India is a vibrant democracy with people electing their representatives at several levels beginning from local bodies and Panchayats to the Parliament. Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu has termed Indian experience with democracy as a remarkable success story. However, he also pointed out two distortions which need to be addressed urgently and those are use of enormous money power in politics and elections and the increasing attempts to entice the voters with short term benefits at the cost of long term goals of basic amenities, infrastructure, quality education, healthcare, growth and job opportunities, etc. So what all has been done to tackle these two issues and what more needs to be done in future.
Electoral reforms refer to the development and benign change in election processes in India in order to facilitate better democracy, clean politics, ideal members of legislative houses, equality of representation and so on. Articles 324-329 deal with elections and electoral reforms. Electoral reforms are required to uphold the aspiration of our ancestors, to accomplish the ideals of our constitution and to have a true democracy in letter as well as in spirit by conducting fair elections.
Among the MPs elected to the 16th Lok Sabha, out of the 542 winners analyzed, 185(34%) winners have declared criminal cases against themselves. 112 (21%) winners have declared serious criminal cases including cases related to murder, attempt to murder, communal disharmony, kidnapping, crimes against women etc. (Association for Democratic Reforms report)
ADR also underlined that the chances of candidates with criminal charges were almost double as compared to clean candidates. The chances of winning of a candidate with criminal cases in the Lok Sabha 2014 elections are 13 percent while for a candidate with a clean record it is 5%.
The Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms, in 1990, highlighted the crippling effect of money and muscle power in elections.
The N. Vohra Committeewhich submitted its report in October 1993 studied of the problem of criminalization of politics and the nexus among criminals, politicians, and bureaucrats in India. The committee had concluded that agencies, including the CBI, IB, RAW, had unanimously expressed their opinion that the criminal network was virtually running a parallel government.
The Law Commission of India, in its 244th report, said that instead of politicians having suspected links to criminal networks, as was the case earlier, it was persons with extensive criminal backgrounds who began entering politics. The Law Commission said that in the 10 years since 2004, 18% of the candidates contesting either national or State elections had criminal cases against them.
18th Report presented by a parliamentary committee to the Rajya Sabha in March 2007 expressed feeling that politics should be cleansed of persons with established criminal background”. It said, “criminalization of politics is the bane of society and negation of democracy”.
Edited excerpts from the debate
Question: What are the major problems that Indian electoral system is facing?
Electioneering is an expensive affair in every democratic polity which plays a more vital role in India.
Money power plays destructive role in our electoral system affecting seriously the working of periodic elections. It leads to all round corruption and contributes mainly to the generation of black money economy.
A prospective candidate in each constituency has to spend millions of money towards transport, publicity and other essential items of election campaign. In recent years the election expenses have increased beyond any limits due to the desire on the part of every political party to spend more than their rivals in the fray.
The elections were not as costly in 1952 as they have become today. Political leaders and workers considered it unethical to work with a desire for any reward. But scenario now has changed. The elections in Indian polity are becoming increasingly expensive and the gap between the expenses incurred and legally permitted is increasing over the years.
Violence, pre-election intimidation, post-election victimisation, most of the riggings of any type, booth capturing both silent and violent are mainly the products of muscle power.
These are prevalent in many parts of the country like Bihar, Western Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra etc. and this cancerous disease is slowly spreading to south like in Andhra Pradesh.
Criminalisation of politics and politicalisation of criminals, freely indulged in now, are like two sides of the same coin and are mainly responsible for the manifestation of muscle power at elections. By using of violence, the criminals are able to achieve success at elections for their benefactors
Misuse of Government Machinery:
It is generally complained that the government in power at the time of election misuse official machinery to further the election prospects of its party candidates.
The misuse of official machinery takes different forms, such as issue of advertisements at the cost of government and public exchequer highlighting their achievements, disbursements out of the discretionary funds at the disposal of the ministers, use of government vehicles for canvassing etc.
