Whether it was the presidential form then or simultaneous polls now, by whatever name called, the political need seems to be centred on the towering personality of a single leader, cutting across all parties and groups, and his/her ability to win elections, wholesale, especially when conducted together. It was Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Vajpayee later and Modi at present, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
The irony is striking. On a day Prime Minister Narendra Modi was telling the nation the advantages of simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies, the Supreme Court was tasked with an onerous task with an opposite intent and content in effect.
A division bench of the Supreme Court has since issued notice to the Election Commission on the propriety and wisdom of bifurcating polls to two Rajya Sabha seats, that too in Modi’s native Gujarat, a first-time occurrence of the kind in the nation’s bicameral constitutional history of close to 70 years.
The picture would be complete when one considered the fact that it was the EC that had originally mooted what is now fashionably and euphemistically dubbed ‘one-nation-one-vote’ concept, in true Modi style of renaming existing ideas and schemes, making them thus more appealing to the ‘IT generation’, even if only to re-open a closed debate.
Even without the incongruity in the twin approaches of the EC this time round, and acknowledging that it’s an overnight discovery by the poll panel without any attendant political bias and/or influence, the idea of simultaneous polls comes with an avoidable set of problems to address which there are no democratic tools in the Indian federal scheme.
Such reservations go beyond the political protests registered by the Congress, the two communist parties and also regional parties such as the DMK and TMC, BSP and SP, in boycotting the Centre’s first major politico-constitutional initiative of the kind and outside Parliament, under Modi 2.0.
Their opposition owed to the challenge that the mooted idea was to the ‘federal structure’ of the nation’s Constitution -- or, as it was in their eyes. Nothing stood out more in this context more than the denial of permission for Tamil Nadu Law Minister C Ve Shanmugam to participate in the all-party meet.
It is anybody’s guess, if any was needed, if denial of entry to Shanmugam at the meeting was a clerical error, or an administrative decision unconnected to the political bosses, or a political message to the parties and leaders back home in his south Indian state, where the ruling AIADMK-led BJP-NDA fared very badly in the LS polls, both in terms of votes and seats shares.
Going by media reports, the all-party meeting was open only to the presidents of political parties, or say, ‘general secretaries’ in their place, as elected under the respective party constitutions of the CPI and CPM, for instance.
If true, the question arises as to how come some of the second-line leaders of the ruling BJP at the Centre, or even Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, a past president of the party, found themselves at the head table?
If he was still the senior-most minister after the PM under the Warrant of Protocol, Rajnath was still not the law or home minister, whose domains may have had something to do with the day’s proceedings, but not that of the defence minister by any stretch of imagination?
In which case, how come BJP’s newly-anointed working president J P Nadda found a place in the all-party meeting? Under the generally-accepted norms, Home Minister Amit Shah, who continues to be the BJP president, having been there at the meeting, was it proper for Nadda to have been accommodated, too?
Anyway, in the case of AIADMK, there is no president or general secretary, the latter position alone originally attested by the party constitution at formation in 1972. The post-Jaya statute amendments by and of the party have all but abolished the post of general secretary, replacing it with the twin positions of coordinator and joint coordinator. The issue has been contested in the courts, and a final decision may still be pending.
State deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam is the coordinator of the party under the post-Jaya party constitutional amendment, and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami his ‘co-ordinator’. If either or both of them had presented themselves at the doors to the all-party meet, who would have been allowed admission -- either, both or none?
The idea of ‘one-nation-one-vote’ gained recent currency in the months ahead of elections 2019, after there was social media criticism to the whispered idea of a ‘presidential form’ of government.
First mentioned during the forgettable Emergency, and left there, it received immediate impetus, post-Emergency, when the Janata Party was returned to power on the strength of votes and seat-shares in north/central India.
More recently, after the BJP-NDA government of A B Vajpayee government won two LS polls in a row, in 1998 and 1999, the idea of a presidential form of government floated in the air before the party lost by-elections and state assembly elections, also in central India, where they had their electoral say and sway.
Instead came the Justice Venkatachallaiah Commission on Centre-State relations, whose terms of reference, thankfully, did not include a changeover to a directly-elected presidential form, as was originally being talked about.
