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A ‘managed democracy’

For long, commentators in the West have termed Vladimir Putin’s Russia a “managed democracy”, one that retains the pretence of free and fair elections and the rule of law but in reality is all choreographed. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of holding simultaneous state and parliamentary elections – which was discussed by a parliamentary committee for the first time last week – becomes a reality, India will join the club of the world’s managed democracies.
Like all Modi slogans, his clarion call to hold simultaneous elections is extremely seductive. Don’t we middle-class Indians abhor the idea of frequent elections? Wasteful expenditure, noisy campaigns, political rallies blocking roads and disrupting our lives, frequent imposition of the model code of conduct and stalling of development works. These are some in a long list of complaints against the phenomenon of recurring elections. The solution to India’s chronic underdevelopment may perhaps lie in the panacea of holding one mega election every five years. Once a party is elected and governments are formed, they should get down to work and bother about seeking the people’s mandate only after five years. Maybe then, India will catch up with China. Big projects will take off. Bureaucracy will be more committed, the Opposition less strident, civil society more disciplined. Well, how compelling is this narrative?
Modi had been pushing this narrative for four years now. But with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections around the corner, he has decided to push it with renewed vigour. In television interviews earlier this month, he positioned it as the next big reform. The president’s address to a joint sitting of the two Houses of Parliament on Monday, the first day of the budget session, reiterated it. To transform it into reality, Modi will have to rewrite some of the basic principles of our Constitution.
India has been conceived as a federal republic. There is a vertical division of powers between the Centre and the states. Modi, quite astutely, is not talking about disturbing this. He only wants the state governments to be elected along with the Central government. But what happens if no party forms the majority government in one or more states. Since there cannot be a re-election that state will per force be ruled by the Centre until the next elections. This means five years of President’s Rule for states that do not deliver a clear mandate. It does not end there. The phenomenon of governments failing to complete their term is quite common in our country. So, if a government, coalition or otherwise, falls mid-term, that state will be placed under Central rule for the remainder of the term.
Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have a long history of dismissing duly elected state governments on specious grounds. Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are cases in point. The once-in-five-years election rule will enhance the political incentive for the Centre to dismiss duly elected state governments, since the constitutional obligation to hold elections within six months of dismissal will no longer exist.
Some may argue that this may not entirely be the case. In case a state government falls, nothing stops an alternative government from emerging from the existing Assembly composition. In theory, yes. But in practice, such alternatives will invariably coalesce around the party in power at the Centre. Recent history is living evidence of this.
Worse, the spectre of the Centre ruling states, even without the people’s mandate, will not remain restricted to the provinces. In case a duly elected Union government loses its majority before it completes its term, there will be two options. It will either continue in power, regardless of its minority status. Or an alternative coalition with a majority will have to materialise. But the odds are stacked heavily against such a possibility. There are various valid reasons for this. Governments at the Centre have become quite adept at using the intelligence and investigation agencies at their disposal to blackmail and coerce their political opponents. If the Congress invented this art, the current BJP regime has mastered it. In such a scenario, the possibility of alternative governments being formed on the strength of the arm-twisting prowess of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax Department, and not on the basis of a common minimum programme, is a real one. It is not that such scenarios do not play out today. The problem is that once the Opposition knows that elections will occur only after a fixed five years, it will be more vulnerable to such pulls and pressures. The denial of the remedy to seek a fresh public mandate will cripple the Opposition.
In short, simultaneous elections will turn India into an authoritarian state, with the mere appearance of a federal democracy.
But that is only half the story.
Recent history shows that people vote differently in different elections. In the 2014 general elections, voters in Delhi gave the BJP all seven Lok Sabha seats. But in elections to the Capital’s 70 Assembly seats in January 2015, they rejected the BJP – which had 282 Lok Sabha seats – and elected 67 MLAs of the Aam Aadmi Party. Similarly in Bihar, people chose Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) in the Assembly elections 18 months later.
There is serious doubt that such contrasting mandates will materalise if state and general elections are held simultaneously. Regional parties, with a fraction of the resources national parties have, will find it difficult to explain to the masses the agenda for the state election as opposed to the national agenda. Money and muscle power will further dominate the electoral landscape. The more resourceful a party, the greater its control over the narrative.
There is a real danger that smaller players like the Aam Aadmi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) will get noised out in the din of general elections. Also, in the event of a wave in favour of one of the national parties – like the Congress in 1984 or the BJP in 2014 – people may choose to ride that wave. The electorate will be deprived of the opportunity of self-correction. That would be dangerous for our democracy.
Reduced diversity in elected governments will lead to greater centralisation of power. Chief ministers will wait for the nod of their boss at the Centre. Civil society, the press and government institutions will be further shackled.
One is not sure how far Modi is willing to go to convert this idea into reality. He will certainly have to drastically alter the Constitution, besides enacting new laws. But one thing is for sure: if the idea comes to fruition, India will cease to be a liberal, constitutional democracy. Like Russia, we will become a managed democracy.