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In the name of efficiency, the ‘One Nation’ project devalues democracy

‘One-ness’, by definition, is about singularity and centralisation. And it is no secret that the BJP’s ideology privileges a singular, unitary conception of the Indian identity.
Last Updated : 16 September 2023, 23:31 IST
Last Updated : 16 September 2023, 23:31 IST

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In recent weeks, as the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’ made its way back to the national stage, I’ve been provoked to ask whether there is more to the repeated use of the phrase ‘One Nation’ than just a catchy slogan. Cast your mind back to the big and small-ticket reform ideas projected by the BJP since 2014, and you will likely see ‘One Nation’ prefixed to the specific reform. ‘One Nation, One Tax’, ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’, ‘One Nation, One Market’, ‘One Nation, One Grid’, the list is long.

‘One-ness’, by definition, is about singularity and centralisation. And it is no secret that the BJP’s ideology privileges a singular, unitary conception of the Indian identity. What’s important about the repeated invocation of ‘One Nation’ in the reform discourse is that it fuses the political project of ‘One Nation’ with the policy and governance agenda. In doing so, it pits core democratic values that have been baked into our policy processes – deliberation, consensus-building, accommodation – against the ‘efficiency’ of governance through ‘one-ness’. It positions good governance as a feature that can only be achieved through a unitary, not federal, form of governing, and this is the ruse that will legitimise centralised control and authoritarianism. After all, at least the trains will run on time!

Consider the arguments offered for the latest ‘One Nation’ project -- simultaneous elections, or ‘One Nation, One Election’ (ONOE). The rationale offered by the government is entirely framed within the grammar of governance and efficiency. Two arguments have gained popular resonance -- the cost of elections and associated corruption, and the costs to governance because political parties remain in permanent election mode and the model code of conduct that kicks in before elections.

Several interlocutors, including myself, have pointed to the limits of this argument. The problem of costs is better dealt with through reforms in political financing, including scrapping the opaque electoral bonds. On the other hand, the problem of political parties being in permanent election mode is an outcome of the wider pathology of centralisation of our political party system, which is hardly going to be resolved through simultaneous polls.

But this column is not about ONOE, and the absurdity of the project, which at its core is about undermining federalism. The point I want to focus on is the invocation of the phrase ‘One Nation’ in the argument for simultaneous polls, and its careful positioning as essential to ‘efficiency’ and ‘good governance’. ‘One-ness’ is thus presented as a legitimate goal in our quest for good governance and, by the same token, the federal principle, with its attendant checks and balances, as imposing significant costs on governance.

Unlike ONOE, several other reforms that are part of the ‘One Nation’ project -- from ‘One Tax’ to ‘One Ration Card’ -- may well have sound economic rationale. Like any growing economy, India too needs to move in the direction of greater national coordination on taxation, regulating labour markets, coordinating efficient movement of goods and services, and other factor market reforms. The need for reform is well acknowledged. But so, too, are the challenges.

In a democratic structure, reforms require consensus-building, negotiation and accommodation. Reforms have to be achieved by deftly managing vested political interests. This is a slow process that requires investing in deliberative institutions and dialogue. It takes political maturity, a normative commitment to principles of deliberation and dialogue, and a recognition that the core purpose of representative democracy is to facilitate consensus-building of this nature and negotiating competing interests to overcome reform challenges.

Truth is, this commitment is precisely what has been missing from our politics, across political regimes, giving way to a broad elite consensus that “too much democracy”, with its attendant rules of negotiation and consensus-building, is in fact a problem. It slows down ‘reforms’, it undercuts the possibility of getting things done. Worse, the failure to invest in deliberation and consensus-building, has given legitimacy to a technocratic policy imagination (and this has wide resonance in elite policy circles) that prefers the idea of “reform by stealth” rather than reform through painful consensus. ‘One-ness’ has now been introduced into this democratic vacuum. The political message is clear, democratic values of negotiation, consensus-building and dialogue will have to play second fiddle to economic and governance needs as defined by the ruling elite. ‘One Nation’ is thus projected as an urgent, legitimate political aspiration.

There is an interesting contrast to be drawn with China. Rather than seeking ‘one-ness’ in its governance approach, China encouraged diversity through decentralisation, innovation and competition. Scholars have described this as a form of “regionally decentralised authoritarianism”, most visible in the first two decades after economic reforms. Somewhat ironically, the heavily centralised party model created opportunities to empower provincial leaders to compete without challenging the centralised party structure, thus legitimising decentralisation. In India, political diversity through multi-party competition at the regional level put in place checks and balances against excessive political centralisation. This has been the most important guardrail against authoritarianism, even if it simultaneously disincentivised decentralisation and, arguably, slowed down reforms. It is a guardrail we cannot afford to lose.

The ‘One Nation’ project seeks to legitimise itself by citing the constraints that democracy places on our systems. We must not allow ourselves to be deluded by the promised gains. Rather than dismiss ‘One Nation’ as a catchy slogan, we must interrogate its intent. Our democracy is at risk.

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Published 16 September 2023, 23:31 IST

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