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MN Buch
Electoral reforms hold the key
Posted: Monday, 20 Feb 2012 at 1:59 AM
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Under Article 326 of the Constitution, elections to the parliament and state assemblies are conducted on the basis of adult suffrage. Any citizen of India who is not less than 18 years of age or is not otherwise disqualified under the Constitution or under any law on grounds of non-residence, unsoundness of mind, criminal or corrupt or illegal practice is entitled to be registered as a voter and cast his vote. There are no educational or other qualifications prescribed for this purpose.

The electorate then consists of every Indian of any gender who is 18 years old and is not otherwise disbarred by law. This makes the Indian electorate among the world’s largest. Part XV of the Constitution creates a completely independent, non-partisan Election Commission (EC) whose powers of superintendence, direction and control of elections are vested under Article 324 (6). The entire state machinery connected with polls is made available to the EC. So for all practical purposes, a major part of the executive machinery functions under the EC once elections are announced.The Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, enacted under Article 327, lays down in detail the legal provisions regarding the conduct of elections. Under Article 329 an election to Parliament or the legislature cannot be called into question by a court of law and can only be challenged by an election petition presented to the authority designated to hear such petitions as per the provisions of law.

From time to time the EC expands its role.  The RPA says how elections are to be conducted along with the powers of the EC.  To check corrupt practices and electoral offences, the EC has a Model Code of Conduct (MCC) which pinpoints the dos and don’ts given in the RPA and then monitors the various political parties and individuals standing for election. The EC specifically places a ban on government taking policy decisions till the completion of the election process; imposes restrictions on announcing sops or benefits to the electorate as an inducement to vote for a particular candidate or party; puts a blanket ban on transfer of officers except as directed by the EC;  prohibits the flaunting of symbols or giving any other sign that unduly influence voters;  reinforces the legal restrictions on expenditure;  places restrictions on use of transport and severely monitors expenditure on elections.  

The EC often prevents certain persons from campaigning in a particular constituency, and ensures that the government machinery isn’t misused to favour a particular party or candidate.  Now since the MCC has not been framed under any specific provision of law, one wonders what would happen if a candidate or a party defies it.  The maximum that the EC can do is  adjourn polls under Section 57 of the RPA or order fresh elections under Article 58, or countermand them under Section 58A of the RPA.  At worst the EC can withdraw the notification of general election issued under Part III of the RPA. This would, of course, be an extreme step and it is doubtful whether the EC would ever resort to it.What we need is codification of the MCC with penalties for violations. Such codification may be done by suitable additions to the RPA, giving the EC enough legal powers to issue necessary directives for proper conduct of elections and arming it with coercive authority to enforce orders.  The details can be worked out when preparing the draft for amendment of the Act.  

The poll process can be divided into two parts.  The first is the process of electing members of parliament and state legislators.  Under Articles 83 and 172 of the Constitution the duration of the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies of each state will be five years from the date appointed for the first meeting of the House. On the expiry of the five-year period the House in question will stand dissolved.  Under Articles 83 and 172 neither the council of states nor the legislative council of a state with a bicameral legislature is subject to dissolution. As many as one-third members of the council of states and the legislative council retire every second year.  In other words, an MP or MLA has a five-year term unless the House is dissolved earlier. But a member of the council of states and the legislative council will normally have a six-year term.  Since the life of the lower house is five years or less if dissolved earlier, it is mandatory to hold elections prior to the expiry of this five-year period. Under the RPA the process of election begins with a notification issued under Part III of the Act, Section 12 governing election to the council of states, section 14 governing election to Parliament, section 15 governing election to the state legislative assembly, and section 16 dealing with election to a legislative council.  

These notifications are issued by the President on the recommendation of the EC for elections to Parliament, and by the governor in states.  Such notification begins the process of election and transfers superintendence, direction and control over the process to the EC.  Part IV of the RPA prescribes the administrative machinery for the conduct of elections and such machinery is firmly under the EC’s control.

