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Electoral Reforms: Challenges and Suggested Solutions

The biggest test of a democracy is how well democratic institutions are able to represent the will of people. The idea is to make the polity inclusive so that say of people is reflected into the policies that are made for them.  Health of democratic institutions (particularly legislature and executive) mainly depends on this. The whole concept of elections is embedded into the concept of democracy to fulfill this criterion and to instill the element of legitimacy and accountability into our governance structures. 

India is world’s largest democracy. Democracy in India has succeeded for more than sixty years and its continuance seems to assured for many more coming years. This assumes more significance in the light of fact that India has been a diverse developing country. Electoral participation has been very high (more than that of USA) and this has been validated by many polls conducted by various agencies. People still come out in large numbers to participate in elections hoping for change in their lives depicting high trust quotient in our democracy.

Elections in India have been by and large free and fair and parties have alternated in terms of occupying the seat of power. Our record in this regard seems has been praiseworthy when compared to other countries on the same footing.

However, apart from all these encouraging facts, during all these years it has been realized that our democratic system has been subjected to many distortions, drawbacks and malpractices. There is deep concern with regard to growing socio-economic inequality, role of muscle and money power, criminalisation of politics, misuse of governmental machinery and rise of divisive politics. This has led to unfortunate development of a paradox wherein on one hand we are witnessing deepening of democracy for last many years in terms of increased political contestation and on the other hand we are witnessing increasing distance between citizens and political class representing them. This indicates that the structure and laws regulating our electoral process presently are unable to deliver desired outcomes and hence there is an urgent need for electoral reforms in our polity.

The democratic polity of our country is facing challenges at many levels. These challenges can be classified at three levels: at the level of political parties and their candidates; at the level of Election Commission’s working and its structural constraints; and finally at the level of voters. Following part of this paper elaborates upon the challenges at all these levels.

(A) Challenges faced by Political Parties and candidates:

There are many issues at the level of political parties and their members that are plaguing the democratic functioning of country. Prominent among them are discussed below:

(i) Criminalisation of Indian politics

The most oft-quoted statistics on Indian politics in the recent times (and particularly after 1990s) is that about a quarter of its MPs are facing one or the other criminal charges. Growing ‘crimanalisation’ in Indian political space has been a much discussed topic of media which has presented evidences for it time and again. These disturbing news and facts led government to form Vohra Committee to look into these matters and it concluded the following:

 “The nexus between the criminal gangs, police, bureaucracy and politicians has come out clearly in various parts of the country…[T]hese gangs enjoy the patronage of local level politicians, cutting across party lines and the protection of Government functionaries. Some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs…and…get themselves elected to local bodies, State Assemblies and the National parliament. Resultantly, such elements have acquired considerable political clout.” (Government of India, Vohra Committee 1995)

One of the major reasons of allowing and inducting criminals into political parties is the factor of money. According to the calculation of political parties criminal candidates bring with them their own resources and hence they need not be sponsored by political parties in their election. More importantly they also contribute these resources to the party fund which is used further in financing election of financially weaker candidates. Thus ‘muscle power’ is intricately linked with the ‘money power’ in case of many political parties.
 
Solutions Suggested:

Taking notice of this tainted picture of politics, several committees have highlighted two sets of recommendations to curb and combat the menace: enforcement of the disclosure of criminal antecedents of candidates, and eligibility restrictions for candidates with criminal cases pending against them.

Pursuant to the order of the  Supreme Court, the  Election Commission on March 27, 2003, issued an order that a candidates must file an additional affidavit stating (i) information relating to all pending cases in which cognizance has been taken by a Court, (ii) assets and liabilities, and (iii) educational qualifications. Moreover, Section 125A of the R.P. Act, 1951 prescribes penalties for withholding or providing incorrect information on Form 26, which amount to imprisonment of up to six months, or fine, or both. In its report on Proposed Election Reforms, 2004, the Election Commission of India proposed to increase this penalty for minimum of 2 years.

