The controversial one country-one election proposal has resurfaced and the real threat is not that it will spark a prolonged and polarising debate — but that it won’t. The genuine danger is that an attempt could be made by the party that has returned to power at the Centre, with a mandate larger than before, to push through a proposal of consequence and magnitude without the scrutiny and discussion it calls for. The idea of simultaneous elections has been around for a long time, it has even been taken up in respected forums like the Law Commission, the parliamentary standing committee and the Election Commission. But the fact is that even as it addresses some valid and resonant concerns — that elections have become too costly, and that the busy election calendar interrupts governance and distracts from long-term planning and policy goals — it will have costs that may be too high for a parliamentary democracy with a strong federal framework.
Synchronising Centre-state elections will, in all probability, benefit the dominant national party or the incumbent at the Centre while disadvantaging the smaller regional party and issue. Fixing the tenure of legislatures would also further weaken accountability in a system where the playing field is already tilting towards a strong political executive and in which the space for autonomous institutions is shrinking. In such a system, elections provide a necessary moment of reckoning for the rulers and an important moment of assertion for the ruled. Moreover, it is also possible to argue that the problems of too many elections are better addressed by other solutions, which do not flatten diversity or entail significant amendments to the Constitution and the Representation of People Act. For instance, the Model Code of Conduct, which is seen as too restrictive, could be reviewed and relaxed to impose fewer curbs on the Central government while a state election is ongoing. And, election funding reform could be more seriously designed and implemented to bring down the prohibitive poll costs.
The all-party meeting in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a fresh pitch for one country-one election marked a flawed start to a process of deliberation on this issue in his second term. Wednesday’s meeting was attended by only 21 of the 40 parties that were invited — parties like the Congress, TMC, DMK, BSP and SP stayed away. The poor attendance casts a responsibility on the Modi government to reach out across the political fence and ensure that more Opposition voices are heard, and listened to, in the debate. The panel that will be formed to examine the issue and come up with suggestions in a time-bound manner will only carry credibility if it includes members of parties across the political spectrum. The onus is on the Opposition too. It must participate in every meeting and join every forum in order to make its point and influence the outcome. The strategy of boycott only makes it look petulant. More disquietingly, it leaves the floor to the dominant party and its agenda on an issue that affects all.