We know that elections are fascinating. The day to day job of governance, not so much. Anybody who has watched social media turn into a yawn fest after May 23 can attest to this.
But like most things in life, it is the “boring” stuff that adds up to real, lasting success. After winning the 2019 General Election comprehensively, PM Modi invited all parties to a discussion on “One Nation – One Election.” In other words, one simultaneous election every five years for both the Lok Sabha and State Legislatures.
Now, several major parties did not even attend the meeting and others are openly hostile, so we do not know how far this idea will go. Nevertheless, I want to show that there is a very strong case for ‘One Nation – One Election.’ And many of the concerns that are being expressed are either exaggerated or have no basis in reality.
First, we have to talk about the problem. The country was mostly at a standstill for almost six months due to the huge General Election. But there is not much respite coming. Maharashtra is India’s second largest state and it will be going to polls in September/October, along with Haryana and Jharkhand. In just three months after that, there’s Delhi. And then a big election in Bihar. Within six months of that, we have elections scheduled for states like Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, etc. Then, there’s going to be Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and Punjab and others going to polls in a single year. The year after that will be the last one before the General Election of 2024 and it will see elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Chhattisgarh.
Think about the amount of “election downtime” for the government every year. At the very least, this is costing us 3-4 months of governance per year. Legally speaking, the model code of conduct itself puts a brake of at least 2 months of policymaking. But the time that the government is forced to spend in “election mode” is longer than that. It’s not the upfront cost of the election that matters, but the “opportunity cost.”
Here is where we encounter the first objection.
Okay, but is it not the choice of the ruling party to go into “election mode”? So if somebody is concerned about that, let them opt out of election mode.
Yes, in theory. But the reality is that incentives matter. If you want to change behaviour, you have to change incentives. You will get nowhere by expecting people to become self-sacrificing moral giants. This is why the “profit motive” in capitalism brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but the “sharing of resources” under Communism has never helped anyone.
Let me address the next objection.
Repeated elections keep the ruling party at the Center accountable. If there is only one election every five years, there will be no checks on the ruling party.
Again, yes, but in an extremely self-destructive way. This is like saying that rejecting annual medical checkups will end your worries about falling sick.
The current system of major elections every few months actually helps the ruling party at the Center. There is no feedback as comprehensive and as compelling for politicians as election results. Frequent elections don’t make the ruling party ‘accountable,’ they help the ruling party constantly monitor people’s reaction, react and fine-tune their strategy for the big General Election.
There is only one thing more dangerous than anti-incumbency. And that is “bottled up” anti-incumbency. State elections can often act like safety valves. Think about Chhattisgarh from last year. The electorate was angry. If the state election had happened in May this year, the fury of the electorate might have come out simultaneously against the BJP at the Center. Similarly, it is doubtful if BJP could have pulled off 25/25 in Rajasthan or 28/29 in Madhya Pradesh if anti-incumbency of the kind seen in Dec 2018 had been bottled up and seething below the surface.
If you want another example, think about Bengal. Don’t you think Mamata Banerjee would have been happier if the state election had happened already in May? She would still have won a majority, albeit a thin one. After all, in the Lok Sabha election, she did have her nose ahead by 22 seats to BJP’s 18. But now she must wait two full years as the TMC collapses at the grassroots. She has to wait for the “bottled up anti-incumbency” to blow away the TMC in 2021.
So who would simultaneous elections really help?
Do simultaneous elections reduce the importance of regional players? Is this dangerous for our federal setup?
Of course not! Quite the opposite, actually. In fact, it is at the time of General Elections that regional parties are best positioned to bargain with national parties.
It’s simple: Both the Vidhan Sabha and the Lok Sabha election matter to the big national party.
This means that, if the VS and LS polls happen separately, the national party can have two different strategies in the two polls. The regional party does not enjoy this luxury, because the Lok Sabha election is not very important for them at all.
Think of regional parties like JDS (allied with Congress in Karnataka), or Shiv Sena (allied with BJP in Maharashtra) or JDU (allied with BJP in Bihar). Now that the General Election is over, these regional parties don’t have much leverage left with their big partners.
A single election means that everything will be fought on ‘national issues’, with local issues forgotten.
The voter is far too clever for this. Here is a phenomenon that is well known, but scarcely ever commented upon. The turnout in Vidhan Sabha polls in most states is much higher than Lok Sabha polls. The General Election 2019 had a turnout of just about 67%. The Madhya Pradesh election last year had a turnout of over 75%. In the General Election, the state saw just 71%! Sometimes, the gap in turnout between VS and LS polls can even get close to 10%.
In Gujarat 2017, the turnout was 69%. In the Lok Sabha election, it was 64%. A significant gap of 5% voter turnout!
Check the map of India. You will be hard pressed to find even one state where LS turnout is higher than the VS turnout.
So, whatever the opinions on this, the facts of the whole matter are clear. The “local issues” voter actually comes out during state polls and stays home during LS polls. This is the voter who is more likely to vote for regional parties as well! If you have simultaneous polls, the “local issues” voter is likely to vote in LS polls for the first time. So, go figure.
How about a “compromise”? What if the state elections are clubbed into two groups, with half the states going to polls every two and a half years?
This is really the worst of all possibilities. Almost 15 states going to polls together at the midpoint of the term of the Central Government! That would be almost as big as the General Election. This would make almost every single year into a pre-General Election year. There would be no time to govern. Only elections.
Okay, but how would you manage this? A Parliamentary setup is part of the “basic structure” of the Constitution and cannot be amended.
No, but there are several simple workarounds. A No Confidence motion could simply be tied to a Confidence motion, i.e., a sitting CM or PM cannot be voted out by the legislature until they simultaneously express confidence in somebody else.
And no, this won’t lead to “undemocratic” minority governments. Even if a CM or PM manages to stay in the chair (for a few days) without enjoying a majority in the legislature, they can’t get anything done. Because budgets won’t pass the house. And without money, everything comes to a halt. Should there be such a situation, sooner or later, the opposing majority in the house is bound to find some other individual to express confidence in?
That way the Parliamentary setup stays. It is only required to change the rules regarding No Confidence Motions.
In short, one nation – one election will likely increase electoral participation. The fears about federalism and regional parties are quite unwarranted. If anything, this works in their favour. And as for the fears about “dictatorship”, well those are simply being expressed in bad faith by those who cannot digest Modi’s victory. So there is no need to address those and no argument can convince them.
In fact, this could be a chance for the public to focus on dissecting governance rather than discussing election results. I started with a facile remark about governance being relatively “boring.” But it is not. If you really get into it, governing this vast nation of 1.2 billion people, slowly bringing it out of poverty and turning it into a superpower is the most fascinating event in human history. We just have to start taking an interest in it. Only then it can happen.