Once the notification for general election is issued the EC will proceed under Part V of the Act to conduct the election.  By notification the EC prescribes dates for presenting nominations of candidature, making of deposits for the purpose of nomination, scrutiny of nominations and their acceptance or rejection, withdrawal of candidature, etc. The post nomination filing procedure has been laid down in the RPA. Sections 56 to 63 govern the poll proper, including casting of votes just as sections 64 to 67 refer to counting of votes and declaration of results.  Because this process is totally within the EC’s ambit, its powers are very clear and successive CECs have tried to make the process clean, impartial, electorate-friendly, safe and open to public scrutiny. 

A CEC such as N. Gopalaswamy was able to conduct super clean elections even in militancy and separatist affected Jammu & Kashmir, insurgency hit north-east, lawless Bihar, and even West Bengal where Marxist rule had virtually made the state a pocket borough of the Left Front. By deployment of central police forces or police from other states, by ensuring that sensitive booths had polling officials from outside the district, region or state, by universal use of tamper-proof electronic voting machines, the EC has done us proud in establishing the credibility of our electoral system.  Which is why we need to support the EC in further strengthening the system, but by and large we are on the right track here.

However, there are certain areas where the system needs to improve.  In a parliamentary democracy it is essential that there should be strong political parties with defined ideologies and programmes of their own.  Ideally a two-party system in which both parties agree on fundamentals and disagree on details would be ideal.  The Republican and Democratic parties of the United States and, till fairly recently, the Labour and Conservative parties in the United Kingdom are good examples of the two-party system.  In Germany, there are three major parties with a centrist party, a right of centre party and a left of centre party.  The Greens, who stand for total environmental protection, come somewhere between the centrist and left of centre parties. However, Germany has fairly stable coalitions. This is because the parties joining hands over an issue have a viability of their own and, therefore, their general behavior within government is both rational and reasonable.  

India, on its part, has virtually had a one-party system with a dominant Congress. From 1967 onwards the system started facing major challenges. The Jan Sangh, and its modern avatar, the BJP, began making its presence felt on the national scene. Its partnership with United Front governments in the states from 1967 onward coupled with its major partnership in the Janata Party government between 1977 and 1980 gave it strength.  Its political platform is right of centre, but its ideology is largely influenced by the Hindu centric Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS).  

For a while it appeared that the Left would play a major pan-India role in politics, but unfortunately it never grew out of its moorings in West Bengal and Kerala and it painted itself into an irrelevant corner when it withdrew support from the UPA Government over the nuclear agreement issue.  In the election which brought UPA II to power the Left lost a majority of its seats in Parliament and in the West Bengal and Kerala elections in 2011 it lost its majority in the state legislatures.  However, the disturbing element is that a number of regional parties, whose vision is regional, have been able to make their presence felt in Parliament. Because neither the BJP nor the Congress has enough seats in the House to form a government on its own, there have been highly unstable coalitions with other groups.  This reduces the room for manoeuver of the lead party in the coalition, leaving it at the mercy of regional parties.  

Such a coalition is unable to govern effectively for the fulfillment of a predetermined agenda.  The nadir was reached when the prime minister virtually succumbed to the pressure of coalition partners such as DMK and gave a very long rope indeed to ministers representing a particular party to run their departments according to their own whims, even if it resulted in extreme corruption.  In other words, such coalitions under Indian conditions invariably lead to blackmail of the dominant partner by the various regional partners of the coalition.

Electoral reforms to stop such blackmail have to be initiated.  But they have to be preceded by political reforms which encourage parties to coalesce and form viable national parties or groups.  Such reforms could take the following shape :-

1)It must be ensured that only very serious independent candidates who have demonstrated a genuine desire to participate in the political process should be allowed to contest elections.  Therefore, no independent should be eligible for nomination as a candidate for a state assembly election unless he has first won a local government election, be it a panchayat or a municipality.  No independent should be qualified to stand for election to parliament unless he has passed through the twin process of winning a local government election and a state assembly poll. This would eliminate the nuisance of too many independents plaguing the electoral scene.

