasible within the existing constitutional framework. Amendments to the Constitution, Representation of the People Act 1951, and Rules of Procedure of Lok Sabha and State Assemblies would be required.

  • Policy Paralysis – According to NITI Aayog– a policy think tank of the Government of India, “In the last 30 years, there has not been a single year without an election to either a State Assembly or Lok Sabha or both.”

Due to the Model Code of Conduct, the government is barred from announcing any new project, development work, or policy decision until the polls are over. Proponents of ONOE maintain that this lulls the state machinery to a standstill and brings about what is known as “policy paralysis.”

  • Federalism Concerns: India’s federal structure grants states considerable autonomy in scheduling their elections. Some state governments perceive ONOE as encroachment on their rights and fear the loss of regional identity and representation.
  • Logistical Hurdles: Coordinating elections across the vast and diverse landscape of India poses logistical challenges, including voter registration, polling booth setup, and security arrangements. Addressing these hurdles would require meticulous planning and resources.
  • Impact on Local Issues: Critics argue that ONOE may overshadow local issues and concerns, as electoral campaigns tend to focus on national-level issues and personalities. This could undermine the principle of subsidiarity and grassroots democracy.

Recent Developments and Policy Initiatives:

The Indian government has taken several steps to explore the feasibility of ONOE and address associated challenges:

  • Law Commission Report: In 2018, the Law Commission of India submitted a comprehensive report titled “Simultaneous Elections – Constitutional and Legal Perspectives,” recommending constitutional amendments to facilitate ONOE.
  • NITI Aayog’s Proposal: The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has proposed a phased implementation of ONOE, starting with simultaneous elections for Lok Sabha and state assemblies, followed by local body elections.
  • Political Discourse: Various political parties have expressed divergent views on ONOE, with some supporting the idea in principle while others remain sceptical or outright opposed. Achieving consensus among stakeholders remains a formidable challenge.
  • Public Discourse and Consultations: Civil society organisations, think tanks, and academic institutions have actively engaged in debates and consultations regarding ONOE, contributing to a broader understanding of its implications and challenges.

Global Overview

  • In South Africa, both national and provincial legislature elections occur simultaneously every five years, followed by municipal elections two years later.
  • Sweden conducts its elections for the national legislature (Riksdag), provincial legislature/county council (Landsting), and local bodies/municipal Assemblies (Kommunfullmaktige) on a fixed date, specifically the second Sunday in September every fourth year.
  • The United Kingdom enacted the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 to introduce stability and predictability to its parliamentary system. This legislation stipulates that the initial elections took place on May 7, 2015, and subsequent elections are scheduled for the first Thursday of May every fifth year thereafter.

The concept of One Nation, One Election represents a bold attempt to reform India’s electoral framework and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of its democratic processes. While the idea holds immense potential to streamline governance and reduce electoral expenditures, its implementation requires careful deliberation, consensus-building, and constitutional amendments.

As India is currently undergoing the 2024 General Election, the discourse surrounding ONOE is likely to intensify, with stakeholders grappling with complex questions of federalism, representation, and democratic principles. Ultimately, the success of this ambitious reform will depend on the ability of India’s political leadership to rise above partisan interests and prioritise the long-term interests of the nation’s democracy.

What is the way forward

There appears to be a divergence of opinions among different political factions regarding the feasibility of simultaneous elections. A potential compromise could involve holding the Lok Sabha election in one cycle and all State assembly elections in another cycle after a period of two and a half years. Additionally, other recommendations previously discussed, such as establishing protocols for forming an alternative government in the event of an incumbent government’s collapse, limiting the tenure of newly constituted houses to the remaining term in case of premature dissolution, and consolidating bye-elections to occur annually, could be implemented through appropriate amendments. Such measures would enable the realisation of the primary advantages of synchronised polls while upholding democratic and federal principles. With the consensus of all political entities, this plan could be realised within the next decade and maintained thereafter.

 

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