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  Opinion   Columnists  05 Sep 2023  Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Is it creative disruption, or the murder of democracy?

Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Is it creative disruption, or the murder of democracy?

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation
Published : Sep 6, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 6, 2023, 12:00 am IST

ONE NATION, ONE ELECTION

The INDIA alliance is unlikely to participate positively in the special session of Parliament later this month. The Opposition politicians point to yet another link being forged in a chain -- One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader. (Image: PTI)
 The INDIA alliance is unlikely to participate positively in the special session of Parliament later this month. The Opposition politicians point to yet another link being forged in a chain -- One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader. (Image: PTI)

The “One Nation, One Election” (ONOE) proposal of the BJP is in the best traditions of zero-based budgetin, where nothing is off the table, so long as it makes sense and is profitable. Clearly, the BJP sees gains in the conflation of national and state-level elections, before four large states precede the Lok Sabha elections in the middle of next year. Could this be because it fears losses in Madhya Pradesh -- where it rules -- and expects no gains in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh or Telangana, where it doesn’t.

If true, this triangulates with the outright rejection of the proposal by the recently-created Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which assumes, by default, that anything which the BJP likes will harm them. How justified is this zero-sum view?

If you consider election costs borne by the government, it is a no-brainer that doing this exercise at one go, once in five years, possibly stretched out over four to five months, is better than managing several state elections every year. The direct cost would be front-loaded and might be higher than the sum of the cost of individual elections since the level of mobilisation required would be higher and tightly concentrated within a few months, rather than spread out over several years. But major benefits accrue indirectly, mostly in terms of the subsequent uninterrupted period of four and a half years available to the Union and each state government to pursue their programmes, without being diverted by elections related political economy rhetoric and wasteful outlays. This indirect benefit accrues mostly to the Union government, whose fiscal efficiency gets drastically reduced whilst in election mode -- which is near continuously at present -- as a clutch of the thirty states are always in election process.

The INDIA alliance is unlikely to participate positively in the special session of Parliament later this month. The Opposition politicians point to yet another link being forged in a chain -- One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader. Others view it, darkly, as the first step towards a shift away from the parliamentary system now being followed, as in the UK, to a presidential one, as in the United States -- although this appears less likely. The number of countries which practise a top-down authoritarian governance style even within the trappings of a parliamentary democracy is increasing. Why bother changing a system when you can subvert it instead?

Will ONOE favour richer parties like the BJP? This is not self-evident. Consider that less well-off state-level parties should be happy on two counts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the Brahmastra of the BJP. Time constraints under the proposed system will restrict him from extensive campaigning as he does today, across national and state-level elections. Once these are held simultaneously, he will be forced to pick others to carry his message to BJP supporters. This should be a boon for the smaller parties. It somewhat levels the field for their leaders -- given present popularity polls which definitely favour Mr Modi over others. Also, party expenses per vote sought will now halve under the two-in-one election. Generally, the concentration of diverse election management tasks in a shorter timeframe will encourage greater reliance on second and third-rung leaders for sound political management, as opposed to today’s laidback poll schedules, which encourage greater centralisation. So young, meritorious leaders should welcome the change.

Could lazy voters prefer the default option of just voting for the same party if national and state elections are held simultaneously? This is unlikely for committed voters but more likely for fence-sitters. This implies that parties will need to enlarge their base of committed voters through continuous engagement. Consider that Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal won decisively in Odisha versus BJP, even though voting for national and state elections was simultaneous in 2019. That the two tango is well known.

Former President Ram Nath Kovind has been named the chair of a high-level committee formed to consider ONOE. Is this a sign of institutional regression? Not very likely. It is time we demystified “high political office” as an “endgame”. Political leadership in India should become younger to reflect its young population. Previous Presidents or Prime Ministers should not be expected to become political recluses. The inclusion of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Lok Sabha leader of the single largest party in Opposition, and his refusal to participate, describing the process as a “total eyewash”, shows the lines dividing the government from the Opposition parties.

Given that ONOE is a cheeky innovation, albeit under discussion since 2014, it is inevitable that constitutional amendments and legislative changes would be needed. One such should be a ban on mid-term mass defections to another party which destabilises duly elected governments (mostly state governments over the last two decades), promotes “rent seeking” and undermines the development of a cohesive party cadre. The Anti Defection Act 1985 allows a three-fourths majority to forsake the party that got them elected, without suffering any penalties -- most recently in Maharashtra. This undermines voter intentions while voting for a party and needs to be urgently plugged.

Conscientious objectors should suffer the consequences by resigning.

The BJP, given its efficiency in floor management and careful advance political planning, is perfectly capable of navigating the thicket of barriers to a quick implementation of ONOE. The Opposition parties should take heart that they have a good chance of gaining, rather than losing, from a fast imposition of this innovation. What remains critical is the “glue” binding them. Seat adjustments targeted at reducing their collective losses, rather than maximising potential individual gains, will evidence their resolve. A quick read-up on the prisoner’s dilemma -- a game theory thought experiment -- would help recognise the gains from collaboration.

The INDIA alliance was born out of the helplessness of the Opposition party constituents to individually stem the rising tide of saffron. Business people, when overcome by a tidal wave, rush to reduce their loss, not dream about the “could have been” best outcomes. Far from boycotting the committee -- a tactic reminiscent of pulling a sheet over your head to avoid seeing a ghost -- they should participate actively in the process and try and structure the proposal to suit their purposes marginally better than what it could become in their absence. Sadly, the instinct to drop out, rather than engage, displays fatigue and political incapacity to deal with a fast-changing environment. This is par for the course for the “jagirdars” -- as the BJP paints the opposition. Why prove the BJP right?

Tags: one nation one election, 2024 lok sabha elections, india alliance, prime minister narendra modi, indian national developmental inclusive alliance (india)