On 31 August, the Government called for a special session of Parliament for five days beginning on 18 September. The Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi tweeted, “Special Session of Parliament (13th Session of 17th Lok Sabha and 261st Session of Rajya Sabha) is being called from 18th to 22nd September having five sittings. Amid Amrit Kaal looking forward to having fruitful discussions and debate in Parliament.” Interestingly, at that time, no agenda was set nor were any reasons given for calling this special session.
Finally on 13 September, after much pressure from the opposition the Government finally relented and put out a fairly ‘pedestrian agenda’ which in no way warrants a ‘special session’ of parliament! The agenda includes a discussion on the ‘Parliamentary Journey of 75 years starting from Samvidhan Sabha — Achievements, Experiences, Memories and Learnings’, and the consideration of four Bills. The Bills include the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, introduced during the Monsoon Session in the Lok Sabha; the Advocates (Amendment) Bill and the Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, passed by the Rajya Sabha in the Monsoon Session; and the Post Office Bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the Monsoon Session. The session is expected to be held in the new Parliament Building – which most regard as a colossal and scandalous waste of the taxpayers’ money.
The day after it announced the ‘special session’, the Government began sending out ‘one nation, one election’ missives. It followed this up by constituting a High-Level Committee (HLC) headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind to explore the feasibility of a ‘One Nation One Election’. The other members of the Committee were Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress leader in Lok Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, ex-Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha NK Singh, ex-Chairman 15th Finance Commission Subhash C Kashyap, ex-Secretary General Lok Sabha Harish Salve, senior advocate Sanjay Kothari, and former Chief Vigilance Commissioner as members. The Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal was to attend the meetings of the committee as a special invitee, while Legal Affairs Secretary Niten Chandra will be secretary to the panel.
The gazette notification presenting the mandate of the committee stated, “Elections to the House of the People and Legislative Assemblies of States were mostly held simultaneously from 1951-52 to 1967, after which this cycle broke and now, elections are held almost every year, which result in massive expenditure by the government, diversion of security forces and other electoral officers engaged in such elections from their primary duties for significantly prolonged periods, disruption in developmental work on account of prolonged application of Model Code of Conduct, etc.” The notification emphasised the need to rewind to 1967 by citing the 170th Report on Reforms of Electoral Laws by the Law Commission of India, which said, “We must go back to the situation where the elections to Lok Sabha and all the Legislative Assemblies are held at once. The holding of a separate election to a Legislative Assembly should be an exception and not the rule.”
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was the lone representative from the opposition in the committee. He refused to join the committee given its dubious mandate which is designed to endorse the ‘one nation, one election’ agenda, and due to its selective composition – excluding the current leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha while including a former leader of the opposition in RS who is now close to the BJP. In a statement he said, “The sudden attempt to thrust a constitutionally suspect, pragmatically non-feasible and logistically unimplementable idea on the nation, months before the general elections, raises serious concerns about the ulterior motives of the government”
The BJP and Narendra Modi have been advocating simultaneous elections or ONOE for some time now. It was in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto. Later in 2015 and 2016, it was the subject matter of a Parliamentary Standing Committee, the subject matter of a communication between the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and the Election Commission of India (ECI), and a Union Law Ministry’s report sent to the ECI.
In 2016, NITI Aayog propagated a paper titled, “Analysis of simultaneous elections: the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’”. The paper put out several reasons as to why there should be simultaneous elections including:
the suspension of development programmes and welfare activities due to frequent imposition of the Model Code of Conduct, leading to sub-optimal governance which adversely impacts the design and delivery of public policies and developmental measures
the huge expenditure incurred by the government and various stakeholders on frequent elections
the influence of black money
the engagement of government personnel (like school teachers) and security forces frequently and for long periods
the perpetuation of caste, religion, communal issues, etc.
Whilst all the above are valid with limitations, in no way are they able to demonstrate that holding simultaneous elections is a panacea for the ills of the election process? In 2017, President Pranab Mukherjee made mention of ONOE in his address on the eve of Republic Day. In 2018, President Kovind in his joint address to the two Houses of Parliament indicated the desirability of holding simultaneous elections. ONOE has thus been around in discussions for at least nine years now.