2) There should be a blanket ban on any party fielding candidates for election to parliament unless it has won at least five seats each in three state legislatures.  For DMK or AIADMK to offer candidates for election to parliament, they would first have to expand their base into at least two neighbouring states and successfully contest elections in those states.  Now the choice before regional parties would be either to merge with larger national parties, or to expand their base to cover at least three states.  This would, on the one hand, strengthen the national parties and on the other prevent splinter groups from forming a caucus within parliament designed to extract its pound of flesh in exchange for supporting the ruling coalition. Then we can have majority governments of a single party or a strong coalition where there is some commonality of ideology between the coalition partners, freeing them of the need to make compromises to appease smaller parties. Such reforms would substantially cleanse our politics.

3) Then there is the issue of money.  Elections are expensive, even completely honest elections where there is not even a hint of bribery by the candidate.  A parliamentary constituency has 8-10 lakh voters and covers a huge territorial area between 8,000-10,000 km in non-metropolitan areas. Even a legislative assembly constituency, with a lakh voters is large, perhaps larger than a parliamentary constituency in the UK. The candidate needs vehicles to travel around the constituency and needs assistants to canvass for him and provide for his constituency level and sub-regional level offices.  A parliamentary constituency generally covers about eight legislative assembly constituencies. If one vehicle were deployed for each assembly segment that would make a minimum of eight vehicles  which can go cross country.  The candidate himself would need one vehicle, his election agent would need another,  and there would have to be one or two on stand by.  

4) Let us put the number of vehicles at 12 per LS seat.  For an assembly election there would have to be about four vehicles per constituency per candidate.  The vehicles would need a driver each, necessary PDOL (petrol, diesel, oil and lubricants) and money to cover wear and tear The suggestion, therefore, is that for every candidate whose nomination is accepted these number of vehicles must be provided to him at state cost, including the cost of running.  These vehicles should be made available for a period of six weeks from the date of nomination.  

In addition a candidate would need money to cover incidental expenses.  Let us keep this at Rs 10 lakh per MP, and Rs 1.5 lakh per MLA. In addition for the day of the poll each candidate must be given Rs 250/ per polling agent at the rate of two agents per polling booth.  This would cover the incidental expenses of polling agents, and be a part of state funding.  Now the EC must very rigidly monitor the expenditure by the candidate, deployment of vehicles, etc. The monitoring should be continuous, and any violation of norms must invite immediate disqualification of the candidate by the EC, or, under its direction, the returning officer of the constituency.  A candidate who during the course of canvassing violates expenditure norms would then find himself debarred from the poll.  What’s more, any money spent by the state on providing him facilities should be recovered from the candidate, together with penalty. This should discourage open bribery of voters.

5) There are two more areas where we need electoral reforms.  The first relates to an elected person changing his party after election, regardless of whether he does it himself or is removed from the party as a part of internal disciplinary proceedings.  A person who is elected on a party ticket would lose his seat automatically if he changes his loyalty.   The only exception would be that any independent, after election, can announce his political affiliation to a particular party,  but once he does so if he changes his mind at any stage he will lose his seat.  A person who is removed on account of defection or change of party should be debarred from the election for next six years.

6) The voter should be given the right to reject every candidate.  If the total number of persons who reject all candidates register the highest number of votes in a constituency, the election should be countermanded, all the candidates debarred from elections for the next six years, and the parties who put up candidates should be made to equally share the cost of holding fresh polls.  This would be a penalty imposed on them and, perhaps, force them to carefully select their candidates with a view to acceptability within the constituency.  If the candidate is basically acceptable locally he would have to spend much less on his own campaign because people would already know him and this would certainly cleanse the electoral process.

India has a fine Constitution, and the Westminster form of government is, perhaps, the best under the circumstances. Our EC has shown that even within the existing limitations we can conduct fair and impartial elections.  If we could muster courage and bring about the kind of electoral reforms suggested above we could certainly make our democracy more worthwhile, more efficient, more effective and more people-friendly. 


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