The Gist of Yojana: October 2014

The Gist of Yojana: October 2014

Electoral Reforms through the Years

Lections in India over the years have gone from strength to strength largely through a series of electoral reforms. Yet, there are still some areas of concern that need to be addressed.

Election law has undergone numerous amendments to meet the requirements of new challenges and changing situations. The path-breaking changes were the lowering of age for enrolment as elector from 21 to 18 in 1989, open ballot voting at elections to the Rajya Sabha and voting through proxy for voters belonging to armed forces and Para-military forces in 2003. Provisions for enrolment of overseas Indian citizens in the electoral roll was made in the most recent amendment in 2011. Empowering he Commission to use electronic voting machines, conferring disciplinary jurisdiction on the Commission over the officers including police appointed for conduct of elections have strengthened the EC. Printed electoral rolls have now been substituted by computerized photo electoral rolls. The elector’s photo identity card (EPIC) is by now a cherished possession of all citizens.

Election Commissions Innovative Steps

Many reforms have come from the Election Commission itself. The Model code of conduct, initiated by political parties, was codified by the Commission, and put to strict implementation from the 1990s. The election law did not make any provisions for registration and recognition of political parties and allotment of symbols to them. But, the Commission took the initiative before the first general elections in 1951-52 itself to recognise political parties and to allot symbols. Later, the Commission issued the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968, as the consolidated set of instructions. In the late Seventies, the Election Commission started to explore the possibilities of polling through voting machines and all elections to Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies are now being conducted using voting machines from 2000 onwards.)

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Commission computerised the electoral rolls of all constituencies. For further improving fidelity of electoral rolls, the Commission started the institution of Booth Level Officer (BLO) for each polling station in the country.

For closer participation by the political parties in this exercise, every recognized party can appoint a BLA (Booth Level Agent) as a check on BLOs neutrality.

Emerging Concerns

There are several areas where the people at large, civil society organisations, NGOs, social activists and political parties, are still feeling concerned.

Broadly, there are three sets of reforms proposed: (a) ones which will reinforce the independence of the Election Commission, (b) those which will help to cleanse politics, and (c) those which will make working of the political parties more transparent.

(a) Reinforcing independence of Election Commission of India

Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners are appointed by the President, as per the advice of the Cabinet.

The fact that the government appoints the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners could in itself be a reason to suspect the neutrality of the incumbent. The appointment to this very important office should be based on wider consultation with an electoral college. However, it should apply only at the entry level when a new Election Commissioner is selected. The elevation to the position of CEC must strictly be by seniority, as in case of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

(b) Cleansing Politics: Criminalization of Politics

Concerned about criminalization of politics, the Election Commission sent a proposal to the government in 1998 for debarring a person facing charges for serious offences from contesting election. Many political parties opposed this on the ground that false criminal cases may be filed by their opponent. The ruling parties may use this ploy to deny them electoral victory through this devious way. This concern is legitimate. However, EC had offered three safeguards: (1) Not all criminal cases will lead to the bar. Only heinous offences like, murder, dacoity, rape, kidnapping or moral turpitude, (2) the case should have been registered at least six months before the elections, and (3) the court should have framed the charges. Keeping the person away from contesting would be a reasonable restriction in larger public interest. The opponents of the proposal argued that jurisprudence followed in the country is that a person is deemed to be innocent until proved guilty.

(c) Enhancing Transparency of Political Parties

Issue of Registration and De-Registration of Political Parties

Political parties are registered with the Election Commission under statutory provisions in the Representation of the People Act, 1951. One of the statutory requirements for a valid application for registration as a political party under Section 29A is that the constitution of the Party should contain an undertaking of allegiance to the Constitution of India and the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy, and to uphold the unity, sovereignty and integrity of India.

Inner Party Democracy

One of the pre-condition for registration as political party is a commitment to democratic process in its decision-making, and democratic elections to various officers and committees of the Party at prescribed periodic intervals.

