Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)
Elections are not only about political parties and leaders, those who contest election and those who get elected to Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha. Elections are also about those who participate in election, those who vote, “the voters”. The voters play an equally important role in elections. Who would know better that the political parties and candidates, how important is each voter for them at the time of elections. Many of us would agree to this but sadly when it come to any serious thinking about elections and especially about reforms in electoral system, these voters are either completely forgotten or given lip attention. This has been the trend in the past so while I welcome the initiative of the Law Commission of India for taking initiative for preparing a consultation paper which could be the basis for bringing about much desired electoral reforms in India, I was surprised to see this aspect of electoral reforms (facilitating voters, voters participation) again missing from the issues on which the Law Commission seeks inputs from stakeholders. In the broad framework and objectives of bringing about such reforms, the consultation papers does clearly mention that this effort should aim at greater, effective and meaningful participation of all sections of society in the democratic process, but sadly this is hardly the issue on which the commission seeks inputs. The consultation paper is largely a legal document, not surprising since it is prepared by the Law Commission and in the name of brining about electoral reforms, there seems to be effort largely at devising rules/laws about how to disqualify the candidates, putting restrictions on media, enhancing punishment, regulating political parties with regard to donations and funds which they receive and how best to resolve election related disputes. It seems the entire effort is guided towards how best one could put restricting, make laws more stringent, prescribe more punishment etc. I am not saying that these are not important, these are important aspects on elections, but such effort of electoral reform should also try to address issues of how to facilitate voters for greater participation in elections. Let us look at the electoral issues on which there seems to be a need for reform.
Beginning with the question of whether there is a need for amending existing provisions in the constitution relating to disqualification, there is lot of focus on what should amount to disqualification of candidates or elected representatives on various grounds. The commission seeks suggestion whether disqualification be triggered upon conviction or upon framing charges by the court or on presentation of report by the Investigating Officer. I think disqualification on framing charges may be too harsh as charges are sometimes framed even on not so serious issues. I think the problem of criminals winning elections and becoming MPs and MLA’s could be taken care of to a great extent after the recent Supreme Court ruling on what may account for disqualification. The Supreme Court of India has already moved few steps ahead and stuck down Section 8 (4) of Representation of People’s Act 1951 which protects elected representatives (MP and MLA) from disqualification if they appeal before the higher court within three months, on the grounds of pendency of appeal. Now after the Supreme Court judgment and with amended rules, the elected representatives (MP, MLA’s) will be disqualified the day they are convicted and sentenced for two or more years. The disqualification will come to an immediate effect the day they are convicted.
No document on electoral reforms seems complete if there is no mention of state funding of elections. The new initiative of the Law Commission of India for preparing consultation paper on electoral reforms also mentions the need for state funding of elections. In principles I would agree that one should give serious thought on state funding of elections, of not fully funding but partial funding. By partial I mean, there should not be any support by way of giving money either to political parties or candidates, but effort should be made for providing logistic support to contesting parties and candidates like providing campaign material, like banner, poster etc. having a common platform from where all candidates whether contesting on party ticket or independent can campaign, address public meeting etc. May be a day or two to be fixed for all candidates to uses such state provided facility (Platform for addressing public rallies, giving speech) for spreading message to their voters. This may help in minimising expenditure on campaign and may also help in creating a level playing field to a great extent for large number of candidates contesting election in that constituency.
There is certainly a need for greater transparency about resources/funding of political parties. As per the existing rules only donation of more than Rs. 20,000 needs to be made by cheque and mandatorily accounted by the Political Parties while submitting information to the Election Commission of India. Donation below Rs. 20,000 can be made in cash and political parties are not rule bound to disclose such small donations. The rule need to be amended in this regard. All donations should be made by proper method (cheque, draft etc.) and political parties should be made accountable for all such donations. The upper limit of permissible expenses on election campaign needs to be upwardly revised regularly keeping into account the realistic expenses on election campaign. It is really unimaginable to believe how any candidate can run his campaign in constituencies with an average of about 26 Lakhs voters in each Lok Sabha constituency within a prescribed legal limit of Rs. 40 Lakhs. One need money for reaching out to voters. It is impossible for the candidate to reach out to such a large number of voters spread across large geographical area.
Along with other concerns what has come up as a new concern is the issue of “Paid News” in Indian media especially with regard to election and election related news. There is a need to pay attention to that, devise some norms about media coverage of election news. I would suggest instead of thinking of in the direction of putting ban and restriction, the effort should be towards greater transparency. With various other issues we have seen that he approach of ban and restriction results in people devising more innovative ways of flouting rules.
There is a serious need for setting up special courts for adjudication of election related disputes. At the moment it takes many years for a case to be settled in the court which applies even to the election related cases. There are instances where the representative (MP. MLA) who’s case is still pending in the court but has got one or two more times elected after the election in which a case was filed against him/her. When court takes such a long time in resolving cases/electoral disputes, the offenders hardly bothers about this since he could keep being an MP or an MLA, his terms may get over and still the case may be pending in the court.
Under section 125A of the Act, making it mandatory for all contesting candidate to file affidavit is a welcome step. Now at least the information about asset, and pending cases (if any) is available to all, but it could serve better purpose if there are provision of strict scrutiny of such affidavit and strict penalty clause is inserted if the information given in the affidavit is found incorrect. At the moment, the candidates hardly take the declarations seriously and do not feel concerned about disclosing the information correctly.
I am not sure if suggestion for restricting government in putting up advertisements for work which it has done during last six months would be a correct step. I think the government should be allowed to send the message across the voters the work they have done even if that has been done during last six months or so. The Indian voters are mature enough to judge the performance of the work of the government done during its full tenure and not only by what it has done during last six months. If the ruling party/government was successful in doing this, ruling parties would have used this as an effective tool for mobilising voters in its favour and the ruling party would have never lost an election. But history has seen frequent defeat and victory of political parties, change government if not at national level but in large number of states. Is such a ban necessary? Will that help, I wonder!