Why is govt backing simultaneous polls?
The idea can help paper over the BJP’s weakness in some state polls. But a genuine democratic ethos cannot be cultivated by a single fanciful idea
In this media-saturated age, the Modi government has perfected the art of headline management. The one nation, one election proposal is the latest example. On the very day that fresh revelations in the Adani controversy tumbled out, Chinese President Xi Jinping opted out of the G20 summit, and the Opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) group met in Mumbai, the sudden announcement of a special session of Parliament followed by setting up a committee to examine the simultaneous polls idea the next day suggests artful management of the news cycle.
In the rush to break news, it is perhaps forgotten that an identical single election plan was floated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) exactly five years ago. Then BJP chief and now Union home minister Amit Shah wrote to the Law Commission in August 2018, asking it to consider the one nation, one election proposal in “national interest”. But with little support from non-BJP parties, the plan failed to take off. Is 2023 any different to 2018, or is this a classic case of new packaging of an old agenda?
Four reasons appear to have driven the revival of the idea. The first, as mentioned at the outset, is to divert attention and grab headlines at an opportune time. The second is to float a trial balloon and ignite a wider public debate amongst India’s influential middle class on the impact on costs and governance for a country in permanent election mode. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has already pushed for a similar debate on the so-called revdi or freebie culture, while warning that the fierce competition between parties to offer electoral sops will prove ruinous for economic health. Ironically, while the PM has targeted opposition parties for being fiscally irresponsible, the BJP, too, has been just as willing to open its purse strings ahead of any election – just look at the slew of cash hand-outs announced by the poll-bound Madhya Pradesh government in the last few months. Organising elections is not inexpensive but the real uncontrolled costs lie in the rampant abuse of money power by cash-rich political parties.
A third reason is to derive obvious political benefit from the ‘There is Modi Only’ (TIMO) factor. Over the last decade, the BJP has consciously attempted to make every election a leadership contest: Modi versus Who is an overarching campaign theme. Then, be it a general election, a state election, or even a local municipal election, the PM’s larger than life persona is the BJP’s political brahmastra.
Yet, as recent state assembly results have shown, there are limits to this Modi-centric appeal. Both in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, incumbent BJP governments lost despite the familiar double-engine narrative. In both states, the PM said that a vote for the lotus was an affirmation of his leadership. The campaign pitch did not work: The BJP was soundly beaten, that too by the Congress, the adversary the party thought it had more or less decimated.
In fact, the BJP’s electoral fortunes since 2019 have shown a sharp divergence between state verdicts where Modi is not on the ticket and general elections where the TIMO factor overwhelms his opponents. The data shows a double-digit percentage difference on average between the BJP’s performance in state and general elections, leaving the party vulnerable to local factors. Which is why holding all elections simultaneously might offer the party an opportunity to play the Modi card more effectively.
The fourth reason is the most disconcerting for those who fear a larger game plan aimed at a fundamental constitutional remapping. A Modi-led government has repeatedly attempted to redraw the Centre-state framework of power-sharing despite the PM, himself a former chief minister, claiming to be a proponent of cooperative federalism. From demonetisation to farm laws, from Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation disputes to national education policy concerns, from Covid lockdowns to Hindi language imposition charges, there appears to be a sustained attempt to browbeat states into falling in line with little effort at consensus building. The growing unease over unilateral action by a domineering Centre often prevents genuine reform: The pushback and eventual derailing of the farm laws is a good example.
Moreover, as many as 14 states are not ruled by the BJP or its allies now, reflecting a uniquely diverse polity that is often obscured by an incessant uniformity drumbeat. Many of these governments are controlled by regional parties who, unlike national parties, are not bogged down by frequent elections. These parties fear that a single election proposal will deny them their constitutional right to dissolve assemblies and set their own political timelines.
Ironically, while the idea is being pushed as a recipe for stable governance, the BJP hasn’t hesitated in recent years to topple Opposition-ruled governments by breaking parties or engineering defections. A genuine democratic ethos won’t be cultivated by a fanciful idea of just one election every five years but will be when political parties show greater respect to autonomous institutions and ensure a level-playing field. Gross misuse of money power and a lack of will in enforcing the model code of conduct have subverted the electoral process. That’s the real debate the country’s policymakers need to have.
Postscript: There is a vested interest in not allowing the present election cycle to be altered significantly. What would many of us in the media do without the unmatched excitement of covering election campaigns every year? And while journalists relish the heat and dust of an Indian election, netas too have to regularly hit the road: An election a year ensures at least minimum accountability.
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal