Ex-CEC Chawla bats for ‘one nation one election’, says it’s challenging

Chawla, who was India’s 16th CEC, pointed out that the six-day special session of Parliament held in September 2023

Thiruvananthapuram: Effecting drastic constitutional changes with two-thirds majority in Parliament would be the biggest challenge in implementing ‘one nation one election’, but India can hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies every five years to substantially reduce the poll expenditure, said former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Navin Chawla.

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“The reason behind the move is to reduce the cost of elections as well as the frequency of the imposition of the model code of conduct by the Election Commission, which some political parties accuse of impeding development work. However, One Nation One Election (ONOE) will necessitate wide political consultation and major constitutional changes, which are not easy to achieve,” wrote the former CEC in an exclusive article for Manorama Yearbook 2024.

Chawla, who was India’s 16th CEC, pointed out that the six-day special session of Parliament held in September 2023 and the setting up of a Committee under former President Ram Nath Kovind have once again brought into focus the issue of simultaneous elections.

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Pointing out that the issue has been hanging fire for years, he said the issue needs to be examined from the perspectives of the Election Commission of India (ECI), parliamentarians, legislators and voters.

From the ECI’s point of view, the implementation of ONOE is technically feasible. “After all, the number of voters would remain the same, but the logistics would go up dramatically. At least two-thirds more EVMs/VVPATs (voter verifiable paper audit trail) would have to be manufactured because these are not available off the shelf.”

Another critical issue will be the number of poll staff, which would go up considerably, and their training to ensure procedures are followed correctly. Further, the requisite manpower (district magistrates/returning officers, and the auxiliary staff) would be needed to complete the electoral pyramid in each of the constituencies, parliamentary and state Assembly.

Noting that a general election in India is the largest management exercise in the world, the former CEC said that in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, there would be almost one billion voters. On an average, 60 to 65 per cent would actually vote, but arrangements would have to be made for EVMs/VVPAT machines for all the voters in the electoral roll.

The Constitution prescribes five-year terms for the Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies, and for synchronised elections, amendments would have to be made to Art 83(2) and Art 172(1) regarding the term of the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies as well as Articles 85(2)(b) and 174(2)(b) involving the dissolution of the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies.

“These constitutional changes necessitate a two-thirds majority of members present and voting, not necessarily an easy task. What this will effectively mean is that while some Assemblies will have their terms curtailed, others will have their terms extended,” he said.

Chawla said those in favour of simultaneous elections argue that it will reduce costs. They also argue that frequent imposition of the model code of conduct by the ECI disturbs development work when an election is announced.

“The intention behind the implementation of the Model Code of Conduct is not to stop the normal work of government but instead prevent the raising of illegal funding by contractors, etc., which funds are most often misused to fund candidates during the election period,” he added.

“The cost of a general election is about Rs 4,500 crore to the exchequer, a small price to pay when the benefit lies in upholding the pillars of the electoral edifice, because periodic elections are also reaffirmations of the democratic process,” he noted.

There would also be some issues for the best legal minds to ponder over. If the Central government falls before completing its full five-year term, there is no provision in the Constitution to appoint an alternative government at the Centre. “If the government falls in say 13 days as once happened, will that not require an immediate re-election? Unlike Germany, we have no provision for a ‘constructive’ government to replace the government that falls,” he said

Critics could also argue that amending the Constitution for holding simultaneous elections would fundamentally alter its democratic and federal character. India is a ‘Union of States’, which have their own directly elected governments. By fixing a term, it is argued that it would adversely affect their rights.

“There are no easy answers,” he said, adding that the issue would require views of political parties and of the states.

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