Indian democracy and electoral reforms

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B L Nimesh IAS (Rtd.)
About democracy it is said, “Democracy is not the best form of Government but better is not known to man”.
As such affairs of the Nation State, until better option is found and becomes available for experimentation; need to be governed through democracy.

So not a surprise that sovereign Nations across the world have opted for democratic form of Government.
Party system is an essence of democracy. Three types of party systems are followed in a democratic system. They are; one party, two party, and multi party systems.

To take India, it has emerged over the years a multi party democracy. Multi party Government has become a common trend both in the States and Centre. Especially at Centre since couple of decades with some interregnum.
Presence of political parties in India is quite huge number wise. According to information of Election Commission of India (ECI or Commission) up to March 2014, that is election period to the last Lok Sabha (House of the People) General Elections were 1627. And from March 2014 to July 2015 number of political parties registered with the ECI were 239, making a total of 1866.

And the number of political parties which fielded their candidates in the electoral battle to the Lok Sabha General Elections held during the year were 464(Times of India, August 9, 2015). Quite a big number.

Let us turn toward definition of Democracy. The most popular and generally accepted definition of Democracy is what was given by Abraham Lincoln, the first President of United State of America.

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as, “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Thus, we see the people are the pivot around which the wheel of democracy revolves. In democracy, people are supreme. And democracy is not an end but a means to serve the people. To realize their aspirations. To create conditions and provide opportunities necessary for achieving their best and have leisure in their lives. This is the goal and purpose of democracy.

Democracy as an organic whole is composed of three ingredients. They are political, social and economic. Respectively called political democracy, social democracy and economic democracy. Democracy is not complete without the presence of all the three components.

Political democracy means universal adult suffrage i.e. right to vote to all the adult citizens without discrimination of their social and economic status.

Social democracy implies absence of discrimination among citizens on the basis of caste, religion, creed, gender etc. The fundamental principle of social democracy is equality of citizens irrespective of their origin.

And lastly economic democracy stands for providing equality of opportunities to all the citizens for choosing vocations of their choice within the ambit of law for earning their lively hood and promoting their economic well being lawfully. It may however; include under wanted circumstances to provide special safeguards for achieving said objective to such section(s) of society who have been denied such opportunities in the past on the basis of caste, race discrimination etc.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I cannot be slave. And as such I cannot be a master.”
The next interpretation of democracy which comes to my mind is what Dr. BR Ambedkar prescribed.
According to Dr. Ambedkar, democracy was not a form of Government only . But it was essentially a form of society. A society whose foundation lay on four cardinal principles of human virtues. Which were justice , equality , liberty and fraternity. Democracy as such could not be imposed from without. It had to emerge from within.

However; this was not the case in the context of Indian society.
Indian society in essence is a feudal and caste based on the basis of birth of its people. It is discriminatory in its nature and hence inherently undemocratic.

Thus the principal objective of Indian Constitution enshrined in its Preamble and the goal set before the Indian Republic after adoption of Constitution was to transform Indian society into a democratic one. This meant establishing social and economic democracy. As the political democracy would be a sham in the absence of other two components.

India has been experimenting with the democratic system for the last 78 years since adoption of its Constitution.
Change of Governments whether at the Federal level or in the States have been taking place peacefully through democratic process, that is electoral system, since then. This in itself is a great achievement. Many other countries which got independence around the same time when India got or subsequently; have failed to achieve such a feat continuously. There have been coups or emergence of oligarchies or military dictators in those countries.
In India roots of political democracy have become deep. And credit for this goes to the people of India.

However; it needs to be stated here that what India has achieved on this front is only a part. The other two, viz social and economic democracy are still evasive. And there doesn’t seem a hope that the Indian nation will be in a position to achieve the same in the near future. And therefore, people at large will continue in time to come, to live in poverty and squalor deprived of conditions necessary for reasonable standard of quality life.

While there are multiple factors for such a dismal state of affairs, the ultimate reason could be assigned to one factor, which is; failure on the part of those who are responsible for the governance of the Nation.

In this classification the political class stands at the top. This class produces the law makers and provides Governments both at National and State levels. It controls bureaucracy.
However; Governments of the day, in respect of their performances at both the levels, as custodians of governance have not come up to the expectations of vast majority of people. They failed to meet the aspirations of the latter.The people feel rather betrayed as the promises made to them by the political parties in their manifestos and their candidates at the time of hustings are not fulfilled after their victory at the polls and entry to the portal of power.
Corruption the root of all evils through various modes and forms has been a dominant by product of such a system and rampant in all the regimes without a respite, though may be in varied degree.