Right to Reject

There have been proposals of late from social activists, seeking the right to the electors to reject all the candidates when they find none of them worthy through the provision of NOTA (none of the above). In 2013, SC granted this provision but not to create the right to reject.

‘None of the Above’ (NOTA)

The way the right to reject is to be operationalised is through providing a button on the EVM with ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option.

It is important to note that NOTA is not an endorsement of the right to reject. Even if 99 voters opt for NOTA, and only one voter for a candidate, for EC the candidate is the winner. The 99 voters are just blank, or ‘invalid’ votes! The proposal of the Election Commission for NOTA option was to ensure secrecy of neutral or non voting.

Compulsory Voting

Another electoral reform often mooted is compulsory voting in response to chronic voter apathy, especially in urban areas. My consistent view has been that compulsion and democracy do not go together. The Commission is, therefore, of the considered view that enhanced voters’ participation can be achieved through voter education, as amply demonstrated in the elections held in 22 states since 2010, besides the general election of20 14, crossing even 80 per cent in some cases. These steps led to the highest ever turnout in sixty year electoral history. My consistent view that motivation and facilitation rather than compulsion should be the way to address the issue, has been clearly vindicated.

Relevance of FPTP System

Another emerging concern flowing from a low turnout is the candidates getting declared elected with just 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the total votes in their favour. This leads to the questioning the relevance of the prevalent FPTP system.

The First-Past-the Post (FPTP) systems. In India, voters vote for one candidate from among those contesting election in their constituency. The candidate polling the highest number of votes among contesting candidates is declared elected. Percentage of votes of the winning candidate is irrelevant. Winner mayor may not get absolute majority of votes.

The following are the advantages of FPTP system:

  • It is easy to understand for electors.
  • Counting is simple.
  • Winner is known immediately.
  • Voters can elect representative of their choice.
  • There is an identified representative for each constituency, accountable to his electorate.
  • The system has given, by and large, stable governments at the Centre and in the states.

Misuse of Religion for Electoral Gain

A Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1994 [R.P. (second amendment) Bill, 1994], whereby an amendment was proposed providing for provision to question before a High Court, acts of misuse of religion by political parties. The Bill lapsed on the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1996. The Commission has proposed that the provision in that Bill should be considered again as religious fanaticism is a serious threat to fair elections and needs to be handled with tough hands. Hate speech arousing communal tensions also need to be dealt with stringently.

Paid News

The scourge of paid news is a recent phenomenon. The Commission has proposed amendment in the Representation of People Act, 1951, to provide that publishing and abetting the publishing of ‘paid news’ for furthering the prospect of election of any candidate or for prejudicially affecting his prospect be made an electoral offence under chapter-III of Part-VII of Representation of People Act, 1951 with punishment of a minimum of two years imprisonment.

During the last four decades, there have been as many as seven national level committees and commissions who have given a number of suggestions on electoral reforms to cleanse the political system, not to speak of the Election Commission’s own recommendations and repeated reminders. All the aforesaid reforms ‘have been pending with the government for ten to twenty years. Meanwhile, people’s faith in the political system has been going down. If the declining faith of the people in democracy is to be addressed seriously, the government must act urgently before situation gets out of control. Writing on the wall is clear, We only need to resume our blinkers.

Hyper Plurality of Candidates and Indian Electoral Reforms

This essay attempts to highlight an aspect of the Indian electoral process that has, so far, been comparatively less discussed. We observe that compared to the Lok Sabha election in 2009, number of candidates in 2014 election has. increased marginally (from 8069 in 2009 to 8251 in 2014). Electoral history in India, however, suggests that unless the Representation of the People Act is changed, number of candidates will have an increasing trend in future. It is also predicted that if unchecked, many constituencies in future elections will have more than 16 candidates, causing difficulties in electoral management. More than 16 candidates not only mean more regulatory efforts on the part of the electoral authorities. Operationally, electoral authorities would also require more than one EVM machines in every booth of those constituencies.

