Simultaneous Elections: Distorting Accountable Democracy And Federalism
"Our Constitution must not be a dictatorship but must be a Constitution in which there is a parliamentary democracy, where Government is all the time on the anvil so to say, on its trial responsible to the people, responsible to the judiciary, then I have no hesitation in saying, that the principles emboded in the Constitution are as good as, if not better than the principles emboded in any other Constitution."
Constituent Assembly Debates
17 September 1949
In the middle of the searing heat of June 1949, the founding fathers in the Constituent Assembly laboured as to what would constitute the bedrock of Indian democracy - a federal and accountable government. The framers did not opt for a single election for the entire country nor an unbreakable tenure for the governments in the Centre and the States.
Prof Shibban Lal Saxena addressing the Constituent Assembly clearly contemplated the situation of elections being held intermittently at various levels:
"Our constitution does not provide for a fixed for years cycle like the one in the United States of America…. Every time some election or other will be taking place somewhere. It may not be so in the very beginning or in very first 5 or 10 years. But after 10 or 12 years, at every moment some election in some province will be going on."
Post adoption of the Constitution, the first general elections to Lok Sabha and all State Legislative Assemblies were held together in 1951-52. Synchronised elections continued over three subsequent general elections held in the years 1957, 1962 and 1967. However, as anticipated, due to the premature dissolution of some Legislative Assemblies in 1968 and 1969, the cycle got disrupted for the first time.
The heart of the argument for 'one nation one election' has carefully concealed distortion of accountable parliamentary democracy. And so also the destruction of the federal structure. In order to have simultaneous elections it is absolutely necessary that governments in the Centre and the States to continue and complete its full 5 year term.
The Constituent Assembly had two options before them. One, to adopt the American system of an executive running the full course of its tenure and not accountable to the legislature for its sustenance. Or, secondly, to adopt the Parliamentary system of governance on the British model. The former gave stability, the latter gave responsible governance. Opting for the latter, the founding fathers in effect endorsed that the government of the day requires accountability over stability, a day-to-day assessment and seeking the confidence of the house. The Indian constitutional arrangement has the essential checks and balances for democratic governance. It provides for daily evaluation of the government by members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates. It lasts till it has the confidence of the house.
The 'one nation one election' principle also subverts federalism which forms part of the basic structure of our constitution. India opted a federal system of governance. It is perfectly possible, and often is, for the central government to be run by one party and the state government by another. This system provided a flexible option for the people to choose their own state governments as per the needs of the different regions. This gave the necessary elasticity and flexibility which has proved the test of time for India.
The destruction of federalism is imminent in the present proposal. What is sought is the elections to be played on one central overarching stage obliterating the regional issues and aspirations. This is antithetical to the federal conception of our Constitution and the choice of free play it allows in the choice of governance.
The object of this proposal is manifestly to surreptitiously put in place and institutionalize a Presidential form of government which cannot be dislodged by a vote of no confidence. This was an option which was squarely rejected by the founding fathers and wisely so. A mere periodic assessment of the government every 5 years by the electorate was found not a sufficient safeguard in preserving a democratic governance. Jettisoning this system and opting for 'one nation and one election' would be the endgame for an accountable government and for our federal structure.
(Author is a Senior Advocate in Supreme Court of India)
Views are personal only