‘Gimmick’, ‘eyewash’: Why Oppn is fuming at simultaneous-polls panel
By convention, former Presidents of India have never been roped in to serve on or lead government-appointed panels; also, Kovind, during his presidential tenure, had batted for the idea of holding simultaneous elections | File photo

‘Gimmick’, ‘eyewash’: Why Oppn is fuming at simultaneous-polls panel

While the Opposition is miffed with the panel’s composition and other issues, of “greater concern” is how its terms of reference and the notification are worded

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The Centre, on Saturday (September 2), triggered an expectedly vociferous backlash from key constituents of the Opposition’s INDIA coalition against the high-level committee (HLC) constituted to examine the feasibility of conducting simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and all state assemblies — “in national interest”.

Within hours of the Centre issuing the notification detailing the composition of and terms of reference for the HLC, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and the lone face from the Opposition to be included in the panel, shot off a curt letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah “declining to serve on the committee whose terms of reference have been prepared in a manner to guarantee its conclusions”.

Chowdhury’s refusal to serve on the HLC came shortly after the Congress, through its organisational general secretary and member of the INDIA bloc’s newly constituted coordination committee, KC Venugopal, dubbed the panel as nothing more than a “systematic attempt to sabotage India’s parliamentary democracy”.

Questions over Kharge's exclusion

What also left the Congress, in particular, and the INDIA coalition, in general, fuming was the Centre’s decision to include former Rajya Sabha Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad in the HLC while keeping his successor and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge out. Chowdhury made a pointed reference to Kharge’s exclusion from the panel in his letter to Shah, terming it a “deliberate insult to the system of parliamentary democracy”.

Venugopal, too, had expressed the same view, asserting that while the HLC had been set up as a “gimmick to distract from the Adani Mega Scam, unemployment, price rise and other pressing issues of the people”, the Centre only made matters worse by trying to “tilt this committee’s balance by excluding fierce opponents”.

Asking why the Centre had excluded Kharge from the HLC and, instead, chose to appoint Azad, Venugopal said, “Is a leader who has risen from such a humble background to the top post of India’s oldest party, leading the entire Opposition in the Upper House, an inconvenience for the BJP-RSS?”

Congress sources told The Federal that though their objection to Kharge’s exclusion was “legitimised by the Centre’s deliberate decision to include a former (Azad) and not current LoP of the Rajya Sabha” it was “important that the party should articulate its objection in a way that prevented the BJP’s spin doctors from accusing the Congress and INDIA parties of boycotting a crucial committee that is headed by a former President of India who belongs to the Dalit community”.

Kovind, a debatable choice

The Centre had, a day before notifying the HLC, declared that the panel will be headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind. The choice of Kovind, by itself, had left the Opposition fuming since, by convention, former Presidents of India have never been roped in to serve on or lead government-appointed panels. Besides, Kovind, during his presidential tenure, had also batted for the idea of holding simultaneous elections, Samajwadi Party leader and INDIA bloc’s coordination committee member Javed Ali Khan told The Federal. He added that “his bias in favour of the idea of simultaneous polls is a matter of record and, with the exception of Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, all other members of the HLC also belong to the same shade of opinion on the matter and their proximity to the BJP is well known, which makes it clear that discussions in the panel will be geared towards a pre-determined outcome”.

Congress leader and senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi also pointed out that the government’s decision to have the HLC helmed by a former President of India was “a negative first” and “that too on a divisive and controversial topic”. Singhvi posted on X, “that office (of the President) has to be kept above politics and acrimony but that is not the fitrat (disposition) of Modi government... to keep presidents and ex presidents beyond politics, especially on controversial issues like synchronised elections is our collective obligation”.

Aside from Kovind, Azad, and Chowdhury, who has now declined to be part of the HLC and dubbed the panel as a “total eyewash”, the panel’s members are Amit Shah, former finance commission chairman NK Singh, former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap, senior advocate Harish Salve, and former chief vigilance commissioner Sanjay Kothari. Union law minister Arjun Ram Meghwal has been appointed as a special invitee to the HLC.

“Pre-determined conclusions”

The Opposition’s dissent on the HLC, however, isn’t limited to the panel’s composition. Most INDIA coalition leaders had already made their opposition to Narendra Modi’s push for ‘One Nation, One Election’ clear when they spoke to journalists on the sidelines of their bloc’s meeting in Bombay on Friday (September 1). However, at the time there was no clarity on the terms of reference that the Centre had in mind for the HLC and, so, the disapproval from the INDIA leaders was merely to the idea of synchronised polls.

