Electoral reforms a priority
Political parties must evolve a consensus before next Lok Sabha poll.
It was indeed heartening to hear President Pranab Mukherjee talking about the much-needed electoral reforms on Saturday while addressing a function. The President pointed out the need to correct certain areas regarding holding elections as there are aberrations. Even the Chief Justice of India has stated recently that the political parties should be held accountable for their manifesto promises.
The President's remarks are timely for ensuring cleaner polling, as big bang electoral reforms are long overdue. It is also significant in view of the Election Commission countermanding the prestigious R.K. Nagar by-elections in Tamil Nadu this week caused by the death of Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in December last. The Sasikala faction had been found distributing money brazenly to the voters, which led to the decision.
The need for electoral reforms has been talked about for years. Many committees have been set up to go into the issue. The Goswami Committee (1990), Vohra Committee (1991), Indrajit Gupta Committee (1998), Law Commission (1999), National Commission to review the Constitution (2001). Election Commission of India -proposed reforms (2004), and the second Administrative Reforms Commission reports are all gathering dust. Various committees have suggested methods of dealing with money power and muscle power. The Vohra Committee has noted that "some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs/armed senas and over the years, get themselves elected to local bodies, state Assemblies, and Parliament. Even the model code of conduct stipulated by the Commission has been violated in the absence of backing for EC's powers.
The Election Commission has a long list it has been pressing for years. As former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi says in his article in the Indian Express on March 31, 2017, that "The EC's proposals could broadly be divided into three categories. One, reforms to cleanse the electoral system (debarring criminally-tainted politicians from contesting, checking money power, empowering the EC to deregister defunct and dubious parties); two, reforms to make the EC stronger and more independent (appointment of election commissioners through a collegium, their elevation to CEC on the criterion of seniority, and their protection from removal only through impeachment as available to the CEC and; three, reforms to make the electoral system more efficient (like the introduction of totaliser machines to prevent disclosure of polling patterns in a polling booth)." Above all, the EC has been pressing for more powers to regulate the functioning of political parties.
The black money spent during the polls is alarming. The candidates spend hundred times more than the EC stipulated amount. Many of these committees have suggested state funding of elections. According to Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Commission had seized around 300 crores of unaccounted cash and more than 17,000 kg of drugs, and a large amount of liquor and arms during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Presently an estimated 70 per cent of all political funding came from unknown sources. Even the Law Commission has expressed concern about the dubious donors. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, over Rs. 500 crores had been collected by political parties to contest the elections. The Government has already taken a step in the recent Budget that the political parties cannot take cash of more than Rs.2000 from a particular donor. Modi government's idea of electoral bonds is more to do with eliminating black money and less to do with electoral reforms.
Election Commission has always been wary of the state funding insisting that this should be accompanied by the reforms to curb criminalisation of politics, financial transparency and stricter laws to control corruption.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee have also been talking of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and Assemblies. This would help save the Centre's money on the polls. For this, the Centre, States, as well as the Election Commission, should sit together and find a solution. After all, for two decades after Independence, the elections were held simultaneously and only from the seventies it began to be held at different times. There is also concern about the long phase of elections. The efficacy of electronic voting machine has also come into question.
President Mukherjee had also talked about increasing the number of Lok Sabha seats from the present 543 seats. "To give true expression to the will of the people, it is time we seriously look at the legal provisions on the delimitation of the Parliamentary constituencies with a view to increasing their number," the President noted. The delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies is on the basis of the 1971 census. India has over 800 million voters, and the 543 Lok Sabha Constituencies represent 1.28 billion people.
Women have been demanding 33 per cent reservation in Parliament as well as legislatures. The percentage of women in Parliament is abysmally low. The Rajya Sabha even passed this reservation bill on March 7, 2010, but the bill lapsed in Lok Sabha as there was no political will to get it through. The BJP had given up the pretence of even talking about it in its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha and subsequent Assembly polls.
The Parliament discussed the poll reforms recently, and some members wanted the present system for winners to be replaced by proportional representing representation.
India is the biggest democracy, and it has been functioning well for the past 70 years despite many odds. Therefore, electoral reforms would strengthen the democracy further and there is need to attempt them sooner than later.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)