One Nation, One Poll proposal is completely blind to the forces that could impair federalism

Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series on the ongoing stakeholder discussions regarding the One Nation, One Poll proposal, called for by the Law Commission. Read part I here 

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The proposal to conduct Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections simultaneously, presently undergoing stakeholder consultation, led by the Law Commission of India, is yet to reckon with the question of whether simultaneous elections would damage the federal structure or any other basic feature of the Constitution.

Leaving this question open, at the tail-end of its Draft Working Paper, the Law Commission has laid out ways to ensure concurrent terms for the Lok Sabha and Assemblies (how to stave off dissolution of the House when a no-confidence motion is passed, or when there is a hung verdict in the election), and proposed some election scheduling options (all elections are held either together in 2019 and 2024, alongside the Lok Sabha elections, or in 2019 and 2021-22, such that elections are held every two and a half years, with state Assembly terms accordingly modified). Without testing the proposal against constitutional principles like democracy or federalism, the Law Commission has put the cart before the horse by suggesting amendments on the logistics of how to conduct simultaneous elections.

So what if we had simultaneous elections at the birth of India?

But first, it is crucial to address the Law Commission's and NITI Aayog's oft-repeated claim that simultaneous elections are somehow acceptable because "elections to Lok Sabha and all state Legislative Assemblies were held simultaneously between 1951 and 1967." To use our history in this way is flatly inaccurate and incorrect. First, several states had to go to polls in between the General Elections of 1951-52, 1957, 1962 and 1967 due to varied circumstances. Moreover, it is one thing for concurrent elections to take place organically, by virtue of the Centre and the states having commenced their democratic existence together under the Indian Constitution, and quite another, for simultaneous elections to be enforced, inorganically, in the way that is presently sought.

The birth of the Republic of India, was not a "coming together" of States as autonomous, pre-existing political units. As BR Ambedkar explained to the Constituent Assembly, "... though India was to be a federation, the Federation was not the result of an agreement by the States to join in a Federation and that the Federation not being the result of an agreement no State has the right to secede from it."

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

This statement is best understood in contrast with the United States of America, which was born from thirteen colonies “coming together” to sign the Declaration of Independence. Of the 50 states presently part of the United States, only eleven ratified the Constitution in 1787-88, two ratified the Constitution well after the first Congress was elected and convened, and other territories entered a country that was already governed by the US Federal Constitution. On the other hand, the Indian situation represents a "holding together" or unification of many socio-politically and culturally disparate political units under the terms of the Constitution of India. The Constitution took effect at the same time (more or less) for the princely States, the British provinces as well as the newly constituted Union Government — Sikkim being the exception.

Now, the Indian Constitution governs the States and the Centre alike with regard to elections and political representation, unlike the Constitution of the United States, which governs only the Federal Government. So, the simultaneity of Central and State elections, 1951 onwards,  to whatever extent, was a result of the Indian Constitution becoming effective at the same moment for the States and the Union Government. That situation cannot be compared with the present effort to forcefully ensure elections are simultaneously held at the Centre and the states. The deliberate transition from status-quo back to concurrent elections, and the enforced nature of concurrent elections are unconstitutional, even if simultaneity of elections in and of itself is permissible.

Enforced concurrent elections

To enforce concurrent elections, premature dissolution of the Lok Sabha or state assemblies must be prevented. In the case of a successful motion of no-confidence, Law Commission proposes that movers of the no-confidence motion propose an alternative government through a "motion of confidence". Likewise, in the case of a hung verdict after elections, it is proposed that all parties decide the leader of the House — which would require a relaxation in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution "only for formation of a stable government".

To permit the movers of a no-confidence motion to propose an alternative government, is to say that voters' choice only matters in deciding the origin of a government but not the continued survival of a government. This might appear to be democratic to the extent that the new government will be accountable to Parliament by winning a vote of confidence. But there is a second aspect of democratic accountability: the Parliament must answer to citizens, and needs to enjoy our continued confidence. In putting an alternate government into power through a "motion of confidence", parliamentarians will be forced to act according to the will of their political party. However, when MPs are answerable to their political parties, nothing ensures that they are similarly answerable to citizens — the voters who elected them into power, for the simple reason that political parties are not answerable to voters.