Whether it was the presidential form then or simultaneous polls now, by whatever name called, the political need seems to be centred on the towering personality of a single leader, cutting across all parties and groups, and his/her ability to win elections, wholesale, especially when conducted together. It was Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Vajpayee later and Modi at present.
Such a construct may be contested by the larger utility of a single-instance polls as being thought of, as it cuts down expenditure, time and also the need for political parties and governments across the country to be constantly on an ‘election mode’, and thus tinkering with their annual budgetary proposals and political administration.
Such ideas however have to stop there. One, any such construct as ‘one-nation-one-vote’ may not stand judicial scrutiny despite the required constitutional amendments, including the possible need of support from half the number of state assemblies in the country.
The question is if such a move would vitiate against the Supreme Court ruling on the ‘Basic Structure of the Constitution’, as outlined in the ‘Kesavananda Bharati case’ (1973). Coupled with this is the Supreme Court’s considered position on Parliament voting in specific legislation, including constitutional amendments, into non-justiciable ’ Schedule IX’, as the very provision is under contestation.
Then there is the practical problem of Parliament and the Centre promising simultaneous polls -- a promise that they themselves may not be able to keep, always.
That is to say, if the Lok Sabha is dissolved before the end of the constitutionally-mandated five-year term, and fresh nation-wide elections become necessary, with high cost to the nation’s economy, will simultaneous polls become necessary to all or any or many of the state assemblies, as the term that may be fixed for such ‘simultaneous polls’ to be considered.
As prime ministerial candidate, Modi bucked the trend of multi-party parliamentary majority prevalent for 25 long years since 1989 when he led the BJP into a big win along with NDA allies in 2014. This time round, the BJP’s own victory is bigger than in 2014 and its dependence on regional allies for vote and seat-shares on its account, even less.
But the same cannot be said of BJP’s state governments, or those of its Congress rival in the north, and regional party governments in other parts of the country. Many of them are products of local alliances, pre-poll or post-poll.
Even granting that the national-level trend continued for a long, long time to come, there is no knowing that it would permeate down to the regional and sub-regional levels, where there is no homogeneous trend, political outlook or electoral records for parties and/or leaders, to swear by.
This could well mean that even when the LS live-term is safe and secured at the end of each election, there is no guarantee that one or many of the state assemblies would have to have quick elections owing to change in the majority-structure within the house.
The alternative would be to look outside the country for existing models, including those which demand that legislatures, both at the Centre and in the states, form new coalitions, and thus governments, whenever an incumbent loses the trust of the house.
It may have worked elsewhere, but in the Indian/sub-continental conditions and understanding, the cure could well prove to be worse than the problem. India is still a young democracy, despite its long and continuous cultural journey and possible unity at some level.
The nation may just not be ready to try and test its existing methodologies, which alone have made India the world’s largest and also the greatest democracy on earth.
In a possibly evolving scenario such as this, any thought of ‘universalisation’ of political processes is just not going to happen as easily as is being assumed in certain quarters.
If someone also thought that the nation has come a long way since the Emergency era, when alone the ‘poor, illiterate voter’ cared more for his rights than for his food and shelter (as promised under Indira Gandhi’s 20-Point Programme), that may not be the case.
The question is if the nation can launch into a futile exercise, when Modi 2.0 has just had a golden opportunity to address the people’s aspirations and the PM’s earlier commitments to development, jobs and incomes, without diverting energies, on a futile project, whose time, if nothing else, has not come.
If anything, launching on to the current scheme could be costly for the nation’s unity and integrity in more ways than imaginable, and unlike as envisioned and provided for by the Founding Fathers. The cost of such an exercise, even if it did not become an experiment, could be much more than the costs that the nation may continue to incur on the periodic conduct of elections.
If one went by the imaginative approach of our political class, and the legal and constitutional loopholes that they founded at implementation for the otherwise welcome anti-defection law through the past years of its exercise and enforcement, the question arises if the nation should even think of a much, much costlier exercise as simultaneous polls, or even ‘one-nation-one-vote’. It may sound good as a slogan -- and nothing more.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.