OPINION: Politics of polls

MUMBAI (Dawn/ANN) - Modi has let his Hindutva cat out of his saffron bag.

It is significant that President Ram Nath Kovind should propose simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies in his address to both houses of parliament on Jan 29, and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should sing the same tune on the same day — ‘one nation, one election’. 

He has pursued a two-fold agenda. One is to implement the three-point programme of old — impose a uniform civil code on Muslims; and abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, which was supposed to guarantee Kashmir’s autonomy and a Ram temple at Ayodhya.

The other plank is the capture of total power all over the country. President of the BJP Amit Shah famously coined the slogan ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’; an India that is rid of the Congress party. A campaign has been launched to topple state governments that are run by the Congress or prepare for their ouster in the next assembly polls.

A crafty plan was devised to hold elections to parliament and the state assemblies simultaneously. Modi set about it in a devious manner after launching a whispering campaign through BJP’s men in the print and electronic media.

Modi has let his Hindutva cat out of his saffron bag.

Modi has let his Hindutva mewing cat out of his saffron bag. “Like festivals, elections too should be held during a fixed time.” He cited the example of the Holi festival during which people throw colour, and even mud, at each other — but it is done on just one day. Constitutional sophistication of a high order. 

The main object of this manoeuvre is to establish a presidential system while retaining the garb of a parliamentary system. The diversities in the federation will be overcome by a plebiscitary democracy held around a powerful central leader and his party. Federalism will perish. State issues will be put on the back burner. 

The central plank will be Hindutva politics. Politics at the grass roots will wane as ‘nationalistic’ issues dominate. Remember Modi’s recourse to communal slogans in Bihar in 2015 and in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat last year? Prepare for a more poisonous election campaign in 2019; perhaps sooner if Modi chooses to dissolve the Lok Sabha.

The game requires constitutional amendment, subject to ratification by the states. What is far more menacing is that it will rob the people of a right to demand a mid-term poll, as they did in Bihar and Gujarat in the mid-1970s, and render chief ministers mere dummies. 

They control the party by dangling the sword of dissolution and free elections over wayward members of the ruling party. It is the people who will lose their right to demand an election. 

As the great constitutional lawyer Dicey wrote: “A Ministry placed in a minority by a vote of the Commons have, in accordance with received doctrines, a right to demand a dissolution of Parliament.  ...  But the reason why the House can in accordance with the constitution be deprived of power and of existence is that an occasion has arisen on which there is fair reason to suppose that the opinion of the House is not the opinion of the electors. A dissolution is in its essence an appeal from the legal to the political sovereign. A dissolution is allowable, or necessary, whenever the wishes of the legislature are, or may fairly be presumed to be, different from the wishes of the nation.”

The head of state will also be reduced to a dummy completely; shorn as he is of much power even now. But in a parliamentary system, the head of state, president or governor, enjoys a real discretion as to whether or not to accede to the prime minister’s or the chief minister’s advice to dissolve the house. He is not bound by the advice. 

What few realise in India is that he also enjoys a power to force the prime minister to advise dissolution, failing which he can sack him and invite one who is prepared to give such advice. The power is exercised only in abnormal circumstances; but it exists as Eugene A. Forsey points out in his classic The Royal Power of Dissolution of Parliament. A government that governs contrary to its mandate or a public opinion that asserts its right to have its say in the changed circumstances are among the grounds on which a president or governor can demand that the government seek a fresh mandate. Britain once went to the polls twice in one year.

The episode seeks to recast the entire polity to suit the convenience of the prime minister and his ideological mentors. The RSS was always in favour of a unitary system. 

But for aught we know, in this instance, Modi might well have caught a Tartar, for it is unthinkable that the opposition will accept his plans, and the media and public opinion submit to it. We may be heading for a terrible defeat. 

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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