One nation, one election: A long and winding poll

The bigger malaise hidden here is the corrosion of a vital independent institution such as the Election Commission.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Police personnel check a vehicle at the Lakhanpur border, Kathua district, ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Police personnel check a vehicle at the Lakhanpur border, Kathua district, ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha election. | Photo Credit: PTI

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, Karl Marx wrote, correcting Hegel. But what’s next? There’s no word for a farce of a farce.”Dale Beran

The “largest democratic exercise in the world” will soon unfold: India’s general election. Moreover, it will unfold over 44 days, the longest since 1951. The irony should not be lost on anyone. Even as the ruling party and the Election Commission of India (ECI) have been concertedly pushing for “one nation, one election”—ostensibly to reduce the cost of elections and focus on development work—the general election itself has been spread over nearly seven weeks, driving up expenditure and delaying policy decisions.

Rather than restrict the discussion to the administrative nitty-gritty, it is necessary to recognise this irony as a symptom of a larger malaise afflicting the republic: the seemingly irreversible corrosion of independent institutions; in this case, specifically, the ECI.

Also Read | Is ‘One Nation, One Election’ really feasible?

In defence of the inordinately long duration, the ECI has adduced reasons of security personnel movement, the vast and diverse geography, festivals, and holidays. But what is striking is that with these same constraints, the Lok Sabha elections of 1977, 1984, and 1989 were held over five days, and the 1980 election over an astonishing four days. Some of these elections were held during the heyday of terrorist insurgencies in India. Are we to believe then that the security situation in the country has worsened over the last 10 years, a period termed by right-wing discourse as the one in which the Indian state has become the strongest in terms of military and policing capacities? Notably, Indonesia, the third most populous democracy in the world (with 6,000 inhabited islands), holds its election on a single day.

Badges of different political parties in a shop in Kolkata ahead of the Lok Sabha election.

Badges of different political parties in a shop in Kolkata ahead of the Lok Sabha election. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra

The only justifiable reason for prolonging the elections is to maximise voter turnout, and indeed, the last election saw the highest voter turnout of over 67 per cent. But, here, too, it is to be noted that as early as 1967, the voter turnout was 61 per cent and had increased to 64 per cent in 1984.

The reason the ECI’s pronouncements are under a cloud and why the opposition’s allegations of the election being drawn out to benefit the ruling party and the Prime Minister’s campaigning are plausible is because of the ECI’s actions of the last decade. The period has seen the ECI submitting to the whims and fancies of the ruling party, especially the Prime Minister.

Inaction against hate speeches

As the scholar Milan Vaishnav writes, the relationship between the powerful executive and India’s “referee institutions” (arbiter of the rules of democracy) has been marked by “deference, interference, and neglect”. Thus, the ECI allegedly deferred the announcement of election dates (Gujarat 2022) so that the ruling party could announce last-minute welfare handouts; it supported the opaque electoral bond scheme after initially opposing it; it ignored the many serious violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by the Prime Minister and the ruling party, such as hate speeches, seeking votes in the name of the armed forces, invoking religion, holding “road shows” on election day, and so on, all of which are “corrupt practices” and “electoral offences” under the Representation of the People Act.

In 2019, the Supreme Court pulled up the ECI for its inaction against hate speeches and complaints of MCC violations by the Prime Minister. In 2023, the government brought in a law that changed the constitution of the three-member selection committee that appoints the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and two Election Commissioners. Instituted by the ruling of a Supreme Court Constitution Bench, the committee consisted of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chief Justice of India (CJI). The new law replaced the CJI with a Union Minister. The position of the CEC was considered so vital that there were even suggestions in the Constituent Assembly that his or her appointment should be confirmed by a two-thirds majority in a parliamentary joint session.

An official walks to a polling booth with his equipment in Bhopal, 2023.

An official walks to a polling booth with his equipment in Bhopal, 2023. | Photo Credit: A.M. FARUQUI

The distance that India has travelled can be gauged from the fact that in 1975 the powerful Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was disqualified for six years for electoral malpractice. After the end of the Congress domination of Indian politics and the emergence of regional parties, institutions such as the ECI began to acquire a semblance of the independence that was originally envisioned by the framers of the Constitution and termed by the venerable scholars of India, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, as the “bulwark for free and fair elections in India”. This was what led to the phase of “activist” CECs such as T.N. Seshan (1990-96), James Lyngdoh (2001-04), and others who fiercely asserted the independence of the ECI against both Congress and BJP-led Central governments. In a 1996 poll by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the ECI emerged as the most trusted public institution in India; in 2008, it was the second most trusted after the Army.

From these heights, we see the ECI being reduced to a handmaiden of the executive. We have seen instances of bureaucrats who served as Chief Secretary under Chief Minister Modi being appointed the CEC. It is because of this larger malaise affecting institutions that even much-needed discussions on reducing election expenditure are viewed as tainted by political ideology when they emanate from the government.

