India’s Modi considers simultaneous regional and national elections

India has a federal structure where state assembly and general elections are held separately

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Athens last week. Reuters
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has set up a committee to look into the possibility of "one nation, one election" – proposed legislation to hold simultaneous national and regional elections in the country.

The announcement came months before Mr Modi’s second term ends in May next year, with national polls due by March-April, sparking condemnation from opposition parties.

The world’s largest democracy of 1.4 billion people has a federal structure with citizens electing state legislators in state polls while the prime minister is elected separately, in national elections.

The terms last for five years for both state and national offices.

At least five states face elections by the end of the year, including three ruled by Mr Modi's party.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government has long championed legislation to carry out elections across the country, claiming that it would cut down the cost of elections.

Indian elections are an enormous logistical undertaking in a country of 1.4 billion, and are the world’s costliest.

There are 28 states in the country and at least one state election takes place every year.

Elections involve extravagant rallies, other public events, social media campaigns and widespread advertising.

In 2019, a staggering 550 billion rupees, or $8 billion, was spent during general elections, according to a report by the Centre for Media Studies.

Mr Modi’s BJP, the richest political party in the country, spent about half of that total.

The BJP government has formed the committee under former president Ramnath Kovind. It has called for a special session of parliament from September 18 to 22, without revealing the agenda, but media speculation is rife that the government will push the bill in the session.

The sudden announcement surprised opposition parties as well as political pundits who feel the proposal is unnecessary and is designed for the BJP to gain political support.

Their argument is that if simultaneous elections take place, the regional parties will lose to the bigger parties because of their influence and financial resources.

Anshul Avijit, the spokesman for the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, said that the government was trying to distract the citizens from the real issues of inflation, unemployment and economic crisis.

“This would be a diversionary tactic to get attention away from the real issues facing the common man of this country, the real issues and then the largest game plan – gaining control over India through constitutional amendments,” Mr Avijit told The National.

“The government wants the din of national politics – ie, nationalism and emotive issues such as majoritarianism, which have little bearing on local issues for states – to play with the emotions of the people and improve their record of winning state elections because they don't have a great track record.”

Doraisamy Raja, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India, said that the BJP is obsessed with “one nation, one party” and has been jittery since the opposition parties united under the INDIA banner.

"Ever since the BJP came to power, it has been obsessed with one nation, one culture; one nation, one religion; one nation, one language; one nation, one tax; now one nation, one election; then one nation, one party; one nation, one leader. That is the obsession the BJP is suffering from," Mr Raja said.

Old idea

The BJP has always advocated ‘One Nation, One Election’, which used to be the norm until 1967.

The practice stopped after some legislative assemblies were dissolved prematurely in 1968 and 1969, whereas the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, was dissolved in 1970, a year ahead of scheduled elections, compelling new elections. Regional and national votes were therefore out of sync.

Political experts in the country say that the proposal is unnecessary and would be complex to implement.

“India is a diverse country; we have a large number of state governments. In a multiparty democracy, when a government has not survived for five years, what would they do?" Sanjay Kumar, political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told The National.

“We can move ahead with this whole system but the difficulty is going to be when some state government has not completed the term. If the government wants to initiate it in 2024, what would happen to those governments? There are no rules or laws that permit central governments to dissolve the state government without proper reasons.”

Mr Kumar also said that such a proposal could undermine regional parties because they could be overshadowed by the bigger parties.

“When you hold simultaneous elections, the chances of people voting for the same party both in the states and the centre is very high because a bigger event always overshadows, in this case, the Lok Sabha elections,” he said.

“Regional parties are the expression of socio-political, economic, religious and various other diversities of India's population. They provide a platform for aspirations of people living in different corners of the country. In state assembly elections, the regional parties stand to benefit. They get more votes. But if the state elections and general elections are held together, the chances of smaller regional parties being on the receiving end is going to be very high.”

Updated: October 31, 2023, 10:13 AM