Why then is the Government in a tearing hurry to implement the ‘one nation, one election’(ONOE)? The Government for one, is undoubtedly frightened! The results of the Karnataka Assembly elections have thrown the BJP and their allies into disarray. They did not expect such a resounding defeat! Those who headed their campaign were none other than the triumvirate of Modi, Shah and Adityanath. They splurged money, tried to buy up the voters, had roadshows at the cost of the State exchequer, they pulled out all stops to ensure victory- but to no avail. They certainly fear the worst in the States which go to the hustings from December 2023 to before the National elections; these are Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana! Losing in some or all of these States will do irreparable damage to the possibility of them returning to power in May 2024!
Above all, the climate has also been disastrous in most parts of the country; the monsoons have played havoc! The Kharif crop has been a dismal failure. The Government’s anti-small farmer stance has not helped a bit. So, shifting some of the elections in those States where elections are due, might be another reason why the Government seems to be hell-bent on its one nation, one election!
The complex nature of the country’s political and constitutional framework will pose many legal challenges in the implementation of the ‘one nation, one election’. Most of the top Constitutional experts in the country think that it would require five cascading amendments to the Constitution. Each has to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and with 50 per cent of the State assemblies. This is a tall order indeed! The five Articles of the Constitution which will have to be amended are #83, #85, #172, #174 and #356; besides several statutory laws would have to be amended before any such proposal could be implemented. It will also be necessary for Union and State assemblies to have fixed tenures. This means that the House’s tenure cannot be extended at any cost, except in case of a declared emergency. It would also allow for the House to be dissolved before the expiry of its term. Amending the Constitution is a lengthy and politically challenging process that requires a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. States will also have to necessarily give their consent.
There are several other challenges even if ONOE has the numerical backing. If it becomes a reality anytime soon, what will happen to assemblies like Mizoram, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the terms are about to end? What about Karnataka, which has a new assembly since May 2023? In future, if there is a law-and-order breakdown in a State or a government loses a majority, how will elections be synchronised with the Lok Sabha? Will it be kept under the President’s rule? The Constitution has a clearly defined timeline on how long a state can be kept under central rule. What happens if the Central Government loses a trust vote as it happened in the past? If a new Lok Sabha has to be elected midway, what about all the assemblies? These and several other questions must be answered! The ruling regime certainly does not have them!
The proposal of ‘one nation, one election’ strikes at the very root of federalism. The Central Government has been over the years treating democratically elected State Governments in a slip-shod manner. Tensions between non-BJP-ruled States and the Central Government have erupted very frequently in the recent past. The way the National Education Policy (NEP), which is on the concurrent list, has been shoved down the States, is a case in point; fortunately, most of the non-BJP States have resisted its implementation. In 2017, the sharpest opposition during the Law Commission consultation came from MK Stalin of the DMK. He said in a communication to the Commission that this was a “complete misadventure that will decimate the federal structure of the country”. He said that even though Parliament is empowered to amend the Constitution, it cannot alter its basic features like federalism. The letter also gave examples of the judgments delivered by the Supreme Court in cases such as Kesavananda Bharati vs. The State of Kerala and Golak Nath vs. The State of Punjab.
It is clear that under federalism, the constituent units i.e., the States have autonomy in governance on the subjects specified in the States’ list. Therefore, the election of legislative assemblies and the State government are autonomous functions. The Union government cannot interfere unless there is a proclamation of emergency as specified in the Constitution of India. The federal character of the Constitution is part of its basic structure, which cannot be amended as per the landmark 1973 judgement of the Supreme Court. We can do so, only by writing a new Constitution, which needs a new constituent assembly. All this goes far beyond the ‘one nation, one election’ obsession!
There are several pressing and urgent issues which plague the country today! The ruling regime does not have the wherewithal, the sagacity or the political will to address them. As defeat looms large, they are desperately trying to homogenize, to control, to ensure that India becomes a dictatorship based on the Hindutva ideology. Modi certainly prefers the Presidential form of Government instead of the more people-fused parliamentary form! All this must be nipped in the bud immediately and eradicated in totality! This regime has played sufficiently with the lives and destinies of millions of Indians.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar the visionary that he was, sensed that India would fall into such a trap. It is not without reason that in his passionate speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, he said, “We must observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” There is nothing wrong with being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Dr Ambedkar never minced his words and loved challenging systems which were unjust and fascist; his one question to the rulers of India today would certainly be ‘One Nation, One Election: for Whom? Why?’. They would never dare attempt to answer his question!
15 September 2023