The Law Commission of India 170th Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws, 1999, suggested that an amendment be made to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, to insert a new section 4A after section 4 to make declaration of assets and criminal cases pending against the candidate part of the qualifications necessary for membership to the House of the People.

Recently the EC suggested that people charged with heinous crimes like kidnapping, murder, dacoity, rape which carry imprisonment of more than 5 years should be debarred from contesting elections. To safeguard this provision against politically motivated cases it suggested that these cases should have been filed six months prior to the elections and charges framed by the court so that those charged have time and scope for corrective action.

 (ii) Financing of Political Parties:

National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2001 noted that “electoral compulsions for funds become the foundation of the whole superstructure of corruption”. The role of money power in elections has thereby become a standard concern in recent discourses on electoral reforms in India. The main problem with respect to finance of political parties has been the unaccounted and unauthorised source of donations received by them which cannot be traced legally and therefore audited. Election Commission (EC) from time to time has prescribed the limits on election expenditure. However money provided by the party and other supporters for the candidate is not included in campaign expenses incurred by a candidate, for the purpose of ceiling, making the limit an exercise in futility. Section 77 of RPA (Representation of People Act) 1951 was amended by government to introduce this relaxation in order to annul the direction of Supreme Court which was contrary to this amendment. From the perspective of political parties, they lament that the limits prescribed by EC are not practically decided and hence many of them have to resort to malpractices to circumvent these rules.

The issue of paid news is also very concerning since the recent practice of media houses to charge money for broadcasting or printing favourable news for a political party also accentuates the problem wherein political parties amass wealth from unaccounted sources.
 
A related problem is of growing politician-corporate nexus at alarming rate thereby threatening the nature of policies to be drafted and thus the basic thread of democracy. The laws related to corporate financing are not effective since there is no proper mechanism to audit the finances of political parties. There is also an increasing trend of businessmen contesting elections and entering into legislatures across the country.

Solutions suggested:

The solutions suggested by various commissions and committees can be clubbed into three major suggestions.
(i) It has been suggested that explanation 1 added to section 77 must be removed so that electoral expense of candidate can be rightly determined and misuse of money power can be effectively checked. The electoral expenses of candidate should also include contributions from political parties and from other individuals and associates.

(ii) It is very important that the details of accounts of political parties must be submitted to EC which should have full power to audit them and punish if wrong information is tendered.

(iii) Some commissions (most prominently Indrajeet Gupta Committee) have proposed state funding of political parties. However the details of its implementation are not clearly mentioned.

(iv) It is also suggested that to curb the menace of paid news private channels should be asked to allot equal air time to major political parties for their advertisements so that level playing field can be ensured. Lastly, EC should revise the limit to electoral expenditure at regular intervals so that the limits thus arrived at are practical and in tune with the need of time.

(iii) Inner party democracy:

Political parties act as a bridge between people and government. Political parties not only act as intermediaries but also as facilitators for citizens to increase their political competence and maturity. To fulfill this role, parties’ decision-making structures and processes should provide opportunities for individual citizens to influence the choices that parties offer to voters. Democratic reform of internal party structures is necessary for right selection of representatives and leaders who would in turn contribute to effective policy making and it is also essential for enhancing political competency of the citizens.

In India decision-making is not democratic in political parties and the process of candidate selection is done by a bunch of influential people who are at the helm of operations. Information flow is unidirectional (from top to bottom) and there is no significant discussion among the high party officials and the members. Candidate selection mostly is marked with casteism, factionalism and many a times with corruption. Both the major national parties (Congress and BJP) use highly restricted methods of candidate and leadership selection. Candidate selection is carried out with input from local leaders, but the final choice is almost always made by smaller, national executive bodies. Ordinary members elect only the lowest level of committee members and have little voice in the national affairs of the party. These restrictive systems allow the party to retain significant control over its ideology and message. But they also prevent new ideas and new people from entering the party and climbing the ranks.