The misuse of official machinery in the ways mentioned above gives an unfair advantage to the ruling party at the time of elections. This leads to misuse of public funds for furthering the prospects of candidates of a particular party.
Criminalisation of Politics
The reason of the criminals behind entrance to politics is to gain influence and ensure that cases against them are dropped or not proceeded with. They are able to make it big in the political arena because of their financial clout. Political parties tap criminals for fund and in return provide them with political patronage and protection.
Rough estimates suggest that in any state election 20 per cent of candidates are drawn from criminal backgrounds
Non-Serious Candidates in Political Parties
In recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of candidates in elections. The number of candidates has swelled due to the participation of Independents. They contest elections light heartedly and lose their deposits.
Non-serious candidates are largely floated by serious candidates either to cut sizeable portion of votes of rival candidates or to split the votes on caste lines or to have additional physical force at polling station and counting centers.
The multiplicity of candidates causes inconvenience to election authorities in the management of elections. The voters are also handicapped in identifying the candidates of their own choice. This affects the sanctity of elections. This onslaught of non-seriousness has to be halted.
Incentives to entice Voters (freebies)
Freebies have actually compounded the problem of money power in politics.
Free liquor or some goods or services to voters are acts of enticing voters.
Paid and Fake News
Paid news is published as a news item in the form of advertisement. Fake news isnews, stories or hoaxes created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers. Both are the threats to the free and fair electoral system.
Question: What are the various steps government has taken in this regard?
Following electoral reforms have been undertaken by authorities:
Lowering of Voting Age: The 61st Amendment Act to the Constitution reduced the minimum age for voting from 21 to 18 years.
Deputation to Election Commission: All personnel working in preparing, revising and correcting the electoral rolls for elections shall be considered to be on deputation to the EC for the period of such employment, and they shall be superintended by the EC.
Increase in the number of proposers and the security deposit: The number of electors required to sign as proposers in the nomination papers for elections to the Rajya Sabha and the State Legislative Councils has been raised to 10% of the electors of the constituency or ten such electors, whichever is less chiefly to prevent frivolous candidates. The security deposit has also been hiked to prevent non-serious candidates.
Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs): First introduced in 1998 during the state elections of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, EVMs are used widely now as they are fool-proof, efficient and a better option in terms of the environment.
Disqualification on conviction for violating the National Honours Act, 1971: This shall lead to disqualification of the person for 6 years from contesting to the Parliament and the state legislatures.
Restriction on contesting from more than 2 constituencies: A candidate cannot contest from more than 2 constituencies.
Death of a contesting candidate: Previously, the election was countermanded on the death of a contesting candidate. In the future, no election will be countermanded on the death of a contesting candidate. If the deceased candidate, however, was set up by a recognized national or state party, then the party concerned will be given an option to nominate another candidate within 7 days of the issue of a notice to that effect to the party concerned by the Election Commission.
It is prohibited by law to go to or near a polling booth bearing arms. This is punishable by imprisonment for up to 2 years.
On poll days, employees of organisations get a paid holiday and violation of this is punishable by a fine.
Prohibition on sale of liquor:No liquor or other intoxicants shall be sold or given or distributed at any shop, eating place, or any other place, whether private or public, within a polling area during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for the conclusion of poll.
Time limit for bye-elections:Bye-elections to any House of Parliament or a State Legislature will now be held within six months of the occurrence of the vacancy in that House.
The period of campaigning has been reduced.
Ceiling on election expenditure: At present, there is no limit on the amount a political party can spend in an election or on a candidate. But, the Commission has put a cap on individual candidates’ spending. For the Lok Sabha elections, it is Rs. 50 – 70 lakh (depending on the state they are contesting the Lok Sabha seat from), and Rs. 20 – 28 lakh for an assembly election.
Restriction on exit polls:The EC issued a statement before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections saying that exit poll results could be broadcast only after the final phase of the elections were over. This was done to avoid prospective voters being misguided or prejudiced in any manner.