Result over the periods, India has emerged as one among the top most corrupt countries in the world.
Nation’s resources and taxpayers’ money meant to be spent for the welfare of its citizens especially the have-nots, deprived section of society and the development works is not being expended for the purpose to the full extent. Crony capitalism is grabbing the humongous portion thereof. Glaring example is that of occurrence of scams after scams, mounting non performance assets (NPA) of banking institutions and whopping amount of black or illicit money parked in foreign tax haven.

This has terribly impacted our endeavors and march towards achieving social and economic justice to the citizens of the country. The prime objective of our Constitution.

After more than seventy years of our independence we have largest number of poor people, illiterate, sufferers from malnutrition, sick, victims of various diseases.

To make a mention of our cities and towns, the same are in an unenviable condition. Unauthorised, haphazard constructions therein are perennial activities in collusion with the agencies mandated to regulate the building constructions and urban planning.

The result, the same are full of sprawling slums lacking in basic urban amenities. Even our major cities are not fully covered with proper sewage system.

A vast population in these cities live in slums.
High pollution level in the big cities specially due to various factors resulting into poor quality of air is affecting the health parameters of the residents therein in some way or the other.
Condition of towns in respect of availability of urban amenities is worse.
Illegal and unplanned constructions make our urban areas ugly. The sight of such areas and slums is sickening.
To come to rural areas, our villages continue to be backward and neglected in respect of provision of basic civic facilities.

So the question which obviously arises here is, where the buck lies and where it stops?
To me, the answer to the first question lies in our electoral system and buck stops at the Election Commission of India, is the answer to the second question.
As it is responsible for the election of law makers. They wield the ultimate power regarding governance of the country.

However; while looking at their performance by and large – the people’s representatives; whether in Government or in the opposition a positive comments will be a flattery.

Many of those and among them; some have been ministers in the Centre and chief ministers and ministers in their respective states, have faced / facing corruption charges for amassing wealth and acquiring properties much beyond their legitimate source of income. Because of such reasons and cases some have been convicted and sentenced to jail.
It is a very unfortunate situation. The trend which has evolved over the years ultimately has become a dominant part of our political behavior. It has spread its wings widely and has impacted our socio economic milieu.
The masses are being deprived of their legitimate share in the cake of national wealth. The impoverished masses on this account feel anguished with despair. They want riddance from this cult of plunder of their wealth and resources.
So what is the way out?

In my opinion the only road to deliverance from this exploitation is to check , stop the entry of undesirable elements from entering the Legislatures.

And the hope has to be pinned on Election Commission of India to achieve this. And this calls for to bring rigorous reforms in our electoral system. Let us not reduce our democracy the largest in the world, to an electoral pageant. Along with quantity a proportional degree of quality needs to be infused in our democratic ethos. So that it is in a position to serve as a means to establish a genuine democracy to work for towards achieving the objectives it is meant for i.e. the aspirations of the people.

What those components of reform could consist of? Below is a description of the same.
However; before this, a discussion regarding functions of Election Commission of India and its constitution is felt necessary as a key Constitutional Institution responsible for functioning and strengthening of democracy in India.
Article 324 of Constitution of India lays down inter alia, as under:
· “324. Superintendence, direction and control of elections to be vested in an Election Commission
· (1) The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice President held under this Constitution shall be vested in a Commission (referred to in this Constitution as the Election Commission)

· (2) The Election Commission shall consist of the Chief Election Commissioner and such number of other Election Commissioners, if any, as the President may from time to time fix and the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners shall, subject to the provisions of any law made in that behalf by Parliament, be made by the President.”
To take 2nd clause first, future of democra

cy and its smooth functioning in India depends on the imperative that the Election Commission of India not only functions in an impartial manner but also enjoys that image and perception in the eyes and mind of the people generally and political parties. Particularly parties not in power.

In this respect the image of Election commission has been fair and above controversy in the past.
But recently it got embroiled avoidably in criticism regarding its conduct on certain issues.
They are disqualification of 12 Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP)MLA from Delhi Legislative Assembly allegedly on the controversy of office of profit held by them. The AAP has accused Election Commission of partisan attitude against their MLAs and the party.

The second was not to announce the date of Assembly elections in Gujrat along with the date of Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh initially.
Opposition parties and two former Chief Election Commissioners had questioned the said decision of the Commission.

It was alleged by the main opposition party that the Election Commission was functioning at the behest of major party in power in the coalition government i.e. Bhartiya Janta Party, and not independently.
The controversy that appeared in the media conveyed that Commission by not doing so wanted to give time to announce concessions and freebies implying thereby that the it may benefit the ruling party in Gujrat during the polls.

