The mammoth exercise of conducting elections in India has evolved over a period of time. New shades were added, some old faded away with times to the entire exercise of ensuring free & fair people-friendly elections
The he Election Commission of India has gone from strength to strength in the constitutional and legislative history of India. It is an institution which the nation swears by. The reason behind this success is that the institution has been dynamic, always learning and always improving with the changing times. Electoral reforms have been its biggest safety valve.
Over the years, laws governing elections in India have been amended to bring them in tune with the changing realities of the 20th and then 21st century. The main law governing elections in India, namely the Representation of the People Act, 1951, has undergone multiple changes.
In 1951, separate ballot boxes in different colours were assigned to candidates during the first General Elections. Gradually, we moved from ballot boxes for single candidates to a single ballot box with a common ballot paper for all candidates which the voters could choose from. Till 1962, the marking system of voting worked fairly well.
In the late 1970s, the Commission started exploring the idea of electronic voting. It was tested in half a constituency of Parur in Kerala in 1982 assembly polls. Its success led to a demand from other places for similar experiments. Gradually, electronic voting machines became the norm. Since the year 1998, all elections to the state assemblies have been conducted through these wonder machines.
A villager looks for the election symbol of a candidate of his choice during first general election of 1952
In 2004, the Lok Sabha election was conducted with EVMs. Since then, we haven’t looked back. However, one party or the other has always raised questions but have won with the same machines.
In 2009, BJP raised a high pitched demand for return to the ballot papers with the publication of a book titled Democracy in Danger. When the controversy snowballed, Election Commission called an all-party meeting in October 2010 to ascertain what their concerns were. In this meeting, a consensus was reached that to increase transparency, VVPAT (voter-verifiable paper audit trail) maybe introduced. The two companies, Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) were asked to make a prototype of such a machine. The committee of five independent experts, the professors from five different IITs, were tasked to oversee the design and manufacture. A full-scale election simulation was done in five different climatic zones in July 2011. Since many flaws were found, the companies were asked to improve the machines. A year later, the machines were tested in exactly the same locations and were declared fit for use. In 2013, the Supreme Court was informed about the steps taken by Election Commission, which the Court appreciated and directed the Government of India to provide necessary funds.
Voters carrying their electronic photo identity cards lined up to cast their vote
Initially, 20,000 Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines were deployed randomly to test their efficacy. They worked well. Since 2017, all Vidhan Sabha elections have been held with VVPATs. The Commission is now ready to conduct the next general election with full VVPAT coverage.
Electoral reforms are a must to keep our democracy vibrant and transparent. Many key reforms have been pending for as long as 30 yearsAnother major electoral reform has been the introduction of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which has proved to be truly a groundbreaking exercise. Started experimentally, again in Kerala, with an agreement among all stakeholders, it has become a national norm. The beauty of the MCC is, following its strict implementation, a lot of nuisance is eliminated from the elections.
Another significant change was the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years by the 61st Constitutional Amendment Act, 1988. Computerisation of the electoral rolls towards the end of the 1990s and appointment of Booth Level Officers (BLOs) at each polling station has taken the service to the doorsteps of the voters besides increasing transparency in the preparation of electoral rolls.
Further, in 1993, the Commission took action against impersonation and bogus voting by passing an order to issue Electronic Photo Identity Cards (EPICs) to electors in all constituencies. In the same decade, the Commission also started using central election observers to crack down heavily on electoral malpractices such as booth capturing.
While these reforms have been made possible by the combined action of the Election Commission, the government and the Parliament, many reforms have come through the judiciary. I have time and again called judiciary the guardian angel of democracy and the Election Commission. With its positive interpretation of the law, the Apex Court has made the EC one of the strongest institutions in the country.
The long legacy of the judiciary coming to the aid of the Commission started in the NP Ponnuswamy Vs the Returning Officer of Namakkal, 1952. The SC clearly laid down that the election process cannot be questioned while the election is still on. The same was reinforced in Mohinder Singh Gill Vs the Chief Election Commissioner, 1978 where the Court stated that the bar against limitative challenges to electoral steps taken by the Commission and its officers was a blanket ban. The Court held that Article 324 was the source of a “reservoir of power” for the Commission in order to enable it to deal with unforeseen, ever-changing situations when the election process was still ongoing and to deal with cases for which the law does not contain enough provisions.
