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Poll Reforms or Political Reforms?

We would be turning a blind eye towards the grave prognostications of turning into a failed democratic experiment if we don’t bring in immediate electoral measures.

Seven decades ago, India solemnly resolved to adhere to the ideals of equity, liberty, equality and fraternity. She chose a democratic form of government in which there will be no discrimination of any
citizen by religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Many countries fought hard for a universal adult franchise, something we take for granted. It is a tribute to our founding fathers’ unwavering commitment to the principle of equality that they opted for a full franchise to all sections of the society. At a time when literacy rates were a low 16 per cent, we placed enormous trust on our poor and uneducated countrymen and this trust has been repaid in full measure.
“Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy as they undoubtedly are today,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi long before we became independent. Today, decades after independence, his words are returning to haunt us. Are our elections free and fair? Do they offer a level playing field? Can any socially-conscious citizen contest in our election? The answer to such questions is unfortunately not ‘Yes.’ Successive chief election commissioners have brought in improvements that have helped the citizen exercise his franchise without fear. Civil society organisations have held conferences to garner public
opinion to pressurise the government.
However, a lot more needs to be done before declaring our democratic-model a success.

MONEY POWER IN ELECTIONS

Over the years the role of money has been increasingly felt in the elections. It ranges from high levels of spending in election-related activity – publicity in print and electronic media; elaborately arranged campaign meetings with the audiences getting transported, fed and feted; and extensive use of social media platforms to campaign for or against a candidate. The total of this spending breaches the ceiling fixed for campaign-related expenditure many times over. Candidates resort to surrogate advertising, ‘paid news’ and such other devious methods to conceal their spends and produce a white-washed report of their expenditure. Such is the widespread cynicism on the veracity of their statement that people love to quote what perhaps is an apocryphal story of a former Prime Minister having said on the first day of Parliament that most legislators enter the august house after telling a lie about their election expenditure!
A related facet is the lack of any ceiling on party expenditure and this, combined with lack of accountability of parties regarding their funding, enhances the intractability of this problem. Lack of transparency in political party funding heightens the risk of corporate nexus with political parties and severe ramifications for governance issues. Another connected point is the spectacle of the legislators getting richer from election to election. The affidavit filed by the candidates, reveal this get-rich syndrome. We are fortunate to have the requirement mandated by the Supreme Court and analysed by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) in its public reports. But the information in the affidavits remains just that without any further action, as it comes within the domain of government agencies for whom this may not be a priority. The contagious disease of freebie culture which started in Tamil Nadu has spread to other states. We reached the nadir with the direct bribing of voters, where Tamil Nadu again took the (dis) credit, resulting in a cancellation of three by-elections in the state in 2016.
While it is a desirable goal to neutralise money power in elections, the results of the administrative steps taken by the ECI in mandating reporting formats and its scrutiny through finance observers, have not been commensurate with the efforts. This practice will remain so as long as there is no ceiling on political party expenditure on behalf of a candidate and the economy continues to be driven by cash.
Instances such as strenuous opposition to the RTI by political parties reveal that parties would oppose any step that can bring in transparency. The rampant rent-seeking by those in power is another reason for high spending in elections. Mark it, the returns are high and risk is low. This dichotomy is sufficient incentive for the wayward politician. The criminal justice system with its ills like poor investigation, slow decision-making, and practically unlimited opportunity to delay is another stumbling block. While many steps have been taken to bring transparency in government functioning by use of e-transactions, there is still a long way to go to reduce areas for discretionary action that breeds corruption.
There is no gainsaying that the prospects for meaningful electoral reforms for curbing money power in elections look bleak. The recent electoral bonds scheme seems right but is not good enough and in the opinion of some critics, it may even prove a remedy worse than the disease.

CRIMINALISATION OF POLITICS

While earlier criminals were employed by politicians to garner votes by show of force, threat or intimidation, overtime, the offenders themselves developed political ambition and entered the fray. Over the years, the number of legislators with criminal cases has climbed and now hovers around the 30 per cent mark in some states. Even Parliament is tainted with 15 per cent of the MPs having serious criminal charges against them. With political parties looking to winnability as the most critical criterion in the selection of candidates, the scope for voluntary action on their part to select candidates free of criminal background is poor. The only silver lining, in this otherwise dark scenario, is provided by the Supreme Court‘s verdict that a sitting legislator cannot claim protection from disqualification merely on filing an appeal. The recent directive of the apex court (2017) to the government to set up fast-track courts to deal with cases against sitting MPs and MLAs expeditiously provides a glimmer of hope.

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

While the wish list of desirable electoral reforms can be long, little purpose will be served by spreading the net wide to include every little thing that catches one’s fancy. But the call for simultaneous elections to Parliament and Legislative Assemblies seems in order. There is much to commend the idea, and it can get traction only if there is consensus across the political spectrum on a fixed term for legislative bodies, substantially diluting the Centre’s power under Art. 356. Contrary to the general view, this move will only strengthen federalism. The big ‘if’ is whether, given the levels of distrust among major political parties, this idea will ever get off the ground.
Are meaningful electoral reforms feasible? ‘If there is a will there is a way’ may be a worn-out cliché, but it exactly fits the scenario. To the question ‘is there a will?’ the answer is ‘No.’ Remember, in the last two decades, meaningful reform in the electoral arena has come in only because of the Supreme Court. It was the apex court that mandated declaration of assets, liabilities and criminal antecedents by candidates (2003), instantaneous unseating of legislators upon their conviction (2013), and giving the voter a choice not to vote by approving NOTA(2013). The sobering truth is that the commitment of our legislators to electoral reforms is lukewarm. So, the answer to the question whether meaningful electoral changes are feasible can only be that our wait will be longer as we have many politicians with a 5-year view but hardly any leader with a long-term vision.
We take great pride in calling ourselves a thriving democracy. But we would be turning a blind eye towards the grave prognostications of turning into a failed democratic experiment if we don’t bring in immediate electoral measures.

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