Electoral statistics in India supports our claim. Since 1980s, the total number of candidates in many Lok Sabha constituencies crossed 50 and in a few cases, even 100. The number of candidates peaked in 1996. During Parliamentary elections in 1996, Nalgonda constituency in Andhra Pradesh and Belgaum constituency in Karnataka had 480 and 456 candidates respectively. During the same year in the assembly election in Tamil Nadu, Modakurichi assembly constituency had 1033 candidates. In each of these cases, the ECI was forced to make available ballot booklets rather than ballot papers. Although, subsequent policy interventions were effective in the short run, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, more than 70 per cent of the constituencies had more than 10 candidates. An overwhelming majority of these candidates were either independents or belonged to small parties with only a local existence.

There is a debate among political scientists on whether electoral regulations that block entries of candidates serve the purpose. Arguments in favor of restriction are generally based on manageability of elections. They highlight the high transaction cost associated with unrestricted entry and argue that if unchecked, it could undermine the sanctity of the electoral process itself”. Many political scientists, however, are not comfortable with this view. They argue that the impact of fringe candidates should not be judged by their electoral success alone. The issues that they raise and fight for often change the nature of the electoral debate and force the incumbents to change their behavior.

Given the hyper-plurality of such “non-serious” candidates, it is natural to examine the motive behind their participation. Although electoral participation could be a form of protest against incumbent politicians, in most cases, the root of that motive may lie in the manipulative and authoritarian nature of Indian political parties. The manipulative nature manifests in fielding of clone candidates (“dummies”) to divide the votes of major rivals.
Whether free rider or a clone, legally one cannot prevent these candidates from participating in elections. The best policy in this case, arguably, is information dissemination. Ideally, electoral authorities should disseminate in every booth the information that there are candidates with same or similar name. As this unsavory practice is aimed primarily at literate voters, written notices or banners in booths are likely to be adequate.

The problem of large number of candidates and the consequent malpractices bothered Indian electoral authorities for a long time in India. The ECI had time and again articulated the possibility that major political parties had surreptitiously floated fringe candidates for their own gain. The diagnosis of the problem by the Law Commission of India (LCI), and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) was similar. Recently, in cases where it found evidence, the ECI also started to take action against “dummy” candidate.

In practice, democracies worldwide mainly rely on two types of indirect restrictions on candidate entry at the stage of filing nomination, e.g., (i) submission of an electoral deposit (“deposit” in short) which is not refunded if the candidate fails to obtain the minimum votes required, (ii) provision of documentary evidence of support of a minimum number of electors in the constituency (“signature requirement” in short).

Like many other democracies, India also has put in place these restrictions. The electoral deposit for general candidates in Lok Sabha election was Rs.5001- in 1951. The deposit was increased to Rs. 10,000/- after the huge influx of candidates in the 1996 parliamentary election. On recommendations from expert groups, it was further increased to Rs.25,000/- in 2009.

It may be noted that inflation shrinks the real value of electoral deposit and growth in income increases its afford ability over time. Thus, the reason behind the sharp rise in the number of candidates during the late 1980s and early 1990s was not just political uncertainty, but also that the financial cost of participation of potential candidates was low during that period.

Unfortunately, the policy tool of signature requirement has not been used in India on a scale like deposit. The current requirement of only ten signatures for fringe candidates can be easily met by a candidate from his or her own family and close circle of friends. Interestingly, signature requirement, when considered as a proportion of total number of electors in a typical Lok Sabha constituency, is low in India compared to the international benchmark. A further increase of the minimum signature requirement, say to the level in Australia where all non-incumbents need at least fifty signatures, would not increase the cost of conducting elections substantially.
India has so far not experimented much with signature requirement. Signature requirement, in contrast to electoral deposit, is more in line with the spirit of democracy as it does not discriminate the poor. Obviously, strengthening this requirement would need a change in the Representation of the People Act.

The crucial question is: whether the change would take place at all. Interestingly, even Indian political parties sometimes realize that their cynical maneuvers are not only hurting their rivals, but also themselves. In the past, they came together to enact tough anti-defection laws precisely because it was in their own interest to do so. One can only hope that they will behave sensibly one more time.

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