September 27, 2023
The Central Government formed a committee to investigate various legal and logistical problems of implementing the “one nation, one election” concept. The Law Ministry has laid down seven terms of reference for the eight-member group, which will be chaired by former President Ram Nath Kovind and include Union Home Minister Amit Shah.[ G Sampath, “One Nation One Election: How feasible is it and what would be its impact?”, The Hindu (8 Sep, 2023)] One of the terms of reference is to investigate whether a constitutional modification to allow for simultaneous voting would need to be passed by the states. The two main arguments in favor of simultaneous voting are that it will lower election costs and electioneering cost. The Election Commission of India spent more than Rs 4,500 crore on the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies’ elections, in line with an estimate discussed in a parliamentary panel discussion. This is in addition to the polling expenses that candidates and political parties have disclosed and also “not disclosed”. Secondly, that it will release political factions from being in “permanent campaign mode,” allowing them to concentrate on governance (and, for that matter, constructive opposition) for a five-year period.[ Kartikeya Singh, “What is the debate around one nation, one election?” The Hindu, 4 September, 2023.]
The first question that arises is, why did the status quo exists in the first place? Election-based democracy operates in a multi-tiered government structure, like the Union of States that governs India, by allowing voters to select the representatives they believe are most suited to serve them at each level. There is a justification for the separation of powers between the institutions of the Union, States, and local bodies, as well as for the voter mandate to choose members for Parliament, Assemblies, and local bodies every five years. The delineation proposes a variety of voter choices that may be based on party affiliation, candidate strength, leanings in terms of ideology or socioeconomic considerations particular to each constituency. It also allows for specific tasks for each representative throughout these levels.
Simultaneous elections were the subject of an analysis in a draught report published in August 2018 by the Law Commission of India (LCI), which is presided over by Justice B. S. Chauhan. Notably, the Commission argued that the current structure of the Constitution does not permit simultaneous elections. It stated that in order to conduct simultaneous elections, the Constitution, the Representation of the People’s Act of 1951, and the Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies would all need to be appropriately amended. [ Shravasti Dasgupta, “One Nation, One Election, Fourth Committee, (The Wire, 2 September, 2023)] Regarding the benefits of holding concurrent elections, however, the commission claimed that ONOE will result in cost savings for the government while easing administrative burden. Previously, immediately upon Independence, the nation held simultaneous elections from 1951–1952 to 1967. However, it was later abandoned as a result of the early dissolution of state assemblies and, occasionally, the Lok Sabha. Separate elections became necessary due to the houses’ predetermined terms of office.[ Kritika Mendiratta, “Unifying the Ballot, Why one nation one election is the way forward for India in 2024” Constitutional Law Society, NLU Odisha. ]
Similar election systems exist in South Africa, Sweden, and the UK, where the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, governs the length of the legislature. For a period of five years, elections for the national and provincial legislatures in South Africa are held concurrently. Elections for the Riksdag, the national legislature, the Landsting, the provincial legislature/county council, and the kommunfullmaktige, the local bodies/municipal assembly, are held on a set date in Sweden. They typically serve terms of four years. In fact, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice evaluated some of the international practises in its 79th report.[ Akash Bisht, “Voter Behaviour When simultaneous elections are held in India” (IDFC, Scroll India 2019)]
From the point of view of federalism, over time, it has become more widely acknowledged that Indian federalism affirms the legitimacy of linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and other types of collective ambition by granting Statehood, and is not only a matter of administrative convenience. There is, of course, Indian democracy at the national level, but each State also has its own set of claims, expectations, and aspirations when it comes to democracy. Due to the cognitive predominance of the national as well as the fact that national-level parties are present, simultaneous elections run the risk of causing these distinct democratic platforms and venues to become less distinct. One of the difficulties is how the discussed electoral system would handle ambiguous political scenarios like a fragmented mandate, defections, and motions of no confidence that would compel early elections. They worry that it will silence marginalized views that are expressed through little regional parties and are crucial to the nation’s diversity. The electoral process would become more centralised, which the ruling party might use to its advantage. Currently, practically all regional parties are calling for the holding of elections using ballot papers. Election results will be announced relatively late if they are held in a single-time mode. Additionally, as India is a union of states and the federal government provides significant funding to the governments of the same party in the states, there is a 77% likelihood that an Indian voter will support the same party in both the state and federal elections when they are held concurrently, according to IDFC.[ Akshat Sogani, Saipremnath M, “What those in favour of ‘One Nation, One Election, won’t tell you” (The Indian Express, September, 2023)]
According to Articles 83(2) and 172 of the Constitution, the terms of the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are set at five years unless they are dissolved early. However, under certain conditions, such as those described in Article 356, assemblies may be dissolved earlier. [ C Rammanohar Reddy, “The government’s ‘simultaneous elections’ agenda goes much further than the other ideas of ‘oneness’ it propounds; it will spell a deepening of centralisation” The Hindu (11 September, 2023)] Therefore, the ONOE plan poses important problems, such as what would happen if the Central or State governments disintegrated in the middle of their terms. Will the President’s rule be imposed, or will new elections be held in every State? A constitutional amendment for such a substantial shift would not only require careful examination of many different circumstances and provisions, but it would also create a worrying precedent for future amendments.
