The government set up a high-ranking committee to look at a proposal to hold a single election for state legislature, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha seats—all at the same time. Some think the proposal may be pushed through quickly before the national elections in 2024. We explain the merits and disadvantages of the ‘one nation, one election’ proposal—and why the BJP loves it.
Researched by: Rachel John & Nirmal Bhansali
What’s this one election plan?
There is no concrete plan for a single election system as yet. The government has set up a high level committee—headed by former president Ram Nath Kovind. The members include Amit Shah, retired senior bureaucrats and judges and ex-Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad. The lone Opposition leader appointed to the committee—Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury—withdrew soon after the announcement. He claims the entire exercise is “an eye wash”—and the evidence is in the committee’s “terms of reference.”
About those terms of reference: These basically outline the tasks appointed to the committee—and they include:
- Identify the required amendments to the constitution and current laws to make the one-election plan possible.
- Determine whether the constitutional amendment can be passed with a two-thirds majority in the Parliament—or whether it will require ratification by the legislatures of at least half of all states. This will be key to figuring out how easy or difficult it will be to get this done.
- Find solutions to any situations that could pose a challenge to the one-election plan. Example: a government loses power before its term ends.
- Figure out how to hold simultaneous elections across the country—and make sure the five-year cycle is not disrupted.
- Develop a proposal for a single election card system that allows voters to participate in local, state and national elections. Currently, the Election Commission prepares a fresh electoral roll before each election.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhry’s problem: The committee is tasked with figuring out how to implement the one-election plan—not whether it is desirable or even feasible.
And is it desirable or feasible?
Well, we’ve done this before. Between 1951 and 1967, all national and state elections were held at the same time. All hell broke loose when the Centre dismissed the Communist-led government elected in Kerala. Since then, state governments have been regularly collapsing before their five-year term expires—due to defections, resort politics etc. All of which makes it difficult to synchronise their election cycle with that of the parliament. Point to note: this delinking is also what allowed the rise of regional parties—which offered a counterbalance to the Congress that had a near-monopoly of power at the Centre.
Let’s start with the case for the ‘one nation, one election’ proposal—which was laid out in great detail in a 2017 paper—penned by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai. These are the core arguments:
One: India is trapped in a neverending election cycle. During the five-year tenure of a union government, between five to seven states hold elections—every year! Since 1987, we have not had a single year without an election. This unremitting election cycle has serious consequences for governance. One reason: the model code of conduct—which forbids certain activities:
Effectively, except the routine administrative activities, other development programs, welfare schemes, capital projects etc. remain largely suspended till the time the model code is applicable and in the area it is in operation.
So in any given year—for at least two months—there is no governance in a number of states. For example:
The analysis indicates that in the year 2014, governance and developmental activities due to imposition of Model Code remained largely suspended for about seven months: three months across the country and about two months in Jharkhand and J&K and another two months in Maharashtra and Haryana.
So it would be far better to consolidate this kind of disruption in a single year—rather than endure it year after year.
Also this: The election state of mind also hampers ruling parties from implementing policies that may be unpopular. It encourages short-term thinking instead of long-term planning.
Two: Elections are expensive—especially for the parties. For elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014, the parties collectively raised Rs 23.55 billion (2,355.35 crore).
Unofficial estimates for just the 2014 elections are even higher: Rs 30 billion (3,000 crore). Needless to say, this kind of arms race encourages corruption and black money. More importantly, elections are getting increasingly expensive for the union government. The chart below shows the escalating costs (in crores) of a Lok Sabha election:
Three: In India, elections always carry the threat of violence. This means the deployment of security forces to maintain order:
For providing the required security arrangements, the Election Commission generally involves Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). As the demand for CAPF is typically higher than the supply, police forces such as State Armed Police, Home Guards, District Police etc. are often deployed as well to complement security arrangements.
Federal forces like CAPF are deployed across states—which means they are tied up for most of the year.
Four: It encourages voting by making the process straight-forward and easy:
Moreover, this electoral reform is expected to boost voter turnout, a vital component of a thriving democracy. The simplification of the voting process, allowing citizens to cast their ballots in one go, is likely to encourage greater participation in the democratic process. The law commission's findings support this argument, suggesting that higher turnout rates would enhance the democratic mandate.
The BJP dilemma: The party has been pushing a single election since 2003—when PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee raised the issue with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was open to it. But it has been pushing the proposal with increased fervour since 2015—and for one reason: Narendra Modi. As Shekhar Gupta points out, the BJP sweeps the national election by posing a simple question: ‘Modi or who?’
