A Round Table discussion that has great implications for today’s electoral system was held in Delhi on June 17th under the theme: “Elections sans Integrity: democracy in Deep Distress”. This discussion was organised at the initiative of the Forum for Electoral Integrity, Lok Raj Sangathan and Naalaya India.
In the recent TN Assembly elections, several people’s organisations, through their direct experience, had reached the conclusion that money power played the determining role in deciding the winner. It was evident that the results did not reflect the will of the people at all. Through their enormous money, muscle and media power, the parties of the status quo managed to capture all the seats. The elections went according to the plan of big industrial houses in the state and outside, who wanted a trusted horse to be in the saddle to steer them to more profits. Disgusted with this blatant rigging of elections, several organisations including Lok Raj Sangathan had petitioned the Election Commission for countermanding of polls. In response the EC, as an eye-wash gesture, countermanded elections in two constituencies.
Lok Raj Sangathan supported candidates of the Nermai Ani as well as a few other independent candidates in order to use the opportunity of elections to put forward its vision of people’s empowerment. LRS did wide propaganda that in the current political and electoral process, the people are marginalized, and that ways and means have to be found to bring people to the centre-stage of politics. The Round Table discussion was organized jointly by LRS and other organisations in order to keep up the momentum achieved in the TN elections and take the struggle for electoral reforms further.
The Round Table was attended by leaders of political parties, former senior bureaucrats, representatives of activist organisations, representatives of the Election Commission of India and others. An excellent discussion took place among participants, particularly in the light of recent experiences in the Tamilnadu assembly elections. Several concrete suggestions emerged from the Round Table which have the potential to bring about far-reaching changes in the electoral system.
A number of well-known activists participated in the Round Table including Justice Rajinder Sachar, MG Devsahayam (Forum for Electoral Integrity), SY Quraishi, former CEC, Prof Jagdeep Chokkar (Association for Democratic Rights), Com D Raja (Communist Party of India), Raghavan Srinivasan (Lok Raj Sangathan), Prakash Rao (Communist Ghadar Party of India), Dr Sanjeev Chhiber (Naya Daur Party), Dr ND Pancholi (Citizens for democracy), Prof Bharat Seth, Suresh Babu (Naalaya India), Rajarajan (Gandhi Initiative for Social Transformation), Ms. Sucharita (LRS), Renu Nayak (Purogami Mahila Sangathan), Dr Venkatesh (Committee for Judicial Accountability & Reforms), Shri Mohammed Arif (Welfare Party of India), Shri M D Thomas, ( Institute of Harmony and Peace Studies), Shri Amit Kumar (National Platform of People's Movement), Adv Vishwajit Singh (Reclaim India), representatives from Election Commission - Dr. N C Swain and Shri S K Rudola and others.
It was decided at the end of the Round Table that suggestions coming out of the deliberations will be compiled in the form of a resolution to the Election Commission demanding immediate steps. Considering the importance of the deliberations at the Round Table we reproduce here below a detailed account of the proceedings.
Welcoming the participants and introducing the discussion, Shri Raghavan observed that in the just concluded Tamilnadu Assembly elections, electoral malpractices had reached abhorrent depths. The two major parties of the status quo, the AIADMK and DMK completely marginalized other parties and candidates through fraudulent practices, cash transfers to voters, offering freebies in election manifestos and others. LRS was a part of the Nermai Ani coalition in Tamil Nadu which had fielded candidates from 25 constituencies. Initially the mood of the people in TN was decidedly against the two major parties DMK and AIDMK, which have been in power alternately for nearly 5 decades. But using media under their control and opinion polls, they could sideline all other parties and independents. The entire experience showed that the present electoral process does not offer a level playing field for candidates and is entirely skewed in favour of the parties of the elite.
