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‘One Nation, One Election’ Will Further Weaken Indian Democracy

The argument is that repeated polls are expensive and also push political parties towards populistic promises. But the long term benefits they trigger might be greater.
A voter gives his thumb impression at a polling booth before casting his vote for the first phase of Bihar Assembly Election, amid the coronavirus pandemic, at Chenari police station in Rohtas district, Wednesday, October 28, 2020. Photo: PTI

Two recent interconnected events are noteworthy. First, the proposal for simultaneous elections at the Centre and the states. Second, the case in the Supreme Court (SC) filed by Bhattulal Jain against the sops offered by political parties before elections.

The SC expressed its helplessness but issued notices to two states, the Union government and the Election Commission (EC). It also tagged the petition with the pending PIL which wants the EC to frame guidelines on the matter.

Regarding the first issue, framed as ‘One Nation, One Election’, a committee has been set up to deliberate the matter. Surprisingly, a former president of India is its chairperson. This is to lend greater weight to the recommendations of the committee, given the contentious nature of the proposal. The leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha has declined to join the committee. So, the opposition view will go unrepresented.

BJP’s gambit

The BJP sees the move as politically advantageous. It hopes to cash in on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win not only the national elections but also the assembly elections, several of which it has lost recently.

It possibly believes that in a national election, national issues predominate rather than local ones, and that this would sway voters to vote for the BJP. In assembly elections, it has often called for ‘Double engine ki sarkar’ but it has not worked at times. Depending on the situation, people may focus on local issues even in a simultaneous election.

Additionally, there are basic issues that need to be considered, like the consequences for the federal structure of the country and its impact on the already fraying political and economic democracy in the country. Hopefully, the committee will take into account these long-term implications for the nation.

Also Read: One Nation, One Election, One Leader, One Faith, One Business House

Cost of elections

The second issue is framed as a practical, economic one – namely, that having one election every five years will reduce the cost of elections. Costs are both direct – holding repeated elections – and indirect – due to delays in the implementation and announcement of policies. It is said that elections force ruling parties to go for ‘populist’ policies that are fiscally imprudent and hence undesirable.

The election expenditures of candidates have snowballed, running into thousands of crores. Recently, in a poll-bound state, a politician told this author that for a serious MLA candidate, an election campaign will cost around Rs 5 -6 crore, and for an MP, no less than Rs 30 crore.

Assuming at least two serious candidates per constituency and adding to this the cost of holding the elections, the total figure for the country would approach Rs 1 lakh crore. For an economy with a GDP of about Rs 300 lakh crore, it amounts to 0.33% of the GDP.

So, the direct cost is not too much. What is the indirect cost? That is hard to estimate since there are both tangible and intangible costs.

For months before an election in a state, the leadership gets busy campaigning, diverting their attention from serious national and local issues. With four to five major elections each year in the five-year cycle, major political parties are constantly busy preparing for elections.

To attract voters, they offer goodies and concessions which add to the fiscal burden, like subsidies on gas cylinders, cheap or free grains, and water, electricity and cash to farmers and women heads of households. These add up to a few lakh crores every year, perhaps 1-2% of the GDP depending on what is counted. Again, the cost is not too much.

Compared to this, what the well-off get as tax cuts is far greater. The cut in corporation tax in 2019 immediately cost Rs 1.6 lakh crore. Wealth tax etc. if collected could yield 2-3% of the GDP.

Also Read: Revdinomics Isn’t About the Economy, Stupid

Why do political parties need to offer ‘freebies’? People getting them are called labhartis (Hindi for beneficiaries). Is this not like bribing voters? And, is it not a failure of democracy that the public chooses its representatives on the basis of who offers more inducements before elections? Can such elections, which are supposed to sustain democracy, be desirable?

Democracy weakens when the people’s choice is not based on who will represent their interests and fulfil their aspirations. Actually, people are helpless and have lost faith that their representatives and political parties will deliver on promises.

Two years ago, at a meeting of an opposition party to help with their election manifesto, the party people asked towards the end of the discussion, “What are we offering the people today?” Long and medium-run programmes are only decorative.

Democracy as process

Democracy is always in a state of flux and not in its ideal form. It can be weakening or strengthening.

To strengthen democracy, politics needs to be more accountable. But this does not appear to be the principal motivation for the people’s vote. It can be swayed by a Pulwama or Balakot, a Bofors, or corruption and inflation during UPA-II.

Often, the choice is for the lesser evil. Vested interests that control political parties take advantage of this weakness to push their agenda. This undermines democracy.

Having one election every five years will make political parties more unaccountable and free to fulfil the agenda of vested interests. That will weaken democracy and cost the nation far more than the direct and indirect costs of elections at present.

This weakness of democracy makes elections so expensive. People are not enthused by the performance of candidates. To counter that, mega rallies, hoardings and posters in large numbers are put up. Vote banks are created and nurtured. Now, there are additional expenditures on social media, troll armies, the manipulation of electoral rolls, etc. Workers and crowds are hired and money and goodies are distributed in the last three days before election day.

All this requires large sums of money.

Also Read: The Show Must Go Off

The money spent is way above the allowed election expenditure, so it has to be black/illegal. What is obtained through electoral bonds is peanuts compared to the actual expenditures. It also goes mostly to the ruling party and is like a bribe in white.

The collection of illegal funds leads to the emergence of a close nexus between politicians and vested interests. Not only does this undermine democracy, but also subverts policy, and in a vicious cycle leads to the further proliferation of the black economy and the weakening of democracy. This weakening of democracy is the real cost to society.

Benefits outweigh the costs

In 1993, a top bureaucrat in the government argued that the government could do what it pleased for the first two-and-a-half years but must pursue populist policies after that. So, tough anti-people policies can be pursued in the first period. Cynically, it implies that the public is gullible and can be fooled – a line that political parties have internalised.

If all elections are held together once in five years, people-friendly policies will be pursued only for short periods of time, unlike now, when ruling parties have to be on their toes most of the time. When in spite of such constant scrutiny the fruits of development have mostly been cornered by the well-off sections, imagine how much worse it will get with elections once in five years.

The undemocratic content of policies will dominate and the alienation of the marginalised will grow, leading to a further erosion of democracy.

Not even in a perfect democracy

Even if India had a perfect democracy, the ‘One Nation, One Election’ idea assumes homogeneity in the nation. India is diverse, with different regions confronting diverse issues, and that impacts politics in the states and the election schedule. So, a one-size-fits-all approach goes against the reality of the nation’s diversity and can lead to severe political backlash.

Lessons need to be drawn from the experience of the initial years after independence, when one party ruled in the Centre and the states. The ruling party is going one step further to homogenise the country through ‘one nation one this or that’ and this is dangerous.

In brief, the reality is that India has an imperfect democracy that needs to be strengthened. Elections are the times when the public can force political parties to become answerable. So, repeated elections have a cost, but the benefits of enhanced democracy that they trigger are far greater.

Ideas are from the author’s book, ‘Understanding the Black Economy and Black Money…’, 2017

Arun Kumar retired as professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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