By Rajdeep Sardesai
In this media saturated age, the Modi government has perfected the art of ‘headline management’ through ‘weapons of mass distraction.’ The ‘one nation, one election,’ proposal is the latest example. On the very day that fresh revelations in the Adani controversy tumbled out, Chinese President Xi Jinping opted out of the G 20 summit, and the opposition India alliance held a meeting in Mumbai, the sudden announcement of a special session of parliament followed by a committee being set up to examine the single election idea suggests artful management of the news cycle.
In the rush of breaking news, it is perhaps forgotten that an identical election plan was floated by the BJP exactly five years ago. Then BJP President and now home minister Amit Shah wrote to Law Commission in August 2018 asking them to consider the ‘one nation, one election’ proposal in the ‘national interest’. A parliamentary standing committee in 2015 recommended holding simultaneous elections in two phases while a Niti Aayog discussion paper in 2018 wholeheartedly endorsed the blueprint. But with little support from non-BJP parties, the plan failed to take off. Is 2023 any different to 2018, or is this a classic case of new packaging of an old agenda?
Four reasons appear to have driven the revival of the single election idea. The first, as mentioned at the outset, is to divert attention and grab headlines at an opportune time. The second is to float a trial balloon and ignite a wider public debate amongst India’s influential middle class on the impact on costs and governance for a country in permanent election mode. Prime minister Modi has already pushed for a similar debate on the so called ‘revdi’ or ‘freebie’ culture, while warning that the fierce competition between parties to offer electoral sops will prove ruinous for economic health. Ironically, while the prime minister has targeted opposition parties for being fiscally irresponsible, the BJP too has been just as willing to open its purse-strings ahead of any election: just look at the slew of cash hand-outs announced by the Madhya Pradesh government in the last few months. Organising elections is not inexpensive but the real uncontrolled costs lie in the rampant abuse of money power by cash-rich political parties.
A third reason for building a chorus of support around the single election ,plank is to derive obvious political benefit from the, ‘There is Modi Only’ (TIMO) factor. Over the last decade, the BJP has consciously attempted to make every election a leadership contest: ‘Modi versus Who’ is an overarching campaign theme for the saffron party. Then, be it a general election, a state election, or even a local municipal election, the prime minister’s larger than life persona is the BJP’s political ‘brahmastra’.
Yet, as recent state assembly election results have shown, there are limits to this Modi-centric appeal. Both in Karnataka and Himachal, incumbent BJP governments lost despite the familiar ‘double engine’ narrative. In both states, the prime minister claimed that a vote for the lotus was an affirmation in his leadership. The campaign pitch did not work: the BJP was soundly beaten in both states, that too by the Congress, the one adversary the party thought it had more or less decimated.
In fact, the BJP’s electoral fortunes since 2019 have shown a sharp divergence between state verdicts where Mr Modi is not on the ticket and general elections where the TIMO factor overwhelms his opponents. The data shows an average of a double-digit difference between the BJP’s performance in state and general elections, leaving the party vulnerable to local anti-incumbency in BJP-ruled states. Which is why holding all elections simultaneously might offer the party an opportunity to play the Modi card more effectively than if the election calendar is kept separate. Electoral data gathered between 1999 and 2014 shows that in simultaneously held elections, voters chose the same party at state and centre in 77 per cent of the constituencies. But when elections were held even six months apart, only 61 per cent chose the same party.
The fourth reason though is perhaps the most disconcerting for those who fear a larger gameplan aimed at altering the basic structure of the constitution. A Modi-led government has repeatedly attempted to redraw the Centre-state constitutional framework of power-sharing despite the prime minister, himself a former chief minister, claiming to be a proponent of ‘co-operative federalism’. From demonetisation to farm laws, from Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation disputes to concerns over the national education policy, from Covid lockdowns to Hindi language imposition, there has been a sustained attempt to browbeat states into falling in line with little attempt at consensus building. This growing unease over unilateral action by a domineering Centre is only preventing genuine reform: the pushback and eventual derailing of farm laws is a good example.
Moreover, as many as 14 state governments are non-BJP, non-NDA ruled as of now, reflecting a uniquely diverse polity that is often obscured by the incessant one nation, one leader ‘uniformity’ drumbeat. Many of these governments are ruled by regional parties who, unlike national parties, are not bogged down by frequent elections. Which is also why many of the opposition parties have reacted with a mix of fear and anger over the ‘one nation, one election’ move. Their fear over the single election proposal stems from the constitutional rights of state governments to dissolve assemblies and set their own political timelines being snatched away almost overnight. The anger is fueled by the possibility that yet another major legislative action is being rammed through without a serious consultative process.
Ironically, while the ‘one nation, one election’ idea is being pushed as a recipe for stable governance, the BJP hasn’t hesitated in recent years to topple opposition-ruled governments by breaking parties or engineering defections. A genuine democratic ethos won’t be cultivated by a fanciful idea of just one election every five years but when political parties show greater respect to autonomous institutions and ensure a level playing field during and outside of elections. Gross misuse of money power and a lack of will in enforcing the model code of conduct has subverted the electoral process. That’s the real debate the country’s policy makers need to have.
Post script: there is a vested interest one also has in not allowing the present election cycle to be significantly altered. What would many of us in the media do without the unmatched excitement of covering election campaigns every year? And while journalists relish the heat and dust of an Indian election, netas too have to regularly hit the road: an election a year ensures minimum accountability!
(The writer is senior journalist and author. Mail: [email protected])