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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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One Nation, Many Polls

In the “One Nation, Many Polls” formulation laid out here, that criticism would be void.

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Arguments continue to rage over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to compress the Lok Sabha election and 29 state assembly elections into one mega poll. 

Modi says the plan will achieve four key objectives. First, it will cut down the high cost of holding elections. The 2019 Lok Sabha poll cost the exchequer  over Rs. 8,000 crore. Political parties and their candidates collectively spent another Rs. 50,000 crore, mostly in black. Cutting costs by holding one combined election for the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies will thus not only cut costs all round but reduce the circulation of unaccounted cash. 

Second, merged elections will allow political leaders to focus on governance over their five-year terms rather than campaign every few months for state assembly polls. Third, voter turnout will rise. With just one election every five years and two choices (Lok Sabha and state assembly), more voters will be encouraged to exercise their franchise. Fourth, the pressure on security forces will lessen considerably, freeing them up for duties in areas where insurgencies still fester. 

Opposition leaders have pointed out the practical difficulties in implementing the PM’s proposal. These were echoed by former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi, writing in The Hindu:  “First, how will ‘one nation, one election’ work in case of premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha, for instance, as happened in the late 1990s when the House was dissolved long before its term of five years was over? In such an eventuality, would we also dissolve all State Assemblies? Similarly, what happens when one of the State Assemblies is dissolved? Will the entire country go to polls again? This sounds unworkable both in theory and in the practice of democracy.” 

In his column One Nation, Two Elections in the Sunday Times of India, Swaminathan Aiyar suggests a way out by holding one general election every five years and polls to all 29 state assemblies together in the middle of the five-year Lok Sabha term: “The first need is a fixed government term for five years, and this will require amending laws. After an election, every legislature should elect a Prime Minister or chief minister for five years. That leader should stay in office for a full term even if defections reduce his party or coalition to a minority. Problem: if elections are held only once in five years, voters have little chance in between to show their dissatisfaction. The solution is to hold state elections in the middle of the fixed Lok Sabha term. This will mean alternating central and state elections every two-and-a-half years. This will give the fullest scope for focusing on state-specific issues in one set of elections, and on central issues in the other.”

There is a fundamental flaw in both Quraishi’s and Aiyar’s proposals. The idea of fixed term five-year Lok Sabha and assembly terms is antithetical to parliamentary democracy and India’s federal structure. If a government at the Centre or in the states loses its majority due to defections or loses the confidence of the House for any other reason, that government has no business staying in office under the guise of a five-year fixed term. If a government loses a trust vote in Parliament or in a state assembly, that legislative body must be dissolved and fresh elections called. 

This isn’t likely to lead, as some would think, to legislative chaos. The number of times a government has lost a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha over the past 25 years can be counted on the fingers of one hand – mostly during the Deve Gowda-IK Gujral-Vajpayee years in the 1990s. 

The record of state assemblies in recent years too is of reasonable stability. Even if a state government does lose its majority, there would typically, in a five-year period, be at most three or four mid-term elections. In order to synchronise their next election with the other state assemblies, those mid-term polls would give the assembly concerned a truncated term till it goes to the polls again with the rest of the states at the end of the remaining five-year cycle. We would thus have at most a few mid-term elections across a five-year timeframe while preserving the democratic sanctity of parliamentary and assembly majorities. 

How do other nations approach the problem? In a controversial move in 2011, Britain opted for a fixed five-year term for parliament. The current imbroglio over Brexit shows how ill-judged that decision was. David Cameron stepped down as prime minister in 2016, shortly after the Brexit referendum’s shock result. Ideally, British parliament should have conducted a floor test at the time. If the Conservative Party had lost the trust vote, the House should have been dissolved and a general election called (which it eventually was in 2017). Instead due to Britain’s new five-year fixed term legislation, we have seen a parade of prime ministers – Cameron, Theresa May and now either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. A general election is due in Britain only in 2022 under the fixed five-year term unless an “early election motion” is passed by a super-majority of two-thirds in parliament. By legislating a five-year fixed term for the House of Commons, Britain has stood common sense on its head. 

The United States has a more orderly system with the Presidential and Congressional elections alternating every two years. But the US is not a parliamentary democracy like India or Britain and therefore not strictly comparable. The Opposition in India worries that “One Nation, One Poll” will become a quasi-presidential system like America’s, benefiting Modi because of his popularity as a mass leader. That might skew assembly poll results where Modi rather than local candidates would draw votes. 

In the “One Nation, Many Polls” formulation laid out here, that criticism would be void. The Lok Sabha and 29 state assembly polls would be held with a gap of two-and-a-half years between them, thus limiting polling to two dates over five years. It would also preserve the essence of parliamentary democracy by stressing the importance of floor tests as a pre-requisite to continued governance, allowing only the occasional mid-term poll when legislative trust is lost. 

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