And that the Chief Election Commissioner an IAS officer from Gujrat cadre, was favorite of Prime Minister, the State; the latter comes from. As known, Prime Minister earlier was Chief Minister of Gujrat.
Irrespective of veracity of facts regarding the apprehensions of opposition parties the controversy did put a question mark on the Commission’s non-partisan image if not dent it.

To avoid that such a situation does not arise again it would be in the fitness of things that the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and election Commissioners should be made in a transparent manner.
The appointments of the top constitutional functionaries of Election Commission is made by the President of India in pursuance of clause ibid. And the selections thereof is made by the government under the same clause.
However; it is the selection part of the whole process of their appointments which in my view is crucial and an issue of contention . It needs a review entailing some modification.

For the purpose, government may appoint a committee to be headed by Prime Minister and comprising leader of the opposition party or leader of the largest opposition party as the case may be in the Lok Sabha, Law Minister and Chief justice of India. Secretary, Department of Personnel, Government of India could serve the selection committee as its secretary.

Next in the process, Department of Personnel could prepare a panel for the post of Chief election Commissioner/ Election Commissioner(s) depending on the vacancy or as the case may be in the ratio 1:3.
While preparing panel, in case of nominees among the officers from Indian Administrative Service, consideration could be given to those officers who have served as Chief Electoral Officers in the States and had conducted general election to the Lok Sabha or and State Assembly. If the service record of the officer met the requisite parameters as laid down by the government, the officer could be included in the panel. The selection committee during its meeting for selection of the candidates could consider the name of such officer for selection. After finalization of the select list the government could recommend the same to the President for obtaining his approval of the names as per select list.

Selection of the top functionaries of Apex Election Body through such a procedure will reduce the possibility of opposition parties’ apprehension of favoritism by the government in their appointments and partial attitude towards Government by them in their functioning. Though much will depend on the functioning of such a constitutional functionary in his individual capacity and his personality. However; the procedure will help to reduce the pliability of said functionary (ies) if not eliminate .

Now to come to the first clause, it is inherent in the same that conduct of election should be fair, transparent and within the rules as laid down by the Commission from time to time.
The core issue which emerges out of this mandatory stipulation is the expenditure which a candidate has to incur during electioneering. It hardly needed to be gainsaid that the money which a candidate spends during campaign on his election is humongous. It is much beyond the cap prescribed by the ECI under the relevant rules. In fact it is a mockery of the said ceiling. It is a an open secret. Whereas present expenditure limit to Lok Sabha election is Rs 70 lakh, the actual amount a candidate expends during his candidature for the said election is many times higher. And thus runs into crore. Though in the record produced by him before the concerned authorities the amount spent by him might even be below the prescribed limit. But that is not all what he has actually spent. The details of account submitted by him to the concerned authorities conceal more than the same reveal. In India election is a money game. A person without the backing of huge financial resources cannot think of entering electoral fray albeit he might be genuinely interested to join politics and intend to contest election with the sincere intention of serving the country. For what the politics is actually meant. But politics in India is a lucrative investment with rich dividends in return.
However; the question, a moot one is; from where the huge amount of money for this investment comes. This is not the candidate’s own accounted money. It is money which comes from extraneous sources. Thus, the money so spent has to be recovered with heavy dividends. This in the process takes a shape of loot of people’s money meant for their welfare and development of the country. This is only one facet of the corrupt political system prevalent in the country from day one. Its roots are very deep and widely spread.
In summation, it is mandatory to cleanse the electoral politics from this malaise of obscure money for achieving the ends of democracy.

How to realise this is the next question.
There had been in the past a thinking and a suggestion from intelligentsia and other quarters for government financing of election expenditure.