Linked with this is the issue of poor state of the political workers working for these political parties. Their committed efforts for the party are not recognized in time and they therefore resort to means that may prove detrimental to the party structure and to the democratic practice of the country as a whole. 

Solutions suggested:

According to section 29A in RPA 1951 political parties need to apply for registration with EC. While the EC can ask for information, by and large it registers parties as they apply for registration. Subsequently, there is no guideline or requirement for their functioning. The solutions suggested by various commissions are as follows:

(i) The 170th Report of the Law Commission on Electoral Reforms is by far the most comprehensive document on the functioning of the political system in India. One whole chapter, Chapter I of Part III, deals with the ‘Necessity for providing law relating to internal democracy within political parties.’ Para 3.1.1 of the Law Commission report says, “...for bringing a sense of discipline and order into the working of our political system and in the conduct of elections, it is necessary to provide by law for the formation, functioning, income and expenditure and the internal working of the recognised political parties both at the national and State level”.
(ii) The Law Commission Report actually gives the draft of a new chapter titled ‘Organisation of Political Parties and matters incidental thereto’, to be added to the Representation of People Act, which specifies regular holding of elections, transparency of financial affairs, etc. Non-observance of these provisions will attract de-recognition.

(B) Challenges faced by Election Commission

EC for years have done praiseworthy task of conducting elections in India with a huge electorate (more than 750 million voters) and thus have acted as custodian of Indian democracy for years. EC’s powers have been gradually strengthened in these years by the decisions taken by judiciary and laws made by the executive. However they still face many challenges at their level which are discussed below:

(i) The EC is in serious and urgent need of more coercive powers. For example in the case of model code of conduct it is said that EC has only persuasive powers and the maximum action it can take against its violation is ‘censure’(i.e. to advice or warn). This power is so limited that at times it becomes ineffective in restraining political parties or its candidates from violating model code of conduct. Another case in point is the power to countermand polls. EC has decided in past that it would not countermand polls in case of death of an independent candidate and would only do it if the candidate belonged to a political party. However it didn’t exercise its power when it came to countermanding an election until recently when for the first time it cancelled Rajya Sabha election in Jharkhand on the account of abuse of money power. This decision of EC was challenged by many parties and even in the courts. EC is also constrained in terms of having full power to control law and order situation in an area where election is to be held. EC should have primary say in deciding as to how and in what manner the security machinery has to be deployed to ensure free and fair election.

(ii) EC’s power to audit the financial accounts of political parties is severely restrained. Most parties either do not submit the details of their financial accounts for audit or their information is incomplete and misguiding at times. There is no legal provision with EC to impose strict penalties on political parties in such cases. This power is also limited when it comes to disclosure of information about the candidates.  

(iii) Rise of political considerations in the appointment of election commissioners may hamper the independence of EC. EC is expected to be politically non-affiliative in its functioning. However if appointments to EC gets political in nature there is a danger that EC may succumb to political pressures in its decision making.

(iv) There is a risk that EC being a part of bureaucracy may become socially rigid or politically status-quoist. EC should be open to consider structural transformations in the wake of changing nature of our democratic polity. At times decision making by EC reflected ‘managerial-bureaucratic’ tendency and it could not take into its account the changing political situation in the country. For example, according to some the decisions related to reducing the period of electoral campaign and that of imposing impractical limits on electoral expenditure have proven to be counterproductive.

(v) There is no proper clarity in laws enacted to prevent criminals from contesting elections. Due to this EC finds its hands tied when it comes to counter increasing criminalization in Indian politics.

Solutions suggested:

(i) In the appointment of election commissioners there is a need to form broader collegium (consisting of leader of opposition, Chief Justice etc) to counter the influence of political executive and bring transparency. Also when it comes to removal all election commissioners should enjoy the same immunity as prov  ided to the CEC.

