The Constitution of India provides for universal franchise to all Indian adult citizens (currently, above 18 years of age) without any distinction, subject to certain acceptable exclusions. Over the past 50 years and more, we have had several general elections to the Parliament and State legislatures, and quite a large number of mid term polls and by-elections. This experience tells us that universal franchise, in itself, is not enough to ensure that the people have a say in rulership – in deciding how the country is run and where it is headed.
The general experience of the vast majority of the Indian people is that elections are dominated by a handful of so-called ‘recognised political parties’ and the candidates nominated by them. Elections provide occasions when the candidates of such parties meet the voters, promising them all that their manifestos contain, seek their votes and promptly vanish from the scene, till they make their appearance again only at the time of the next elections.
Thousands of candidates of smaller, unrecognised parties as well as independent candidates attempt to get themselves elected, but find an extremely uneven playing field. The candidates of the recognised parties have numerous unfair advantages, including television time, money power and muscle power.
All that is ugly in our political process come up in vulgar display at the time of elections. The enormous amount of accounted and unaccounted expenditure not only makes the Indian electoral process very expensive but also fuels the widespread corruption that one sees in society today. The vast expenditure of money incurred on elections by the candidates of the recognised parties is recouped in diverse ways, resulting in criminilisation of politics and politicisation of criminals. "We, the People of India", are left out of the entire scheme of things.
One of the glaring flaws in the electoral process is the first-past-the-post system of counting votes. It is common knowledge that in a general election, taking the country as a whole, the turnout of voters is about 50% of those entitled to vote. According to the existing first-past-the-post system, the person who gets the largest number of votes is declared the winner in each constituency. The total votes polled by all the winning candidates in a general election may be about 30% of the total votes polled; that is, the winning candidates get the ‘support’ of about 15% of the electorate. We can thus see how hollow is the claim of the political party or coalition that wins a majority of seats, that it has the "popular mandate" to form the government and rule the country.
Even the meagre percentage of voters might have turned out to vote under inducement, threat or promise. We all know about distribution of free liquor, biriyani and other inducements, including cash, to gather votes. We also know of bogus voting and booth capturing. All these only show that even the meagre ‘mandate’ is tainted. And when we consider that what the people have voted for is not for a specific candidate but only for a symbol, the falsity of ‘representation of the people’ stands exposed as a democracy of the representatives, by the representatives and for the representatives of a super rich minority and the parties they finance.
The first-past-the-post system of counting votes and declaring the winner in each constituency is only one of the flaws in the electoral process, and not even the most fundamental flaw. The fundamental flaw is that in spite of universal franchise, people do not have the universal right to elect and be elected, nor to recall the one they have elected. They only have the right to vote for one of the candidates nominated by the high command of various political parties. This is the main reason for the high degree of alienation of the people from the process of governance.
If every eligible voter is to actually enjoy the right to elect and be elected, it is essential that he or she must also have a say in the selection of candidates and in the recall of elected representatives at any time.
It is for the people of a constituency to determine who the candidates for the election should be; that is, it is the voters who must have the right not only to elect the winning candidate but also select the candidates that will and can stand for election. Political parties must not be the deciding authorities either at the local level or at the level of their High Command, as to who gets nominated as a candidate. The decision on the slate of candidates for election in a constituency must be taken on the basis of consulting the voters in mass meetings, by a constituency committee that will consist of respectable citizens selected by the voters in that constituency. This constituency committee must also have the right to determine whether an elected candidate will have to be recalled for valid reasons; in such cases, the final decision will be that of the voters of the constituency who, in the first instance, elected him/her. The constituency committee must also have the right to propose legislation and legislative amendments; and it will be the duty of the elected legislator to introduce such proposals in the legislature and work for their enactment.
The demand that the right to select candidates must be taken out of the hands of political parties, does not imply that political parties have no role in the polity. Political parties do have an important role to play. The role of political parties must be to make different sections of the society conscious of their collective interests and the general interest of society, to present and propagate a vision for the country, etc. No political party must be allowed to rule in the name of the people. Their duty must be to enable the people to rule themselves.
When the Constitution of India was first adopted in 1950, there was no mention in it of political parties, even though the Congress Party played the dominant role in the early decades, nominating the majority of winning candidates in the Parliament and state assemblies. It was only in 1985, i.e. thirty five years later, that expressions like ‘legislature party’ and ‘original political party’ made their appearance in the Constitution of India, that too in a schedule (Tenth Schedule) and in the context of disqualifications and defections – not a very edifying entry into the Constitution.
Whichever way one looks at it, the party system of governance has not served the interest of the people. In this system, parties singly or in combination fight for power for themselves, and not for the people. The major parties, such as the Congress and the BJP, look upon the people as merely vote banks. In between elections, the people do not count for anything. What counts is only the arithmetic of electoral alliances and adjustments based on considerations of religion, caste and community. Therefore the sine qua non of any electoral reform is to vest the power of selection of candidates for election, recall of candidates for failure to carry out the mandate of the electors etc., only with the people, organised in their constituency committees.
For any electoral reform to advance the situation towards people’s power, it needs to be (i) based on the recognition of the uneven playing field that exists between the candidates of ‘recognised parties’ and all other candidates; and (ii) designed to correct for this unevenness.
State funding of elections is a much-talked about subject these days. The Election Commission has invited views from the ‘recognised’ national and regional political parties on this subject. It seems to be implicit that ‘state funding’ will be only for these ‘recognised’ parties. Why do these parties need to receive the taxpayer’s money when they are already sitting on considerable cash chests? It is clear that such proposals are not progressive, but regressive, when they are not based on the recognition of the uneven playing field and the need to correct the same.
State funding of the electoral process (not of political parties) can become a powerful reform if and only if the party dominance of the electoral process is ended, including the prerogative of ‘recognised parties’ to nominate candidates and have party symbols on voting forms. State funding in the shape of equal television / radio time, supply of electoral rolls, can then be provided equally to all the selected candidates and monitored by the Constituency Committee.
If we want a people’s democracy in which all the people will have the ultimate power to take decision on all public matters, it is necessary that constituencies are small enough to enable regular and purposeful interaction between the elected representative and the people whom they represent. Considering that a country like England with a population smaller than that of Tamil Nadu has 646 members of Parliament, the Indian Parliament could very well have 2000 or more candidates.
For people to exercise power, it is essential that the political process affirms the equality of political rights of all citizens, transcending caste, class and gender differences. The experience of the Indian people with the quota or reservation system so far has been extremely negative. The reservation system has been used, by those dominating the political process, as a privilege for the appeasement of this or that section. The proposal to reserve a certain number of constituencies for women violates the principle of equality of political rights. The reservation system negates the conception of political rights as something which belongs to every eligible voter by right and not as a privilege used by the ruling elite to restrict citizen’s rights and to split the polity on the basis of this or that collective.
There is a legitimate concern that there are not enough women in the legislative bodies today. There is also a legitimate concern that there are not enough workers, not enough peasants, and not enough youth in the legislative bodies. The solution to such problems lies in restricting and finally eliminating the space for self-serving ‘recognised parties’ to dominate the scene. Once people universally enjoy the right to select candidates from among their peers, and this right is taken out of the hands of the privileged parties and their high commands, then more women, more workers, more peasants and more youth will be able to enter the highest decision making bodies in the country.
The above ideas are surely capable of being improved and enlarged. However, these thoughts are placed before the public with a view to promote a wide discussion that will, hopefully, result in ‘Lok Raj’ or people’s power.
By Prakash Rao, Convenor, Lok Raj Sangathan