He pointed out that today we have a system of parliamentary representative democracy where parties select their candidates. Representatives get elected in the name of people. But they are accountable only to their parties, not to the people who elected them. People have no right beyond voting; they cannot recall their candidates; they cannot initiate legislation; they hand over all their powers to their representatives and do not retain residuary powers. Political parties of the establishment act as gatekeepers to power and electoral law guarantees domination of electoral process by these parties of the status quo. Once in power such parties act in the service of the most powerful economic interests that stand behind them and finance them. Political and economic power go hand in hand. People have no role in governance within this system. Their only role is to vote.
He concluded that people need a system where they can select and elect their representatives, where elected representatives are accountable to the people and not to their parties, where they can recall them if they don’t perform, and where they have the right to initiate legislation. In short, what is required is a people-centred political process and a system where people are decision makers. In this system, modern political parties will no doubt have the important role of making sure that power is vested in the hands of the people and not in a handful of elites.
Shri Devasahayam, in his theme presentation, pointed to the sad truth that one only needed money to win elections. Focusing on TN, he pointed out that several changes in electoral process came about after the experience of previous Assembly elections in TN in 2011, when declaration of criminal charges and assets was made mandatory for all the candidates. He pointed out that the EC while conducting the elections well has not been able to provide leadership in bringing about substantial changes. In a blatant violation of the Model Code of Conduct issued by the EC and the ruling of the Supreme Court that 'freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree', the election manifestoes of the two major parties promised all sorts of freebies. The action taken by the EC to cancel elections in two constituencies when there was evidence of a systematic scheme by major political parties to distribute cash all over TN, was not enough. He related the incidence where Rs 570 crores was confiscated indicating the humongous election bribing. Since the EC was virtually in-charge of administration during the elections, it is the EC that will have to continue to monitor the investigations.
He explained the roles of the principal players in the rot that is being seen, namely, the political parties, the government and the Election Commission. The major political parties behave as if they are a law unto themselves. The government is controlled by these parties and are averse to any change. They take no action on various good proposals made by various committee and civil society groups and continue to field criminal and corrupt politicians. EC is constitutionally mandated to be squarely responsible for free and fair elections but is unable to do so in face of bullying by the established parties and apathy of the Government. Even the judiciary, which is supposed to be the umpire has been treating election related cases in a casual manner by not deciding on election petitions in a timely manner, making it a mockery.
He concluded by saying that elections have been reduced to an exercise to facilitate capture of political power by fair and foul means. There is no integrity and level playing field in the electoral arena. He hoped that solutions would emerge from the deliberations of this Round Table.
Shri S Y Quraishi first put in perspective the gargantuan nature of the Indian elections involving a population as large as 50 countries put together. He admitted that the picture painted by Shri Devasahayam was very balanced. He agreed that limits of spending during elections is crossed by a factor 10 or 100 and that the nexus between moneybags and the politicians had to be broken. However, he felt that State funding of elections was not a solution. Instead he opined that State could fund the political parties in proportion to the votes received by them. He proposed that the CEC should be appointed through a collegium system rather than by the Government of the day.
Shri Chhokar urged the participants to talk about not only what needs to be done but also how it could be done.
Dr Chhiber said that he was just back from Kairana in UP where political parties are trying to flare up communal tensions like what was done in Muzaffarnagar. He said that EC needs to take bolder action and ban such parties. The Returning Officer comes in the way of taking the message of small parties like ours to the people. He pointed out that the media was totally corrupt and is not interested in taking our message to the people either. The electoral arena is totally biased in favour of the established parties and demanded that all parties small or big should be assigned permanent election symbols. Surely there were millions of symbols and assigning them to a few thousand parties could not be problem. He also said that the limits on election spending by each candidate for the parliament was too high. He opined that the EC was manned by good people but was toothless.
Advocate Hirani of Allahabad High Court questioned why we have to line up in the hot sun to vote for criminals fielded by the established political parties. He said that such representatives when they get elected are not even accessible to the people. He felt that some kind of proportional representation system would be better than the prevailing system. He also felt that a property register should be maintained for all candidates giving clearly the source of the income to stem the role of black money.
