“Electoral democracy must be inclusive. All citizens eligible to vote should be included in the electoral rolls and participate. It is a matter of serious concern for the Election Commission of India (ECI) that many eligible voters have not registered and very large number of registered voters do not participate,” said Dr Nasim Zaidi, Chief Election Commissioner of India (CEC).
Citizens who turn 18, should register as first time voters. At present the rule stipulates that those who become 18 on 01 January of the year only could register. This means others becoming 18 from 02 January has to wait for a year and cannot register and participate in elections being held in that year. The CEC suggested to Law Ministry allowing such registrations four times a year one every quarter. The Law Ministry is considering such registration twice a year.
Poor participation by NRIs, government employees…
The CEC pointed to efforts to get the non-resident Indians (NRIs) participate in the electoral process: “but so far this is pretty low; of a crore of NRIs only 28,000 have registered. They do not have the motivation to register because they have to travel to their home constituency to cast their votes. We have recently launched an online survey of reasons for low level of registration. We have proposed legal amendment to have a simplified procedure for electronic transmission of postal ballots one way to NRIs. Electronic transmission can help in a big way. We are working on this,” said Dr Zaidi.
The CEC also expressed concern at unsatisfactory registration of Service Voters (Defence, Paramilitary Personnel and employees in foreign missions) and also at very few postal ballots received in time.: “thus a large segment of Service Voters remains outside electoral process. We proposed changes in relevant rules for electronic transmission of postal ballots,” he said.
I met the CEC at the Nirvachan Sadan headquarters on 15 November, less than a week of announcement of demonetisation. Even as my major interest was on getting his views on the impact of demonetisation, I felt his stress on improving electoral democracy by the fullest participation of eligible voters sounded important. The continuous measures taken by the EC in recent years in ending the wide range of electoral malpractices and providing information on the imperative to vote were effective. Dr Zaidi pointed to Tripura recording as high as 94 per cent voting; West Bengal consistently recording over 84 per cent voter turnout and to a general rise in such turnout across the country and provinces.
Cash for votes, criminalisation of politics…
Two other aspects of great concern, money power and criminalisation of politics, were highlighted by the CEC.
I pointed to Tamil Nadu devising ingenious ways to induce voters with cash and kind. The notorious Tirumangalam formula of cash-for-votes has been refined and has assumed humongous proportions in influencing voting. The capacity of the contestant to spend becomes an important criterion for selection. The success of the ruling party in by-elections in Tamil Nadu has been related to the ability of the party in power to shower cash and kind in much larger quantum than the opposition. Thus results of by-elections have been in favour of the party in power. How would the Election Commission address this malpractice?
Funding political parties should be transparent and accounted…
Dr Zaidi expressed serious concern over such inducements including offer of liquor, sarees, gold and raw cash: “sadly, there are several loopholes in funding of political parties: 85 per cent of funds of political parties are not properly reported. There is stipulation that only collections in excess of Rs 20,000 need to be reported by political parties. But political parties claim that collections have been in small denominations, with over 80 per cent collected this way. We consider this chunk of funds as opaque or anonymous and need to be accounted for and disclosed to ECI and income tax authorities,” said Dr Zaidi.
The CEC stressed the need for transparency and full disclosure of funding: “anonymous donations should be declared as illegal. Contribution to political party should be made by cheque and fully accounted.”
The EC has been introducing stringent measures to arrest the movement of cash during elections. The EC countermanded elections in the two constituencies of Aravakurichi and Thanjavur and ordered fresh elections.
But the practice has deep roots. State Election Commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni informed that even in the course of the by-elections scheduled for 19 November, Rs 13.75 crore have been confiscated. Yet another bizarre aspect was the two principal political parties, AIADMK and DMK, fielded the same candidates who were earlier found by the EC indulging in the distribution of cash, I pointed out.
Dr Zaidi pointed to the large quantum of cash confiscated by the EC and handed to the income tax department: “but there is a lengthy process to check the source of such cash. The concerned department has to go through due processes laid by law. This takes time.
“In several cases EC has also lodged FIRs with police. Again investigation agencies and courts take time for completing the legal process and pronouncements are awaited for long after seizure.
“In the absence of conviction, EC cannot take any action on the candidates purported to be involved in such malpractices and thus cannot prevent them from contesting again,” said the CEC.
On criminalisation of politics, Dr Zaidi pointed to several lacunae: “in cases where the Court has convicted a legislator for sentence of two years or more, the law maker incurs instant disqualification. However, unless the Parliament or Assembly makes a formal notification and renders the seat vacant, the convicted legislator can continue to hold on to seat and ECI cannot hold a by-election.”
The CEC suggests that if a charge sheet for crime against a contestant entails imprisonment of five years and more, the law should be amended to prevent such a person from contesting the election: “we shouldn’t wait for conviction in such cases,” he said.
The CEC pointed to another malpractice that deserved attention - paid news in media. Action taken by EC has resulted in detecting paid news and the expenses are added to candidate’s account. “We have proposed to Law Ministry to criminalise paid news,” Dr Zaidi said.
Can public funding of elections bring about the desired change? The CEC said unless other radical reforms such as full transparency and accountability of funding of political parties are made, public funding cannot work. Secondly, a large number of non-serious candidates and political parties would also jump into the fray to avail public funding.