But that formula has been failing in the states. In 14 states, opposition or other parties not aligned with the BJP, are in power. Losing ground in the states makes the government less powerful in Delhi—because it diminishes its numbers in the Rajya Sabha. This means even a brute majority in the Lok Sabha will not be sufficient to push through legislation—without non-BJP support. Hence, the one-election strategy:
ONOE is seen as a brahmastra. If your weakness is having only one leader to get you the votes across states, where most of your leaders are nobodies, why not turn it into a strength? What if every vote was sought for Modi, at the Centre or in states? Each election will be “Modi versus who?”
Example: In Karnataka, the BJP swept the Lok Sabha seats in 2019—but lost the recent state election despite strenuous campaigning by Modi. It was difficult to convince voters that a vote for CM Basavaraj Bommai was a vote for the PM. Maybe that case will be easier to make when there is a single ballot for both state and union elections.
FYI: A think tank study showed that if simultaneous elections had been held in states simultaneously in 2014, the BJP and its NDA partners would have swept most states. But a year later, when the Modi fever receded, BJP lost out in Bihar and Delhi.
Quote to note: Yogendra Yadav sarcastically described the proposal as “One Nation, One Election, One Party, One Leader”—which doesn’t sound all that bad for the BJP.
Ok, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea per se….
There is an equally strong case against consolidating state and national elections–which has little to do with the BJP. Let’s start with the rebuttal of that Debroy/Desai paper.
One: The numbers on government expenditure look imposing, but Pranay Kotasthane argues:
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections cost Rs 38.7 billion (3870 crores) i.e. an expense of 0.03% of India’s 2014 GDP once every five years. State elections for a large state like Bihar cost a tenth of this amount i.e. 0.003% of India’s 2014 GDP every five years. Even if we assume all states require the same amount as Bihar did, India would be spending 0.12% of India’s 2014 GDP over a period of five years, all state assemblies and Lok Sabha elections combined. Clearly, this number is not unaffordable.
Others argue it is cheaper and better for democracy to crack down on election spending by parties—the root of most corruption. Also this:
[S]imultaneous elections, as the ECI has already informed the government, will entail large-scale purchase of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines that would cost an additional Rs 92.85 billion (9284.15 crores). These machines will have to be replaced every 15 years, entailing yet more expenditure.
Two: As for governance, it’s bizarre to suggest that the Model Code of Conduct imposed in one state affects development policies across the country. And as Smita Gupta points out in The Hindu, the only reason governance comes to a standstill is because national leaders insist on campaigning in state elections.
Three: The most powerful argument against the one election proposal is the loss of federalism. It offers a great advantage to large national parties conducting a countrywide campaign—at the expense of regional parties that are only contesting in their state:
[T]he voters are better placed to express their voting choices keeping in mind the two different governments which they would be electing by exercising their franchise. This distinction gets blurred somewhat when voters are made to vote for electing two types of government at the same time, at the same polling booth, and on the same day. There is a tendency among the voters to vote for the same party both for electing the State government as well as the Central government. This is a rule rather than an exception, not based on assumption but on evidence.
This is all the more critical since state governments led by regional parties have offered a necessary counterweight when a single party dominates the Centre—be it Congress or the BJP.
Four: Is this even feasible? What happens if the union or state government collapses mid-tenure? As Kartikey Singh writes, “Would elections be held again in every State or will the President’s rule be imposed? Amending the Constitution for such a significant change would not only necessitate extensive consideration of various situations and provisions but would also set a concerning precedent for more constitutional amendments.” Also: imposing a strict five-year tenure for governments is anti-democratic:
When governments are formed by coalitions or with external support of other parties or independent legislators, protestors often demand fresh elections. A new government is the only way to escape an anti-people regime. This right of the people cannot be taken away by making changes in laws and fixing tenure of legislatures.
The bottomline: It is not wise to make sweeping changes to our electoral system—or our Constitution—when a single party holds all the power. Consensus is slower and more frustrating to achieve, but that’s the nature of democracy.
Shekhar Gupta in The Print lays out why the BJP loves the one-election idea. The NITI Aayog paper by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai offers a detailed case for ‘one election, one nation’. Smita Gupta in The Hindu, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in The Wire and Pranay Kotasthane in the newsletter Anticipating the Unintended offer persuasive arguments against it.