Return of BJP (NDA) with huge mandate has pushed Indian democracy into a new era of 'reforms'. During NDA-1 the ruling party coalition gave enough hints of probable reforms, they would like to bring to push forward their political agenda, which was rooted in narrow nationalism and crony capitalism.
The last five years were eventful for Indian democracy. We witnessed unprecedented rise of hyper patriotism, communal and divisive politics, mindless attempt to throttle free voices from all walks of life. Many termed that phase as undeclared ‘Emergency’ comparing the situation with that of declared ‘Emergency’ during the rule of Indira Gandhi in 70s. Now in its second term BJP led NDA does not have any pretension of ‘Minimum government and maximum governance’ (opposite of which was true during it’s first phase) and openly taking steps to impose centralised control over democratic institutions and systems, ignoring federal structure of our democracy.
After returning to power with an astounding majority, BJP wasted no time to roll out its agenda and to act on it. In the previous week, the country witnessed three extremely crucial bills being passed in both houses of parliament amidst not so well organised protests of the opposition parties. Literally BJP’s quick move, even in the upper house, left opposition clueless and literally ineffective in putting up even a feeble resistance. Though many changes were introduced in the last two to three weeks, which will have profound impact on Indian democracy, two significant issues are more consequential than otheres. The first one is amendment of Right to Information (RTI) 2005 Act and the second one is initiation of a debate on One Nation One Election (ONOE).
An attempt is made here to investigate key aspects and concerns associated with the ONOE reform which would enable us to understand the larger political ecosystem emerging in India.
No government ever snatches away people’s rights overnight; they- are taken away gradually and if there is no resistance then comparatively faster. Weakening RTI in a way fits well with the larger debate on One Nation One Election (ONOE) too. The agenda is common, to shrink civil society space and to weaken multi-party democracy by creating such an environment, where only big political parties will be able to control power, ONOE could also be described as ‘one party, one leader one rule regime’, which in other words marks the end of the multiparty pluralistic fabric of Indian democracy.
What exactly is ONOE? It is a government proposal to conduct all elections in the nation simultaneously. That means parliament and state assembly elections will happen at the same time. Just like RTI, this is another - and this time bigger and more direct - attack on the federal structure of India. Our constitution rightly recognises diversity of India and allows the Csentre and state different powers and in a few cases overlapping powers. State election happens around state issues which are often different from national issues. So, mixing these issues will dilute priorities.
What are the arguments in favour of ONOE? Low cost election, efficient governance as minimum disturbance due to MCC, more efficient election system etc are arguments in favour, among which first the two arguments are prominent. Those who are opposing this idea have pointed out how ONOE is against the Constitution and would require a series of constitutional amendments to allow this change. More importantly they argue ONOE is an attempt to impose a monolithic control over federal system of India. Prioritization is the essence of governance. While ignoring the burning question boiling on the issues of questionable economic performance and a 45-year high unemployment crisis over the last two years, on the contrary pressing the issue of simultaneous poll within the days of re-entry, invariably invites the required answers on either of the two following questions. Is our democracy a product of informed choice? And, are we really One nation? Are we united by one language, do we have one religion andcaste, do we maintain one culture, does one weather prevail all over this country, do we have one caste, do we have one dress, do we all enjoy one cuisine? Unless it intends for one party and one leader, so, where does the catchy lines of ‘one nation-one poll’ exist for in India? The beauty of India is its diversity and not its uniformity. India has a federal structure. As one nation, one election across the country for us is the parliament election but as federal , our state elections are equally important to preserve and promote our unique identity and diversity. Unity in diversity remains the main tag line for India.
There are many other concerns surrounding ONOE. As mentioned, this will eliminate political diversity of the nation and will gradually wipe out all small regional parties (as small parties will not be able to fight pan India & state elections together). This may soon lead to a presidential form of government which does not fit well with Indian diversity. Critics further argue cost effectiveness is an eyewash as government does not spend much on election, election spending is done by political parties and if govt cannot control political party spending, there will not be much cost reduction in actual practice. Even if there is a marginal reduction of costs, it is up to people to take a call whether we want inexpensive democracy or efficient democracy?
The argument that this will ensure better governance does not hold ground either. Firstly, MCC is never imposed all over India at once and not all government projects come under this MCC. There are also provisions to seek specialpermission from the Election Commissioner for exemption from MCC, if the project has no influence on voting. If at all some revisions are needed, MCC could be revised and its period could be shortened. Frequent elections increase accountability of the representatives and parties, as leaders are forced to visit their constituencies before election, ONOE will further reduce that.
ONOE literally means significantly reducing people’s choice and power to hold govt accountable. There are technical hurdles too. Does EC have the capacity to supervise ONOE? To conduct General Election 2019, it took EC almost three months (including preparation) and election took place in seven phases. So, from a pure technical point of view, ONOE sounds utopian. Also mobilising paramilitary and other forces will stop all work of the country for several months.
Further adding to technical hurdles are critics' questions: what happens if an elected representative in Parliament or in Assembly dies or resigns? All the electorate of a constituency thus will remain that many representatives short in the legislature! Doesn’t this ignore and violate citizens’ Constitutional rights?
Finally, several surveys done on voters’ behaviours showed that when simultaneous polls happened, voters got influenced with macro issues more and voted for the same party at the Centre and states. Between 1989 and 2016 there were 31 instances of simultaneous polling, due to natural cycle and in 24 instances voters voted for same parties in the Centre and state, whereas separate elections help voters and political parties to set the agenda right.
The PM already organised an all-party meeting on ONOE. Barring left and NDA members, all other opposition parties boycotted it. The Left participated and criticised the move forcefully. Despite that protest, a parliamentary committee has been constituted, headed by M, Rajnath Singh to study the merits and demerits of the proposal on ONOE. If the committee gives a favourable report, government will not leave any stone unturned to implement it and to change our democratic structure fundamentally.
Voice of dissent is crucial in democracy; this needs to be respected. Both RTI amendment and ongoing debate on ONOE indicate, that democratic space for commons to exercise their constitutional rights,is shrinking with each passing day. Government will implement their agenda without consultation with people and in absence of strong opposition Indian democracy will continue to weaken. Amidst EVM debate and narrow winning margin of many representatives, what India should debate is efficacy of the first-past-the-post system and should debate on proportional representation and not ONOE. RTI amendment may be challenged in court, ONOE most probably will wait for a while, but these attempts are like testing people’s reactions. If there is no debate among people, if there is no strong protest among people against such critical changes, leading to weakening of democracy, the party in power, which champions right wing ideology, would happily replace pluralist structure of the nation with their monolithic structure as plurality is a natural antidote to right wing fundamentalism. It is therefore up to us, the people of India, to defend nation and to reject all divisive politics which attempt to distort our democracy.