The demand for one nation, one election is not new. It was proposed by the ECI in 1983, and by the Law Commission in 1999. It has had support amongst non-BJP politicians also. But when the proposal now becomes the dominant idea and is pushed by a government-appointed committee (headed by no less than a former President), the conditions are vastly different. The last decade has seen an unprecedented tendency towards centralisation and the destruction of federalism and diversity. What cannot be ignored is that one nation, one election is happening in the context of the ruling party’s push for “one nation, one religion, one language, one leader”. This is the crux of the matter.

Cash distribution

Indeed, there is a pertinent case for the reduction of expenditure and time spent on elections. The last Lok Sabha election cost a staggering Rs.60,000 crore, which is expected to double this time. It is already the costliest exercise in the world. Yet, the discussion around one election subverts fundamental issues, which are political financing, vote-buying, and other forms of corruption.

By just focussing on government expenditure, what is ignored is that Rs.44,000 crore of the Rs.60,000 crore was spent by candidates and parties alone (Centre for Media Studies), with hardly any accountability. In Andhra Pradesh (2019), it is estimated that cash was distributed to 50-60 per cent of the voters.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, nearly Rs.4,000 crore of illegal cash was seized, three times that of 2014. In the 2009 election, 14 per cent of MPs faced serious criminal charges (murder, attempt to murder, rape, etc.), which doubled to 29 per cent in 2019. The Modi-led BJP came to power on the claims of an exceptionally “clean” status and the promise to “finish” the corrupt and criminal political system, but 29 per cent of its MPs (2019) and 31 per cent of its Union Ministers (2021) faced serious criminal charges. The average net worth of a BJP Minister was Rs.16 crore.

While the coupling of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections can indeed reduce expenditure and there is a case to rationalise the number of Assembly elections, this cannot be at the expense of democracy, periodic seeking of people’s mandate (such as the midterms in the US), and the cultural/regional pluralism of India. It is not that citizens will be unable to distinguish between local issues and national issues in a combined State and Central election, but in one election, national-level issues (especially with a powerful national party and leader) tend to crowd out local and regional issues.

Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar with Election Commissioner S.S. Sandhu when the announcement of the schedule for the 2024 election was made.

Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar with Election Commissioner S.S. Sandhu when the announcement of the schedule for the 2024 election was made. | Photo Credit: PTI

Arguments that claim elections should be combined because of the excessive amount of time spent on campaigning leave unasked the most pertinent question: who is primarily responsible for reducing governance to elections alone, for making even municipality-level elections a “do-or-die” battle requiring the attention of Union Ministers? Has any Prime Minister spent so much time on election campaigning as Narendra Modi? As Chief Minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate, Modi conducted 425 rallies between September 2013 and May 2014. As Prime Minister, he addressed 142 rallies for the 2019 election campaign. (An India Today piece in October 1989 reported that Rajiv Gandhi addressed 50 public meetings in six weeks). Between November 2 and November 27, 2023, Modi addressed 42 public rallies and 4 big road shows for the Assembly election. Between January and March 19, 2024, Modi had already visited Tamil Nadu seven times and Kerala and Telangana four times each. Are we to believe this is the most productive use of time and resources of the Prime Minister of the world’s most populous nation?

Abysmal record of attendance

The crucial point that emerges is that the 24/7 campaigning mode of the ruling party (widely celebrated in the mainstream media) has come also at the cost of the denigration of the Parliament as the “Temple of Democracy”, in Modi’s own words in 2014. Modi as Prime Minister has an abysmal record of attendance as well as of participating in discussions or answering questions in Parliament. Amit Shah, the BJP’s second most important campaigner, did not attend the Gujarat Assembly even once in two years as MLA after becoming party president. The 2014-19 Lok Sabha worked 40 per cent fewer hours than the average for all full-term Lok Sabhas. If 61 per cent of the Bills in 2009-14 and 71 per cent in 2014-19 were sent to Parliamentary Committees, it fell drastically to 25 per cent in 2014-19.

Also Read | 2024 general election is a masterclass in crony capitalism and authoritarianism 

Without larger structural changes that reform the entire edifice of elections, starting from the independence of the ECI and moving to financing, expenditure, criminality, code of conduct, and the creation of a level electoral playing field, the mere focus on a single State and national election as a panacea subverts democracy. If in 2004-14, the gap between the BJP and the Congress in terms of election expenditure was 10-20 per cent (favouring the Congress twice and BJP once), by 2019, the BJP was spending 66 per cent more than the Congress. Since 2018, the BJP has received around Rs.13,000 crore in bonds, electoral trust funds, and other donations, while the Congress has received Rs.2,500 crore. As we know now, donations to the ruling party were not merely voluntary.

When the political system allows the ruling party to garner 500 per cent more funds than the principal opposition party, democracy is in serious trouble. It has been argued that India has become an electoral democracy alone, but without a drastic overhaul of the election process, even that risks ending up as a farce.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is a professor at Dalhousie University, Canada.

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