Modi shakes up politics with plan for simultaneous elections
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is known for his love of seemingly simple yet breathtakingly ambitious schemes to transform the country, most notably his 2016 decision to cancel most of the country’s circulating cash in a bid to purge illicit assets from the economy.
But after his landslide re-election, Mr Modi has moved to utilise his enhanced political capital on his next big idea: overhauling India’s rambunctious democratic system to reduce the frequency of elections. It is a complex and controversial idea that critics say could undermine India’s democracy.
Mr Modi believes that India’s almost perpetual politicking for a seemingly endless sequence of state elections distracts politicians from tackling the challenges of economic development, and impedes the tough decisions needed for progress.
He is now pushing for India to synchronise its national parliamentary elections with all its state legislative assembly polls. It is a goal he has dubbed — in his distinctive hashtag-style lingo — “one nation, one election” and cited again in his recent independence day speech last week.
“There is a feeling in the country that many of the more difficult decisions are often put in abeyance because there is some election or another every year,” says Swapan Dasgupta, a member of parliament close to Mr Modi. “When there are tough decisions that require short-term pain but may give long-term benefits, the political class doesn’t have the will to take them.”
In a speech laying out the new government’s agenda to parliament, India’s president Ram Nath Kovind said that finding a way to conduct simultaneous elections was “the need of the hour”, and would facilitate “accelerated development” — making clear that such a political overhaul was a priority.
“With such a system in place, all political parties, according to their respective ideologies, will be better able to utilise their energy towards development and public welfare,” Mr Kovind told legislators. The government has also claimed it would be more cost effective.
But ensuring simultaneous elections — effectively putting India’s polls on a fixed schedule — will be a fraught and complicated task, requiring major legal, and possibly constitutional, changes. At present, India’s parliament and any single-state legislature can be dissolved before the expiry of their terms to pave the way for fresh elections if stable governments cannot be formed.
Mr Modi’s political rivals, and many independent analysts, say that synchronising the political cycles of India’s national parliament and its diverse states would be anti-democratic, and would run against India’s fundamental constitutional principles, as a federal system with powerful state governments accountable to their own electorate. The recent demotion of Jammu and Kashmir from a full-fledged state to a union territory more firmly under Delhi’s control has further heightened concerns about Mr Modi’s commitment to a system of strong states.
The idea raises questions about whether a state legislature in which no government can be formed would spend a protracted period under New Delhi’s direct control, known as “president’s rule”. And there is little clarity about what would happen if no government could be formed in a fractured parliament.
“I don’t see how you could mandate a single date for central and state polls without cutting into democracy,” says Kanchan Chandra, a professor of politics at New York University.
Mr Modi’s rivals also believe that the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, the country’s biggest and wealthiest political party, would be best placed to benefit from simultaneous polls, while parties with smaller footprints and fewer resources would be seriously disadvantaged.
“If the election is simultaneous, there is a lower likelihood of people expressing one preference at the national level, and another preference at the regional level,” Ms Chandra said, adding that the proposal reflected the BJP’s “centralising tendencies”.
Parliament member Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a mostly Muslim party, said: “One nation, one election will mean the destruction of regional parties”, which he said “occupy an important space in our multi-party system.”
In a letter to the law commission, Mr Owaisi wrote that “constitutional principles of collective responsibility and legislative oversight over the executive cannot be sacrificed at the altar of ‘efficiency’ and ‘stability.’ It is not possible privilege convenience over constitutional guarantees.”
Polls for India’s parliament and all its state legislative assemblies were conducted simultaneously for the first 20 years after India’s independence. But with the decline of the once dominant Congress party and emergence of stronger rivals, voters started to deliver more fragmented electoral mandates, resulting in greater political instability.
If fragile national or state governments fell — and no new administration could be formed from the exist legislatures — election authorities simply dissolved these legislative bodies before the expiry of their five-year tenures, and called new elections.
Over time, that has resulted in a political calendar with no fixed schedule, with at least a few states going to the polls every year. India’s national parliament has also been dissolved early on many occasions to pave the way for fresh polls.
While Mr Modi has now appointed a panel to study the feasibility of a system of simultaneous elections, nothing is likely to happen in a hurry. “The difficulties are considerable,” said Mr Dasgupta, adding that the biggest question would be about cases where there was no majority in parliament or a state assembly.
“It’s a very long process — it’s not something that can be achieved instantly,” he said. “But if you set the ball rolling, then you can move from there. It will require a considerable amount of debate and consensus. At least six months will be spent answering basic questions of why, and how do you achieve it.”