In 1968, a consolidated code of instructions was issued in the form of Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order to govern the recognition of political parties at the national or state level, along with the allotment of symbols. Its constitutional validity was upheld by the Apex Court in 1986. This amounted to the acceptance of the power of the Commission to make subordinate legislation.
The next major reform was the introduction of transparency of political finance through the judgement of the SC in Common Cause Vs Union of India and Ors, 1995. The Court directed that all political parties have to file income tax returns and that under the powers of Article 324, the Commission could ask parties to submit an account of their expenses for the purpose of scrutiny. Since then, the EC has utilised this power and has been obtaining the details of expenses of recognised political parties for all general elections. This information is freely available on the Commission’s website in the interest of citizens right to know their candidates and make an informed choice.
The SC took the citizens right to know to the next level when, in 2003, when it made a landmark judgement pronouncing that electors have a right to know about the background of candidates to be able to make an informed choice. The EC followed it up by issuing an order prescribing the format for filing affidavits relating to candidates’ criminal antecedents, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications. This information from the affidavits is widely disseminated at the constituency level through the EC’s website. Unfortunately, despite a long list of stellar achievements of the Commission, the improvements in electoral laws and procedures brought about by judicial interventions and parliamentary initiatives, there are several aspects where the Commission, the citizens and the civil society await expeditious reforms. As a result, over 40 proposals of the Commission remain pending with the government since the past two decades. The Commission’s proposals can be broadly categorised under three heads; those that reinforce the independence of the Election Commission, those that help in cleansing politics and lastly, those that will bring transparency in the functioning of the political parties and aid inner-party democracy.
These proposals have not only received the endorsement of former CECs and the civil society but political stalwarts as well. For instance, in June, 2012, Shri LK Advani personally wrote to the former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, stating that “the current system of appointments is partisan and prone to manipulation, and so involvement of representation from the Opposition be considered in appointments of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Chief Election Commissioner”.
Meanwhile, two major reforms have been proposed and debated. The first is the proposal for simultaneous elections—“One Nation, One Election”. After all, the voter is the same. The polling booth is the same. The polling staff and security team is the same. So, why can’t a voter make all three choices instead of going to the polling station again and again? It will save costs and reduce dislocation of normal business and prolonged disruption of development activities. I would like to add another disadvantage of frequent elections; elections are when communalism, casteism, corruption and crony capitalism are at their peak. Frequent elections mean there is no respite from these evils.
The arguments against simultaneous elections are equally strong. First, India being a federal republic, every state follows its own political course. What is one to do, for example, if in a particular state, a few MLAs decide to shift their ‘loyalty’, resulting in an upturned majority? How can we dissolve state assemblies for events such as the premature dissolution of Parliament when these members were democratically chosen by the people of the state? This sounds anti-democratic.
There are simple solutions to the problems for which simultaneous elections have been proposed. For instance, the enormous cost of elections could be tackled by putting a cap on expenditures by political parties. Private fund collection, especially corporate funding, could be banned and replaced by state funding of political parties (not elections) based on votes obtained. To deal with the prolonged disruption of development activities, we could look at the possibility of reducing the duration of elections from 2-3 months to 33 days by making more central police forces available. It may involve raising a few new battalions but that will generate employment and make our security forces stronger in view of the increasing challenges.
One recent reform introduced is highly controversial, namely the electoral bonds. I used to say that any reform is a good reform. This reform has killed whatever transparency of political funding that existed. Earlier, all donations above Rs 20,000 were reported to the Election Commission. Now bonds can be donated in crores without the donor being known. Citizens will not get to know what quid pro quo took place between the donor and the ruling party.
Worse, the cap on the donation of 7.5% of the average three-year profits has also been removed. Corporates can now donate 100 per cent of the profits to one political party and control the politics of the country. This will lead to the burgeoning of shell companies, which will make the increasing role of money in politics even worse.
Electoral reforms are a must to keep our democracy vibrant and transparent. Many key reforms have been pending for as long as 30 years. Let me a reiterate some. A National Electoral Trust may be set up where all political donations can be made. To check criminalisation of politics, candidates who have heinous cases pending against them may be debarred from contesting. The appointment system of Election Commissioners may be made bipartisan, through a Collegium system as followed for appointment of judges and CVC and CIC. These are pragmatic and workable solutions, which have already been tested in many democracies of the world. If we wish to see the world’s largest democracy transforming into the world’s greatest, electoral reforms are the only way forward.
(The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder- the Making of the Great Indian Election’)