Justice Sachar felt that we cannot remain aloof from the problem of money power in elections. He proposed that corporate funding should be banned since it brings undue influence of money power. This was done for a brief period in the late 1970s. It was again permitted under the plea that they have as much right to fund elections. However, there is no legal basis for rights of corporations since the Articles of the Constitution dealing with fundamental rights were not applicable to corporate entities.
Prof Bharat Seth said that elected representatives are not answerable to the people who elected them but follow the dictate of their parties. In order to make our representatives answerable to us, we have to develop mechanisms at the level of the constituencies where an elected Constituency Committee will involve the electorate in the process of selection of candidates. Candidates will not be imposed. Trade unions and other people's organisations can propose. In open meetings of the Constituency Committee the merits of various potential candidates should be discussed and a few selected. These selected candidates will be known and trusted by the people. One way to solve the problem of money power would be to have the State fund the electoral process. State should not fund any political party or an individual. EC should ensure that all the candidates have a level playing field where all candidates have equal access to taking their ideas and vision to the people. He concluded that we need to bring in basic reforms to eliminate money power.
Comrade D Raja suggested a mix of the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and a list-based proportional representation systems. Such a system is workable since it already exists in several countries. Regarding State funding of elections, he was critical of the governments in the parliament for not taking up the report of the Indrajit Gupta committee for discussion. The time is right to take up the issue of State funding of elections in the Parliament. It may not be a panacea but it need not be rejected either. He, however, disagreed that the State needs to give money to political parties.
Regarding criminals getting into elected bodies, he felt that the Model Code of Conduct must demarcate political activists from criminals because the party in power can slap criminal charges or charges of sedition against their opponents. So Section 8 of the Representation of People's Act needs to be amended. It will not be foolproof but at least there can be a check.
He agreed that the appointment of CEC should be by a Collegium rather than being left to the government of the day. He was happy that the EC was able to rescind elections at least in two constituencies in TN but felt that EC should have gone further and cancelled the Rajya Sabha elections in Karnataka also for similar reason. He pleaded that EC should not bracket all political parties as one. CIC wants to treat political parties as public authority. Government gives parties some exemption in taxes but that is part of our democracy. All recognised parties have constitutions which uphold the Indian Constitutions, so what is the need for CIC to get our internal information?
He was not sure if selection at the constituency level is practically feasible. At the same time, every party must have the responsibility to the people when they select candidates. Parties are accountable to the people and to the Parliament. He recalled that while participating in the anti-corruption movement, he had explained that law making is a very complex process and finally it has to be made in Parliament and Assemblies. We can put pressure on the Government and the parties to respond to the demands of the people. He concluded that we should create a strong social awareness about cleaning up the electoral system.
Wing Commander K K Verma said that when a new party wants to work for the country, they should get the opportunity to reach out to the electorate through the media. People are being controlled and governed by the parties. We have to have institutions that protect the authority of the people. They should not be controlled by parties. Moreover, young people should get a chance to participate.
Prakash Rao, spokesperson of Communist Ghadar Party of India, observed that the present system works for a minority of the very rich of whom 50-60 are world class billionaires and trillionaires. We want a political system which serves everyone and where everyone can have a say in decision making. Unless political power is in the hands of the people, the economy will continue on its present orientation of ensuing the enrichment of the Indian and foreign monopolies through unbridled exploitation and plunder. This is a qualitative change that we are fighting for. This is the demand of the times. This is not dependent on the size of the country or the level of education. Millions of uneducated people fought the freedom struggle while a section of the most educated wanted to remain under colonial rule. The majority of reforms in the electoral system so far have strengthened the domination of parties of the monopolies over the political process These reforms have been increasingly marginalizing the people from the political process, by making it more and more difficult for parties and organisations not backed by the monopolies to even be heard and seen by the electorate, let alone win their seats. He further reiterated that political parties are not a public authority and need not come under RTI. They are organisations of people who hold common views and believe in a certain vision for the country for which the party works and mobilizes others. He proposed reforms in the electoral process which would increase the role of people in both the selection and election of candidates and in decision making and which would greatly reduce the role of money power in elections. People should have the right to select candidates, right to recall and the right to initiate legislation. The electoral process should be funded solely by the State. No individual or organization must be allowed to spend any money on the elections.