In my view this is not a sound proposition and not worth endorsing. The reason, why the government should bear the liability of defraying the election expenses of the candidate seeking entry to the House and Corridors of power. Expenditure on the conduct of elections to Parliament and State Assemblies is already a heavy charge on the Exchequer, though a legitimate for the functioning of democracy. However; there is no justification to burden the tax payers further for meeting the cost of election of a candidate which is his private affair. Tax payers’ money needed to be utilised for the defence and development of country, people’s welfare, maintenance of law and order, internal security, facing the devastating challenge of natural calamities, meeting other requirement of governance and other activities concerning interest of the Nation. And not to finance the election campaign of an individual for seeking position of power.
So what is the way out? I have following suggestions:
Candidate-
1. To disclose his and spouse’s source of income and assets while filing nomination papers before Returning Officer (RO) and furnish income tax returns for the previous three years. Failing this, RO should reject nomination on the ground of nomination papers filed incomplete. Necessary column if required be added in the nomination papers.
2. To deposit amount within the election expenses limit, prescribed by Election Commission of India (Commission), he intends to expend on his election. RO could keep the said amount in a separate account under the head election expenses of candidate(s).
3. To give the details of agencies he plans to avail logistic support from.
4 To furnish bills to RO regarding services/ support availed. RO, on receipt of bills, after required verification to issue cheque for amount billed, in favour of the concerned agency within a period not exceeding four days..
5. Candidate to furnish to RO and Expenditure Observer complete detail of expenses incurred by him, his party and supporters for his election within 24 hours of completion of counting of votes.
6. Declaration of result of counting should be withheld till the completion of following exercise. In case of expenses exceeding ceiling by a candidate, his candidature needed to be declared null and void on ground of electoral malpractice. However; in case of violation of the said limit by more than one candidate, election needed to be countermanded. Commission to take said decisions on receipt of reports from Chief Electoral Officer, Election Observers after satisfying itself in this regard on the basis of facts mentioned in the reports. Commission may issue guidelines for furnishing of report in this regard by concerned within stipulated time. Commission, if feel satisfied may grant an opportunity to aggrieved party(ies) of hearing in person before conveying its decision.
7.Candidate should not seek support of religious organisations in any way during electioneering which promote his election prospects.
8.Mandate should be sought by the candidate on the basis of his election agenda or election manifesto of his party.
9.No convicted leader/worker of a party on bail/parole should be allowed to campaign during electioneering in favour of his party’s candidate. If such incident noticed, candidate be directed by election authorities to stop it forthwith. In case of defiance his candidature should be rejected in the manner suggested under para 6.
10. Political parties should adhere to internal democracy. Pending internal party elections should be held and completed within three months failing which party should be debarred from contesting next election / bye election when due.
11. They should furnish their audited financial status and income tax returns to Commission annually by date due
12. Donations exceeding Rs. ten thousand should not be accepted in cash by a party. And full particulars should be kept of the donors by the latter.
13. Donation to a party exceeding Rs one lakh by a donor should be made under intimation to the Commission.
14.Political parties should upload their financial position on their website and update regularly.
15.In case of defiance of above directives by a party, Commission should take appropriate correctional action on the same which may include levy of fine.
16.Financial status of the parties along with their sources of funding should be brought under the purview of Right to Information Act.
17.No ex parte stay to be granted by a Court vis a vis above decisions on a petition filed by the aggrieved party.
Many of these suggestions may seem harsh but then there is no option to cleanse the system which has been allowed over the years to deteriorate to the extent calling for such stringent measures to purge. The malaise has become cancerous. And cancer cannot be treated by an analgesic pill.
These are few suggestions to achieve the purported objective. However; Commission, if felt necessary in its wisdom; might further propose more measures in this regard. But the mission must be achieved.
Politics is a means to serve the country and people and not to seek one’s own fortune and swell one’s coffers. Those who join politics with such motive , intent and agenda should be kept straight way away from political field and ineluctably electoral politics under all the circumstances in the interest of democracy, country and billions of its people. So raising of cordon sanitaire in the form of above suggested measures is inevitable to safeguard the same from the infectious plague of corruption.
Though it is learnt Commission has sent in December 2016 its proposals on the issue to the Government. However; the outcome thereof is not known. Commission may like to renew its demand and prepare necessary proposals on the above suggestions for onward projections to the Government for enacting necessary laws, rules etc. And the Commission needs to convince the Government to take positive actions on such proposals. In case of want of requisite response by the Government, the Commission needed to advise the Government that in such a situation, it would have to conduct election in the future under clouded atmosphere. And this would not portend well for the future of democracy in the country. As the objective of achieving social and economic democracy, the goal of realising greatest good of greatest number will remain elusive as an unfulfilled dream under such a vicious system.
Apart from this, a controversy has erupted regarding the bona fide of electronic voting machines (EVMs) being used presently for voting. The opposition parties have expressed their apprehension rather made allegations that all is not well with the (EVMs) regarding their functioning while under use for voting . The same are prone to hacking to rig the voting result in favour of candidates from ruling alliance.
According to a news report : A bloc of 13 opposition parties, excluding AAP, met President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday. “The recent cases of alleged tampering and malfunctioning of EVM machines, particularly in the recently concluded assembly elections, have raised bona fide concerns on the possibility of manipulating electoral outcomes,” the representation given by opposition parties to Mukherjee said (News 18.com- April 13 2017).”
The report further mentioned, “Earlier, on Monday, 16 opposition parties urged the Election Commission to revert to the paper ballot system in future elections saying tampering allegations have created “trust deficit” on the reliability of the EVMs. AAP participated in this meeting. The parties also slammed the Centre for failing to provide funds to the Commission to put in place sufficient number of voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The VVPAT dispenses a slip with the symbol of the party the elector has voted for.”
The Election commission has categorically denied such allegations and has vouched for the absolute foolproofness of EVMs vis a vis their functioning. Considering the prestige of Commission there does’t seem a reason to question the credibility of the Commission.
But the opposition parties are far from convinced.
It may be recalled here that similar allegations were made by the present main ruling party while it was in opposition when United Progressive Alliance(UPA) was in power before 2014 General Elections to the LOK Sabha- a news item below:
Rediff India Abroad-August 05, 2009
“BJP to show EC how EVMs can be tampered
The BJP and Shiv Sena , which have claimed that EVMs can be tampered with, will make a presentation before the Election Commission to prove their contention.
“On August 7, a combined delegation of BJP-Shiv Sena would be coming (to give presentation on how EVMs can be tampered),” Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi told PTI on the sidelines of a book release function in New Delhi
“On August 8, Omash Saigal would be coming and we are finalising appointments for others also,” he added.
After former Delhi Chief Secretary Omash Saigal alleged that it was possible to tamper the EVMs, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha L KAdvani had demanded that ballot papers should be reintroduced in the electoral process.”
Irrespective of above controversy, I recall an incident on the issue. During the 2004 general elections to Lok Sabha I was posted Chief Electoral Officer in my State cadre J&K. After the announcement of poll schedule, my office got engaged in gearing itself to conduct the elections in the State. And thus was busy in making all the necessary arrangements for holding the elections. The preparations being made were on war footing keeping in view the time bound schedule of each stage of elections. One day while the team of technical staff (deputed by the Commission) was examining along with my office staff, the workability of EVMs(to be deployed for voting), an official of technical team and my Election Officer reported that in one of the machines there was a hundred percent polling in favour of All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam(AIADMK) Party. Obviously the EVMs sent by the Commission were earlier used in Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections. And this only conveyed rather proved that voting in that machine was rigged. As hundred percent polling at a polling station in favour of a single party was just not possible. It seemed that the concerned staff omitted to revert the machine to clear position by deleting the votes recorded in the machine at the time of voting. And thus the hacking was detected. We all were stunned and the machine was removed from use. I further instructed the inspecting staff to make it doubly sure that no other EVM was affected from such error.
Be that it may the controversy must come to an end.
And to set it rest and remove the trust deficit which the opposition parties have with the Commission.The latter needed to take all the stake holders on board to come to a unanimous resolution on the issue so that the forth coming elections to the State Assemblies and the general elections to Lok Sabha due in April/May 2019 are conducted in a way without any controversy.
This is an issue which puts on stake the credibility of the Commission. The Commission must spare no effort to pass this acid test in the interest of democracy and the country.

