Is India on a path towards one-man rule?
As India gears up for one of the most pivotal elections in its recent history, the polls next year could potentially mark the country’s last electoral exercise within the Westminster-style parliamentary system.
Throughout his tenure in office since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently tailored the state apparatus, using social and political engineering strategies, to solidify the control of his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Modi government is now pushing for electoral "reforms" through its ambitious “one nation, one election” (ONOE) initiative, which aims to synchronise parliamentary, state assembly, municipal and village council elections.
The changes sought are coupled with ever-growing demands from Hindutva groups that India jettison its parliamentary system for an executive presidential model of governance - a move that critics say will push India closer towards one-man rule.
Earlier last month, the Modi government named an eight-member high-level committee, headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind, to make recommendations on holding simultaneous elections at the various levels of government. The committee will examine a variety of possible scenarios, such as a hung assembly or adoption of a no-confidence motion, along with suggesting a timeframe for elections.
The core principle of ONOE is the merging of election schedules nationwide, as India often experiences a continuous cycle of elections throughout the year. The BJP argues that simultaneous polls will allow governments to concentrate more on governing and less on being in perpetual “election mode” - reducing disruptions to public life and minimising the overall expenses associated with elections.
But critics contend that the move would seriously erode India’s federal structure, while also homogenising political power. They note that the idea appears to be at odds with Article 1 of the Indian constitution, which envisions India as a “union of states”.
The next parliamentary election is expected to be held by mid-2024, and if concurrent polls are implemented, this would curtail the terms of most state assemblies.
Although the latest discussions around ONOE have stirred fresh political debate, it’s essential to note that the Modi government’s interest in this idea is not a recent development. ONOE has been a long-standing part of the BJP’s agenda, articulated in its 2014 manifesto.
Historically, the practice of Indian voters casting their ballots for both parliamentary and state assemblies simultaneously occurred in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. But the Congress Party, then in power nationally, disrupted this pattern by dismissing several state governments.
Critics of Modi have frequently accused Hindutva-affiliated parties of attempting to undermine India's democratic character and transform the nation into a Hindu state
The idea of ONOE first found expression in the 1983 annual report of the Election Commission of India, which advocated for concurrent elections to curtail expenses, optimise manpower and mitigate disruptions to daily government operations.
In 1999, the Law Commission of India recommended the implementation of simultaneous elections, and this call was reinforced by a 2015 parliamentary standing committee report, which suggested an alternative approach that would entail holding simultaneous polls in two phases twice within every five-year cycle. In 2020, Modi reiterated the need for ONOE, along with proposing a single voters’ list for all elections.
While many political observers have cast doubt on the feasibility of implementing simultaneous elections, critics argue that Modi’s ruling regime might be banking on the optics of synchronised polls to counter anti-incumbency sentiments and a united opposition.
According to political analyst and commentator Vivek Deshpande, there is widespread scepticism about whether the Modi government will see this idea through, given the monumental task and numerous legal obstacles. In an article for Scroll.in, he contends that the party tends to rely on its established strengths, such as the cult of Modi’s personality, a robust Hindutva-nationalism narrative, well-oiled election machinery, a plethora of welfare schemes, and at times, the misuse of central investigative agencies.
Yamini Aiyar, who heads the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, notes that the BJP’s emphasis on “oneness” revolves around centralisation, with the party’s ideology leaning towards a singular conception of Indian (Hindu) identity. The repeated use of the term “One Nation” in the discourse effectively merges the political concept with policy and governance agendas, she argues.
In doing so, it “pits core democratic values … against the 'efficiency' of governance through ‘one-ness’”. This positioning, Aiyar contends, portrays good governance as achievable only through a unitary, non-federal form of governance, thereby legitimising centralised control and authoritarianism.
Critics of Modi and his ruling BJP have frequently accused Hindutva-affiliated parties of attempting to undermine India’s democratic character and transform the nation into a Hindu state. Some argue that Modi’s endorsement of electoral reforms aligns with the Hindutva objective of instigating fundamental structural changes in India’s political, judicial and executive institutions to centralise power, with limited regulatory oversight.
There has been a growing Hindutva discourse advocating for a revision of the Indian constitution, and this narrative also suggests a departure from the Westminster-style parliamentary system in favour of a presidential system.
Bibek Debroy, chairman of Modi’s economic advisory council, expressed the need for a new constitution in an article published in the Mint, referencing the current constitution, crafted under the leadership of Dalit icon B R Ambedkar, as part of India’s “colonial” heritage.
Ram Madhav, a member of the national executive of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - a militant Hindu nationalist group of which Modi has been a lifelong follower - also made a case for revisiting the constitution in a recent column titled “Constitution is not a rigid document”. He wrote: “Ultimately, the Constitution is only a statement of intent. The constitutionalism - acting in its spirit - of those who manage it is critical.”
In his latest Bollywood film, Jawan (translation: Soldier), Indian star Shah Rukh Khan employs a unique cinematic technique at the climax, where he breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience, urging them to recognise the power of their voting. While he refrains from endorsing any specific political party, the film touches upon significant events in India’s history, including the Bhopal tragedy, farmers’ suicides and defence scandals, alluding to the opposition Congress Party’s rule.
Although the film’s release ahead of next year’s elections could be entirely coincidental, Khan’s not-so-subtle call for systemic reforms, an impassioned representation of the average Indian, appears somewhat unusual - but it aligns with the ongoing Hindutva dialogue advocating for constitutional changes to the governance of the nation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.