Dr. M D Thomas examined party politics in the context of good governance. Party politics has drowned good governance. The EC has power for about two months to control the parties. Parties in power carry out election campaign througout the five years – two months of intensive campaign and five years of extensive campaign. They do their campaign even when they are on foreign tours. So there is no time for good governance and no commitment to good governance. EC should have power throughout and not just at the time of elections. There should be a restriction on the elected representatives at the highest level to prevent them from taking part in election campaigns so that they don’t waste time and lower the dignity of their office.
Adv. Vishwajeet Singh said that power should be with the people. Democracy is all about people. But political parties take the people for granted. The process of democracy cannot end with elections but involvement of the people should be ensured throughout. People may be accepting cash for votes since they know that they will not get anything after the elections. So they feel take whatever is given before the elections. People should remain active and keep the pressure on the government to fulfil the demands of the people. Political partries are reportedly funded by mafia. Many committees have already been set up to investigate electoral malpractices. We have to mobilise the people to be active before, during and after the elections.
Ms. Sucharita said that deepening and broadening democracy requires expanding the role of people in running the society and State. Today the youth of 18 years who comes to votes, the young worker is educated and is computer savvy. Today people have a view how various things should be run, where the funds have to be put, etc. and are wanting to have a say in running the system. But, if we see all the changes in the political process today, they reduce the participation of the people instead of increasing it. Society is demanding that it should be run in the interest of majority of the people and not in the interest of a handful of big corporate houses. The people are not being consulted on major schemes such as skill development or policies such as Right to Education Act. Likewise, people are not consulted when putting up candidates. Neither are representatives accountable and subject to right to recall. The biggest corporations decide who should be Ministers, as the Radia tapes revealed.
She queried that when the Lok Pal Bill was drafted at the initiative of the people, why should parliament have the monopoly if it should be tabled in the Parliament or not?
Regarding the issue of State funding of political parties she clarified that the State should ensure that anyone who wants to contest the elections should have equal access to media to take his or her message to the electorate. The media today is under the control of the big corporations. It is they who decide the winner through opinion polls and creating “waves” about a particular party or messiahs.
Dr. Venkatesh said that a small percentage of people, the monopoly houses, control and manipulate democracy as means to further their interest. We need to control the role the of the monopoly media. The monopoly media in India is becoming like the American media. It is totally biased, totally communal and it spreads poison amongst the people. Major parties in TN have their own TV channels who carry their propaganda throughout the day and night. Then we are told that some smaller parties can get 5 or 10 minute slot in the radio or TV. That is not at all a level playing field. We are talking about one India in which 2% of people want to rule over the 98%. We need to strengthen the hands of the 98% of the people. People should have the right to recall their representatives. It is not enough if only the EC is given more teeth. People have also to be empowered. It is they who can really change the situation.
Shri Raja Rajan felt that elections in TN were a total betrayal of the people. It was a cold-blooded murder of democracy in broad day light. We fielded candidates as a part of Nermai Ani in several constituencies. Apart from DMK and AIDMK, in these elections another alliance was there with practically all other parties except PMK in it. By no stretch of imagination can we believe that only DMK and AIDMK will get all seats and the third formation will not get anything. So the results reveal a total fraudulent election. There was a lot of resentment among people towards these two big parties, but instead of their vote share coming down, it went up. This indicates that the election was totally rigged. He felt that manipulating EVMs was simpler than physical ballot papers. He felt that the EC should have countermanded elections in all constituencies and not just two, since the same conditions prevailed everywhere. It is still not too late for the EC. He suggested that just as in the Rajya Sabha where one third of the members retire every two years, one-fifth of members of Lok Sabha can be retired every year. This will help the EC in ensuring fair elections. People will have better control over their representatives. Those parties which go against the will of the people will be voted out much faster.
