The Union Law Ministry and Election Commission (EC) have been holding public meetings in different regions since last year. Three such meetings have taken place in Bhopal, Kolkata and Mumbai and five more are planned before the Law Ministry is expected to propose legislative action.
Electoral reform has been the subject of a number of special committees in the past. We have had Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990), Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998), Law Commission Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws (1999), National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001), Electoral Reforms Proposals of Election Commission of India (2004) and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008).
The electoral process and political system in India has revealed itself to be a tool to legitimize governments at the Centre and the States, which pursue the agenda of a handful of elite at the expense of the working people. The experience of dozens of elections and governments has thoroughly discredited the system in the eyes of the people.
For this reason, the Government and EC feel compelled to keep raising the issue of electoral reforms to make it appear as if the system will be reformed to address the real aspirations of the people. Yet, the electoral system continues to be dominated by political parties that ignore the well being of the people and serve the agenda of the monopoly houses and the powerful.
Can we expect something different this time? The background paper brought out by the Law Ministry does not give much hope when, in defining the terms of reference it states, "We will explore options for electoral reform within the framework of the current system and will not address the(se) larger structural issues in this paper."
What is more disappointing is the fact that the approach that is being suggested for even the issues, which are included in the scope of reforms, is in the direction of further marginalizing the people from the political process.
Some of the issues identified in the background paper that need reform are,
i) Criminalisation of politics,
ii) Funding of election,
iii) Conduct and better management of elections, and
iv) Regulation of political parties.
A brief but critical review of the approach suggested in the background paper follows.
i) The background paper says, "Criminalisation of politics has many forms, but perhaps the most alarming among them is the significant number of elected representatives with criminal charges pending against them."
But even more alarming is the fact that oldest and the most established political parties engage in criminal activities with impunity. In the last three decades, we have seen major communal massacres in which thousands of innocent people have been killed and it is well known fact that parties like the Congress Party and BJP have played an active role in these. Yet, even after decades, none of the governments have punished those responsible for organising these. Without addressing systemic problems that permits criminals to not only get away with such heinous crimes, but also to come back to power and continue to rule, all talk of criminal background of individuals is really skirting the issue.
ii) The consultation paper to the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001), had noted that the campaign expenditure by candidates is in the range of about twenty to thirty times the legal limits. While the background paper recognizes that huge election expenses are root cause of corruption, it fails to suggest steps to reduce such expenditure. On the contrary, the background paper is satisfied to recommend, "… existing ceiling on election expenses for the various legislative bodies should be suitably raised to a reasonable level reflecting increasing costs." What about those who want to represent the people without taking obligation of the moneybags?
The paper simply writes off the recommendation of the Indrajit Gupta committee, which had proposed state funding of elections to curb corruption. It claims that the EC is not in favour of state funding as it will not be possible to prohibit or check candidate’s own expenditure. But the Election Commission monitors the candidate’s expenditure even now and monitoring will only be easier if the quantum of expenditure was reduced. In fact a step in the right direction would be for the state to provide equal facilities and propaganda material/time to all candidates and prevent the candidates from spending anything on their own.
iii) On the issues connected with the "conduct and better management of elections", the background paper quotes the Election Commission’s view, “… too many candidates in the election fray puts unnecessary and avoidable stress on the management of elections …" and that "… a large number of candidates in the fray are non-serious candidates"!
The prejudice against independent candidates and those of smaller parties is obvious. It thus proposes to tilt the scales further in an already heavily biased system. If the goal of democracy is to have real representatives of the majority get elected, EC should be recommending curbing of the right of party high commands in selecting candidates and give this right to organisations of working peoples in their places of work and residences.
iv) In the name of "regulation of political parties", the background paper chooses to lament that "There is a proliferation of parties …" and "… there is no specific provision to de-register a party".
Proliferation of parties is there because the established ruling and opposition parties are exposed as parties protecting the interest of big industrial houses. Once again rather than curbing parties that have ruled but failed to solve people’s problems, and thus opening the space for new parties with different ideas, the government and the EC are trying to prevent the New from emerging.
The established political parties are well adapted to the current electoral process and political system. They do not want to change the system except to bring about some superficial "reforms" to give it some "credibility". It is time that people reject the tight constraints imposed by these parties and come together to innovate a system that brings people to the centre stage of politics.
by Prof. Bharat Seth