With the Centre notifying the HLC, the INDIA bloc now has specific issues to lambast the government. Several INDIA leaders The Federal spoke to asserted that while the HLC’s composition, or the fact that the government had “dragged in a former President to do its bidding”, were triggers for dissent, aside from the fact that the coalition was “unambiguously opposed to the very idea of simultaneous polls”, a “cause for greater concern” was how the notification and the panel’s terms of reference were worded.

A key cause of opprobrium, the INDIA leaders said, was how the notification stated that in “national interest it is desirable to have simultaneous elections” and that the HLC was being constituted to examine the issue “and make recommendations for holding simultaneous elections” while the panel’s terms of reference sought a view on whether amendments that will need to be made to the Constitution in order to roll out synchronised polls “would require ratification by the states”.

“Even to a layman, it would be absolutely clear that not only are this committee’s conclusions already pre-determined but the government has also decided how it would counter those opposing simultaneous elections and also how it would bypass state legislatures to bulldoze constitutional amendments with wide-ranging consequences for our federal structure,” RJD MP Manoj Jha said.

The “anti-national” card

Jha explained that by invoking “national interest”, the government had signalled that it would “fall back on its strategy of terming anyone who opposes its decision as being anti-national” while the specific query on whether constitutional amendments would need ratification by the states is a “ploy to extract an answer in the negative to ensure that Opposition ruled states do not block the move”.

It is well settled that to roll out simultaneous polls, the government will have to amend at least five Articles of the Constitution (Articles 83, 85, 172, 174 and 356), which deal with aspects such as dissolution of state legislatures and imposition of President’s Rule. There are three ways in which amendments to the Constitution can be made. Bills for amending the Constitution can either be passed in Parliament by a simple majority, by a special majority (two-thirds majority of members present and voting), along with the requirement of ratification of the amendment by 50 per cent of state legislatures, or by a simple majority without the requirement of ratification by the states.

The government's plan to roll out synchronised polls may be stalled if amendments required to be made to the Constitution for the purpose have to be ratified by state legislatures. Of the 30 state legislatures in India (excluding J&K, which is currently under a prolonged spell of President’s Rule and where the Assembly hasn’t been reconstituted since the erstwhile state’s bifurcation in August 2019), 11 are currently ruled by parties from the INDIA coalition. These legislatures, along with the Telangana assembly, where BJP rival K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) has a majority, are unlikely to endorse such constitutional amendments.

Then there are states such as Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, where Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal and YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress are in a majority. Though the BJD and YSRCP have bailed the Centre out each time its legislative agenda has hit a hurdle with the Opposition, it is uncertain whether these parties would support the Modi government on an issue that is essentially tailormade to electorally benefit the BJP at the cost of all other parties, particularly regional outfits.

Also, BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh goes to polls at the end of this year and the saffron party’s government there is facing an uncertain future owing to palpable anti-incumbency and a resurgent Congress. Mizoram, ruled by the Mizo National Front, too, is headed for polls in October-November, and the BJP’s chances of wresting control of the state’s assembly here are remote, particularly now in the wake of the backlash the party has been receiving following the ethnic violence in neighbouring Manipur.

The state math

Given this break-up, the BJP is unlikely to have the required endorsement from 50 per cent state assemblies if its simultaneous polls plan is to be rolled out through constitutional amendments that need ratification by legislatures. INDIA bloc leaders suspect this to be the reason for the Centre seeking the HLC’s view on the question of ratification by the states. The panel’s opinion is “bound to be one that helps the Centre instead of creating a roadblock... that question has been put in the terms of reference only for this reason,” AAP leader Sanjay Singh said.

Asserted that the practical, moral, and logistical problems with forcing simultaneous polls aside, such an exercise would also be “a blatant violation of federal principles” Singh said, “If the government uses the HLC to give an opinion that ratification by states is not required, rest assured there will be an immediate challenge filed before the Supreme Court and that view is bound to be rejected by the Supreme Court on grounds of unconstitutionality.”

Though the notification does not expressly mention a time frame within which the HLC has to submit its report and merely says that this should be done “at the earliest”, it is evident that the battle lines between the Centre and the Opposition have been drawn on the issue of simultaneous polls.

There may as yet be no clarity on the Centre’s agenda for the upcoming special session of Parliament, beginning September 18, nor is it known whether the government would discuss the proposal for simultaneous polls in that five-day session. What is known, though, is that the session, for which the government has already curtailed the scope for free discussions and seeking accountability by deciding to suspend Question Hour, Zero Hour, and transaction of private member Bill, is set to see a reprisal of the acrimony seen during Parliament’s monsoon session, which had concluded just three weeks back following discussions on a motion of no confidence brought against the Modi regime by the Opposition.
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