(ii) To prevent political interference the EC’s budget should be charged to Consolidated Fund of India and not voted in parliament. EC should have the same status as that of Supreme Court, CVC, CAG and UPSC in this relation.

(iii) EC should have independent secretariat on the lines of Parliament to get its career employees.

(iv) More coercive powers should be vested in EC when it comes to audit financial account of political parties or to stop criminals from contesting elections. New judicial institutions (for ex. special courts) should be established for quick disposal of election petitions.

(v)  EC should be entrusted with the task of organizing internal elections in the political parties to decide their office bearers to ensure inner party democracy in the parties.

(C) Challenges faced by the Voters

At the level of voters they are facing the following challenges:

(i) Increasing depolitisation:  People are increasingly getting disenchanted with the political system of our country and electoral verdicts hold no longer any importance for them. This is because they have been continually witnessing the vicious cycle of money power, polling irregularities, and corruption. They have negatively adapted to the system in terms of voting for short term gains and on the lines of parochial tendencies. As a result of this people readily accept resources offered by the parties to get their votes. This has turned elections into a gala event and politics has been transformed into business practice seriously hampering the governance in India. This has accentuated the problem of skyrocketing electoral expenditure further strengthening political corruption.

(ii) Information about contestants: Although due to recent steps taken by EC information about candidates (regarding their financial assets and criminal record) are made public, they are still not readily accessible to people at grassroot level.

(iii) Confusion regarding the electoral rolls: People face many difficulties in understanding the concept of different electoral rolls for different levels of election. They also face difficulties in terms of getting their names registered into these electoral rolls.

Solutions Suggested:

(i) Awareness programs: We need to initiate awareness programs among the people on a larger scale to make them aware about their rights and powers. Our main agenda should be to move from representative democracy to participative democracy so that people can have a larger say in the policies framed for them. They should be made aware about the benefits that can be derived from electoral participation. Apart from EC’s awareness programs all civil society organisations working in this domain should be engaged constructively to spread awareness among the citizens. A major component of awareness is dissemination of information about the candidates. This should also be done in a manner so that there is uniform accessibility of information.

 (ii) There is a need to prepare combined electoral rolls for every tier of election. It is suggested by some that Post Offices can be made nodal agency for people to get their names registered in the electoral rolls.

 (iii) Other reforms at this level are interconnected with the reforms suggested for the other two levels.

Conclusion:

All the major challenges to electoral reforms in India and their suggested solutions have been discussed above briefly. There is no doubt that we need these reforms at the earliest to sanitise our political situation.

At the level of political parties we must realize that if we proceed with antiparty agenda it could prove wrong and entirely counterproductive. Party building exercise is very important in a democracy as it is a link between people and state. We must therefore channelize all our efforts and try to get all reforms implemented that are suggested for the restructuring of the political parties.    

At the level of our structures managing electoral process we need to realize that electoral reform is not a 45 days process, rather it is a dynamic and continuous process and we must take our strides in that direction incessantly. It is required that we adapt to the changing times and act accordingly. We are witnessing changing political realities in terms of increasing demand for political space due to the participation of newer sections of society who were until now excluded from this domain. Hence political contestation in our democratic polity has increased. In these changing times we cannot rely solely on legal measures to counter the various malpractices that have plagued our democracy. Infact we also need to think on the lines of taking political approach to tackle these issues.

At the level of citizens it is very evident that depoliticisation is creeping into our society and it can only be checked with proper politicisation. It is often said that answer to ‘bad politics’ cannot be ‘no politics’ but it has to be countered with ‘good politics’.

Electoral reforms are so essential and prerequisite for all other reforms that we cannot afford to get pessimistic regarding them. In fact we should proceed further with renewed vigour to get electoral reforms implemented by building consensus among all stakeholders be it political parties, political elites, legal and formal structures of our country, civil society and most importantly our citizens.