In India, citizens vote for candidates who contest polls on a party ticket they have obtained, unless they run as independents. There are no rules which dictate guidelines as to who might get the ticket. We do not have a system of party "primaries" wherein voters choose a candidate to ultimately contest the main General Elections on that party's ticket from the pool of candidates seeking that party’s endorsement. In short, political parties are not democratic in their internal structure and organisation. To make matters worse, the Tenth Schedule forces all elected members of a House to vote in line with the party whip, on threat of disqualification from the House.

In effect, during elections, voters either choose the individual whose capabilities they trust, thus risking an implicit vote for the candidate’s political party, or they choose the political party they wish to see in government, thus risking an implicit vote for an incompetent candidate. No system exists for voters to choose which candidate gets a party ticket from the political party they wish to see in government. Political parties, therefore, are not anchored to voter preferences once their candidates are elected as parliamentarians, until the next election cycle.

With political parties being internally undemocratic and externally unanswerable to voters, creation of an alternate government through a motion of confidence is partisan and undemocratic, since the electorate has no say in the matter. Likewise, in the case of a hung verdict, the Law Commission proposes a relaxation of Tenth Schedule norms such that all parties can together choose a leader of their House without being restrained by the Whip. However, hung verdicts are where the threats of defections and loss of majority in the House loom largest on a party. Relaxing Tenth Schedule norms here is to permit parliamentarians to vote against their party affiliation and "defect" to another party.

However, parliamentarians can never know whether they won the election in their constituency based on votes for their individual worth or a vote to see their political party in power. Permitting defection is to ignore the electorate’s choice yet again, particularly that section of voters who chose candidates for the party she represented.

In short, enforced concurrent elections violates representative democracy, a basic feature of our Constitution.

The outcome of concurrent elections impairs federalism

The composition of the Rajya Sabha is determined by the composition of the State’s legislatures and is crucial for federalism because of its power to enable Parliament to make laws on matters in the State List. The interests of the State were assumed to be taken care of in the Upper House by virtue of its structure and composition and the political process of election — a feature of "cooperative federalism". Therefore, to alter this political process by holding elections concurrently at the Centre and in states, is to alter the feature that is meant to protect federalism in the Rajya Sabha.

Data - such as this study by IDFC - shows that scheduling of State elections determines the likelihood of the same party being elected both at the Centre and the state-level. Unfortunately, IDFC concludes that "when presented with an option to choose different parties for the Lok Sabha and state, with all other things being equal, a vast majority of voters did not exercise that choice.” Leveraging this, NITI Aayog dismisses their concerns, suggesting self-assuredly, that unless simultaneity of elections can be established as the cause of the same party winning at both levels of government, the mere correlation between the two events is not good evidence.

However, studies have contradicted IDFC’s assumptions of the non-discerning voter. Voters deliberately reward the same party at the Centre and State, depending on the timing of the election.

Timing is everything

Psephologists like Yogendra Yadav have found that the national ruling party gains support in state elections that are held earlier in their term — during the “honeymoon” period — but lose ground as their term progresses.

The explanation of this phenomenon runs thus: since "voters are likely to credit the state ruling party and not the national ruling party" when States spend more money on programmes, national ruling parties are inclined to spend more on states whose governments are controlled by their own party. As states get more funds when they are governed by the same party at the Centre, state voters deliberately ensure the same party holds power at both levels. However, their incentives to do so are highest when the Centre's term has just commenced, so as to maximise the State’s gains in the five years of the Centre's term. Two or three years into their term, state voters may not be sure if the national ruling party will return to power, and, therefore, may not be too inclined to vote for the same party at the state level. National ruling parties' advantage in state elections in the first two years, turns into a disadvantage by their third year in government."

Since timing of elections in state is crucial in deciding whether the national ruling party comes to power in states, holding simultaneous polls would ensure one party dominance over the nation.

Voters’ choice must be respected, even if the outcome of their vote hurts federalism. Normatively, there is no reason why a vote for the national incumbent at the state level is worse than a vote against it. However, with the knowledge that several studies show that timing of State elections is, in most cases, a determinant of the national ruling party's success in states, enforcing simultaneous elections would amount to wilful blindness to its federalism-impairing consequences.

With inputs from Krupakar Manukonda

The author is a Bangalore-based lawyer, currently working on teaching democracy and active citizenship through experiential learning. She tweets @MaLawdy


Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 06:56 AM

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