The terms of the state legislative assemblies can be adjusted to be shorter or longer than that of the Lok Sabha, and constitutional amendments would be required in the following areas:
According to Article 83, the Lok Sabha’s tenure will begin on the day of its first sitting and last for five years. The President may dissolve the Lok Sabha under Article 85. According to Article 172, the legislative assembly’s term will last five years starting on the day of its first meeting. The state’s governor is given the authority to dissolve the Legislative Assembly under Article 174. Finally, Article 356 gives the Central Government the power to impose the President’s Rule in the event that the state’s constitutional machinery fails.
Article 368 of the Constitution outlines the process for amending the Constitution. It entails the passage of a resolution by 2/3 of the members of both Houses who are present and voting for the introduction of a constitutional amendment. Additionally, in accordance with Article 368(2) of the Constitution, any changes to a List must be approved by at least half of the State Legislatures. Given that “Elections to the Parliament” are covered by Entry No. 72 of List-I of Schedule VII and “Elections to the Legislature of the State” are covered by Entry No. 37 of List-II of Schedule VII, approval by half of the State Legislatures is necessary to change the tenure of elections to the respective State’s legislative assemblies, or the Lok Sabha.[ Apurva Vishwanath, “One Nation, One Election Plan: How the Constitution is amended, when do states get a say”, The Indian Express, Sep 4, 2023]
The Constitution specifies alternative criteria for altering various clauses.
The simple legislative procedure used in adopting any regular legislation in Parliament can be used to change a number of Constitutional clauses. This is accomplished without a quorum by a majority of those present and voting. Article 368 does not expressly mention these “less significant” clauses. Such provisions, however, are not covered by Article 368 in other parts of the Constitution, establishing a distinct category. A variation of the phrase “no such law can be considered to be an amendment of the Constitution for its intended purpose of Article 368” appears in a number of laws, including Article 4, which specifies that Parliament may make modifications pertaining to the structure of states. This includes amending the names of states, allowing new states to join the Union, and redesigning state borders.
Total membership, as defined by Rule 158 of the Lok Sabha Rules, refers to all members of the House, regardless of any current absences or absences. According to the Law Commission’s recommendations, at least five amendments to Articles 83, 85, 172, 174, and 356 of the Constitution would be needed in order to conduct simultaneous elections. Additionally, it was recommended that the constitutional revisions be ratified by at least 50% of the States in the Law Commission’s draught report on simultaneous elections in 2018. Article 174 of this deals with the dissolution of State Assemblies, while Article 356 is the most important one and deals with imposing the President’s Rule in States.[ G Sampath, “One Nation One Election: How feasible is it and what would be its impact?”, The Hindu (8 Sep, 2023)
The Supreme Court previously noted that election-related practices like the disbursement of gifts, subsidies, short-term political promises, etc. undermine a free and fair electoral process. Furthermore, holding free and fair elections is an essential component of the fundamental design of the Indian Constitution. The reality that the government process is largely suspended during elections cannot be disputed. In light of this, the idea is that it would be preferable to have all elections at once in order to prevent persistent obstacles rather than constantly contesting elections, which would provide persistent inhibitions to the stable government process.
Governments frequently embrace populist policies in order to win elections as a result of frequent elections. Given that elected officials will hold office for longer periods of time, ONOE might help create a more stable political climate. This motivates them to choose long-term national welfare over expedient political benefits. Moreover, Political stability has a big impact on investment choices. Investors may be put off by the unpredictable nature of regular elections. In order to increase India’s appeal to both domestic and foreign investors and promote economic growth and job creation, ONOE can offer clarity and political stability.
It goes without saying that if state politics affect national elections, it would result in unstable administrations, which would be against the federalist principle. Additionally, the potential for ambiguous mandates may call for repeated new elections. While cost-cutting measures are mentioned, even in non-partisan panchayat and local body votes, expenditures have increased. Many believe that integrating these surveys is impossible and, in the long run, dangerous to democratic values. A decision as critical as this needs to be carefully analysed and carefully implemented so that the original purpose is not disregarded. There is a complicated constitutional terrain involved in implementing ONOE in India. It would need changes to a number of important sections in the Constitution, careful consideration of federalism and state sovereignty, and the creation of a strong legal system. It also requires widespread agreement from the public and political stakeholders. Although ONOE has the potential to simplify the voting process and offer a number of advantages, its effective implementation will call for careful preparation and constitutional changes.
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