Renu Nayak shared her experiences in participating in elections since 2003. In the very first time, the independent candidate had to bring 10 supporters and his nomination was rejected because his mother’s thumb impression could not be verified. On the other hand, candidates of recognized parties had to bring only one supporter for his nomination and could sail through. Symbols are given to independent candidates just a few days before elections while recognized parties have monopoly over symbols. We had to run around for days to get permission. So, what is the point in saying we have a great democracy. EVMs can be easily rigged. Opinion polls already decide on the winner. So, it is not surprising that many people don’t vote. Voting for NOTA doesn’t count at all. Elected representatives are not accountable to the people. We should demand a level playing field and that candidates should be selected and elected from among the ordinary people. We should all fight for people to have the right select, elect and recall. It should be the people who should decide what needs to done in their area and what is important and what is not important. People have to be educated about the reality of this system where they brag that 70% of the people have voted, etc. when the truth is that votes are obtained by force of arm or deception.
Dr. Anand felt that we need an all India non-government body, whose main objective would be to oversee the process of political integrity. This body go into the whole issue of political funding. It can check the character and experience of the proposed candidate. They will keep a watch on the entitlements of elected representatives. It will bring out an annual report on integrity performance of these political parties.
Amit Kumar said that after LPG policy was brought in, the role of money has become very strong including corporate interests. Through FDI inflows, the role of foreign corporations is also increasing. Corporate interest do not correspond with the interest of the people. The EC should ensure a level playing field. Policies taken by governments such as land acquisition and exemptions for industry have affected the people, and not the super rich. Can the EC ensure that proposed candidates answer questions from people on these issues? Jan Sansads in Bihar have tried to do this. Corporate funding of elections should be banned since they can influence elections against the interests of the people. We should limit national leaders from speaking in rallies of other party candidates at the Assembly level. Also panchayat elections should not be party-based. Representation in the Rajya Sabha should not be on the basis of the state’s population. All states should be equally represented irrespective of their size and population.
Dr. N C Swain said that he had been involved in the last 11 elections and the involvement of EC was unprecedented this time. He related how they had come to know that a major political party had decided to distribute Rs 10 crore per constituency. Other political parties were going to spend a little less. The Income Tax department was involved in monitoring and groups were set up in each district to maintain a tight vigil. Hundreds of officers were deputed and GPS and mobile communication were enabled. Due to these steps more than 112 crores were seized. But going by the calculation, several thousand crores were not seized. The seizure of Rs 570 crores is still under investigation. People in TN consider cash for vote as a gift. Elections were countermanded in those constituencies where evidence could be obtained.
Shri Vedola, member of the Committee for Election Expenditure, suggested that youth should be made aware of the electoral process and political system by including it in their syllabus. They should be made aware that Corporates fund elections.
Jagdeep Chhokar observed that while there are many suggestions, we should also examine how to achieve them. How can we educate the youth or give more teeth to the EC? We have many experts who give ideas but do not explain how to achieve them. This situation should be changed.
Shri Devasahayam concluded by saying that this has been a very rich discourse and a lot of good ideas have come. Constitution says "we, the people." Through Article 324, people have given authority and power of conducting free and fair elections to the EC. The EC is not part of the government. They are constitutional authority constituted by the Constitution of India. Supreme Court has said that "conducting free and fair elections is the basic feature of the Constitution". So they have given the authority to the EC to conduct free and fair elections. Political parties are not responsible, government is not responsible, Parliament is not responsible for conducting the elections. It is the EC. So, all these points that have been made should be submitted to the EC. The EC does not consult the people. They only consult the political parties, who are interested parties. EC is not there to put these parties into power and allow them to do whatever they want. EC is there on behalf of the people to sustain democracy. So, EC must initiate a country-wide dialogue where people should be involved. Civil society includes government servants, politicians, farmers, students, intellectuals and others. They are the one who can represent “we, the people”. Political parties alone cannot represent “we, the people”. EC being a constitutional power can order the government to include the electoral process in the school syllabus. After the consultation, EC should make recommendations which should be binding.
He reiterated that EC must assert itself and said that the inputs from today’s meeting will be compiled in the form of a resolution to the EC.