I conclude with the following views of Dr. BR Ambedkar on the murky state of our politics which he expressed as long back as in 1943.

“For the first time in our country money is taking the field as an organised power. The questions which President Roosevelt propounded for American Public to consider will arise here, if they have not already arisen : Who shall rule—wealth or man ? Which shall lead, money or intellect ? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate Capital ? For the present, Indian politics, at any rate the Hindu part of it, instead of being spiritualised has become grossly commercialised, so much so that it has become a byword for corruption. Many men of culture are refusing to concern themselves in this cesspool. Politics has become a kind of sewage system intolerably unsavoury and unsanitary. To become a politician is like going to work in the drain.

(Extracts from the address delivered on 101st Birth Day celebration of Mahadeo Govind Ranade held on the 18th January 1943 in Gokhale of memorial Hall Poona. Later published with the caption RANADE,GANDHI AND JINNAH)
Even such was the state of politics in India 75 years ago when it was regarded that the political leadership and public life in India, those manned; were held men of virtuous character and were of high education ( a rarity in those days).

However; how the same has gone down further from drain to gutter is revealed from the fact that during that era the leaders went to jails for the cause of freedom of motherland from foreign rule. This was considered an honour. The leaders of present time have to go jails for corruption charges of misusing their official position for personal aggrandisement or face corruption charges on this account. A dishonour. Nor good number of them are men of such learning though opportunities to education are widely available. And the irony is that even some with high education and having degree from foreign university are facing such imputations. Vast is the power of greed for lucre.

Should it be allowed to continue further ad infinitum? Should the country feel complacent by helplessly reconciling to the adage that ‘people get the government they deserve?
I feel people of this country deserve better.
And the onus lies on the Election Commission of India to make it.

Source: Daily Excelsior

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