Voting through postal ballot: In 2013, the EC decided to expand the ambit of postal ballot voting in the country. Previously, only Indian staff in missions abroad and defence personnel in a limited way, could vote via postal ballots. Now, there are 6 categories of voters who can use the postal ballot: service voters; special voters; wives of service voters and special voters; voters subjected to preventive detention; voters on election duty and Notified voters.
Awareness Creation:The government decided to observe January 25th as ‘National Voters Day’ to mark the EC’s founding day.
Political parties need to report any contribution in excess of Rs 20000 to the EC for claiming income tax benefit.
Declaring of criminal antecedents, assets, etc. by the candidates is required and declaring false information in the affidavit is now an electoral offence punishable with imprisonment up to 6 months or fine or both.
Question: What needs to be done to make Indian electoral system fair and transparent?
Independent permanent electoral administration:
At Present, the EC does not have independent staff of its own. Whenever elections take place, the Election Commission has to depend upon staff of Central and State Governments.
The dual responsibility of the administrative staff, to the government for ordinary administration and to the EC for electoral administration is not conducive to the impartiality an efficiency of the Commission. Along with it comes the problem of disciplinary control over the staff deputed to do election work which generally generates confrontation between the Government and the EC.
Now, when the elections have ceased to be a mere periodical affair, it is desirable that the EC should have a permanent electoral administration with adequate disciplinary control over the staff.
The CEC should not be at the mercy to Executive and Parliament for its requirements. He should have separate and independent election department to enhance its objectivity and impartiality.
Self-Regulation by Political Parties:
Political corruption should be stopped by providing funds to genuine candidates through political parties whose account should be auditable. Candidate involving in corruption should be disqualified.
For having a true democracy the registration and recognition of the political parties should be fair and without any kind of influence.
However, political parties don’t show commitment to bring in necessary behavior that is required to make the electoral system more fair and transparent.
Neutrality by Mass Media
Mass Media should play a non-partisan role in election and as a safeguard of democracy.
Paid and fake news must be avoided and media must adopt self-regulation to prevent dissemination of misinformation.
Periodic elections are the foundation of a democratic system. For fair electoral system every aspiring candidate must have fettered freedom to offer himself as a candidate for election and to conduct his election campaign in his own way so long as he keeps him within the law.
Exit polls and opinion polls have impact on election results mainly when elections are held in phases.
Every voter must be perfectly free to vote as he/she likes without any fear of consequences and without being unduly influenced by anyone by improper means and inducement or pressure of any kind. They must reject candidates that resort to election mal-practices.
The secrecy of voters‟ preference to any candidate should be maintained. The election machinery must function honesty and impartially at every stage.
Parliament must pass a law dealing with this serious problem of de-listing of valid electorates from electoral rolls because illiterate electorate residing in far villages cannot watch over publication of electorate lists.
Preparation of electoral rolls by EC is to be supervised at village level and certificates from officials who prepare electoral rolls to the effect that the electoral rolls have been thoroughly revised. They do not include that persons and legally disenfranchised citizens and intentionally no name should be left in them. Accountability to be fixed for intentional exclusion of name of voters from electoral rolls.
Cap the party expenditure
Representation of Peoples Act, 1955 provides limits on the expenditure of an individual candidate while it does not provide the same for the expenditure of a political party.
A candidate can’t spend more than 70 lakhs in Lok Sabha elections or 20 lakhs in State Assembly elections. This cap is also not rational keeping in view the inflation in the present days.
Audit of Party Expenditure
Audit of the party expenditure should also be conducted regularly.
Political parties must show spine by establishing an independent body for conducting the adit of the election expenditure of the parties.
Voters generally don’t vote for the candidate they vote for the party
Parties are also not to be perceived as villains but they are the agents to respond to the incentives given.
People can’t become wise overnight and bring in transformation. It is a gradual evolution.
We have centralized the power and there is no link between vote and consequences in a tangible manner. We have not empowered local governments and it is for the interest of the democracy to empower local governments and localize power.