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On Elections In India

(This article is part of our new initiative on current events and Magazine. We have received a very good response from more than 35 serious aspirants who have come forward to contribute daily/weekly on different topics from different newspapers and sources. We will soon group them and assign them different topics based on their interest. Our  regular current events section which was based on few articles from The Hindu was incomplete, hence we want to make it complete by covering editorials, news from important sources other than The Hindu and also anything that is related to the syllabus. With patience comes good things in life. And we always say – good things are yet to come 🙂

We thank Kirthi for always supporting us and showing keen interest in contributing to this site since last five months)

Ms. Kirthi 

Elections are the life blood of any democracy. The robustness of electoral processes determines the fate of the nation. On the eve of elections for Loksabha in 2014, we should be able to appreciate the problems inherent in the present electoral system and some of the major proposals if implemented that can better the system.

Even though India has seen outstanding men of impeccable integrity in public life, they have not been successful in elections. If even elected, they have not been able to continue by sticking to the spirit of the law. The flawed electoral process resulted in not attracting the best of talents and public spirited men and women to the positions of power. It alienated them instead. Recent notable exception has been Delhi assembly elections.

The root cause of corruption that has undermined the rule of law, democracy, market forces and resulted in trust deficit between citizen and government has been the scale of election expenditure.

Election expenditure

Invariably, the ceiling laws on elections have been violated. Recall the statement of Gopinath Munde admitting eight crores were spent during his 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign, an amount much higher than the permissible limit of Rs 40 lakh.
Here starts the wheel the corruption. The politicians have to resort to illegal funds from business persons to spend amount on that scale in return for favorable policies at the expense of public interest. All the efforts to curb corruption at all levels are incomplete without tacking the funding of political parties and candidates. The wheel of corruption looks like this

The integrity in public life and survival in public office are no longer compatible.
Money and muscle power have become a necessary but not a sufficient factor in winning elections. All the parties employ them and neutralize each other.

Irregularities in the electoral process

Flawed electoral rolls have become a menace. Purchase of votes through money and liquor, preventing poorer sections from voting, large scale impersonation( though the use of ID cards have lessened) and bogus voting, purchase of agents of opponents, threatening and forcing agents and polling personnel to allow false voting, booth-capturing and large scale rigging, bribing polling staff and police personnel to get favours and to harass opponents, use of violence and criminal gangs, stealing ballot boxes or tampering with the ballot papers, inducing or forcing voters to reveal their voting etc, illegally entering the polling stations and controlling polling process are some of them.

Though parties in power are prone to abusing authority for electoral gains, there has never been any serious state-sponsored rigging in most of India. The irregularities are largely limited to the polling process alone, and most of the pre-polling activities including printing and distribution of ballot papers, and post-polling activities including transport and storage of ballot boxes and counting of ballots are free from any political interference or organized manipulation. That is why parties in power have no decisive advantage in manipulating the polls, and electoral verdicts broadly reflect shifts in public opinion.

Outcome of the irregularities on the selection of candidates – criminalization of politics

However, the massive irregularities in polling process make sure that candidates who deploy abnormal money and muscle power have a distinct advantage. Sensing this, most major parties have come to nominate ‘winnable’ candidates without reference to their ability and integrity.

Thus, the use of money power and muscle power are sanctioned by almost all the parties, and often they tend to neutralize each other. The net result is that candidates who do not indulge in any irregularity have very little chance of being elected. Criminals have a decisive or dominant influence on the outcome in many parts of India, and have often become party candidates and won on a large scale.

New entrants to the politics

If we exclude the methods of heredity, money power, muscle power, personal contacts, high visibility, and accidents of fate, there will not be even a handful of persons in this vast country of ours, who have entered politics with deep understanding of public affairs and passion for public good and survived for any length of time over the past four decades. In the true sense, politics is about promotion of happiness and public good. But if the best men and women that society can boast of are either prevented or repelled or rendered incapable of surviving in the political arena, then that governance is bound to be in shambles, as is happening in india today.

The first-past-the-post system

In “first-past-the-post system” in which the successful candidate wins on the plurality, rather than the majority, of votes cast, opined the Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Handful of countries in the world now have this system. Even the United Kingdom which has left us with this legacy has been using proportional repression at the local elections.

Its limitation was evident from factual data. In the first general election in 1952, the percentage of successful candidates who secured less than 50 per cent of the total votes cast in their constituencies was 67.28. This figure went down to 58.09 per cent in the 1957 election. In the general elections held in 1999, 2004, and 2009, it was 60.03, 75.87 and 82.68 respectively — more candidates got elected to the Lok Sabha by securing less than 50 per cent of the total votes polled in their constituencies.

“The conclusion is inescapable that a majority of elected members of the Lok Sabha in recent years, and even earlier, won on a minority of votes cast in their constituencies. The situation is no better, perhaps worse, in the Assembly Elections with the percentage of the returned candidates on minority of votes cast going above 70 in several cases.”

“When this percentage is considered alongside the average voter turnout, it would suggest that the elected representative may not be, often is not, representative of his/her electoral constituency. Furthermore, this system encourages candidates to focus on securing votes of a segment of the electorate and thereby accentuate or reinforce social divisions based on narrower considerations that derogate from inclusiveness and promote divisive tendencies and social conflict,” Mr. Ansar said.

On the other hand, in the FPTP system, there is desperation to somehow win the election in a constituency by all means fair or foul, as each seat becomes critical in the legislative numbers game to form government or acquire influence in the Westminster model. The party chooses candidates who are winnable in the constituency on caste, religion and  other grounds but not based on integrity. A person who has good support all over the state might not stand the chance of winning, but who can divide the people on sectarian lines and win the votes in one constituency does.

In a system in which winning the seat by attracting the largest number of votes is all-important, honest individuals or reformist parties fighting against the electoral malpractices and corruption have very little chance of success.

Proportional representation

Proportional representation (PR) is a concept in voting systems used to elect an assembly or council. PR means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. For example, under a PR voting system, if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party. PR is an alternative to voting systems based on single-member districts or on bloc voting; these non-PR systems tend to produce disproportionate outcomes and to have a bias in favor of larger political groups. The government in power are rarely the true representatives of people with declining share of votes ( refer the statistics above). Many in India are advocating for a move to PR. More on the alternative forms of electoral systems later.

Role of political parties

There is no inner party democracy in India. The parties which are most undemocratically run are elected to run a functional democracy. Irony. The political parties in the west are democratic. There are clear cut rules for criteria for membership, elections at every level to elect the leadership at the national level so that a good candidate at the local level has good chances of becoming a national leader, resulting in infusion of fresh energy, personalities and ideas in politics.

On the contrary in India, there are no clear defined rules of membership, elections are rarity and even if held are manipulated. Any threat to the ‘high command’ through leadership at regional level with new ideas are nipped in the bud. The chief ministers at the state are often changed, nominated by the high command even if they do not enjoy the support of majority of legislators. No amount of support at the state level for the leader or his abilities counts if he is a potential threat to the high command. There is no infusion of fresh blood. Parties are run autocratically, un democratically. Not only the high command shamelessly promote their kith and kins, they run their parties as personal fiefdoms. They also prevent free voicing of opinions. Any contrarian voice against the ruling clique even at ‘Inner Party Fora’ leads to swift expulsion. Even though it is now established, that dissent is the true essence of democracy, no political party in India, without exception, provides any space for dissent. How can such a situation be conducive to the growth and prosperity of democratic values in our polity?

What we instead need is nomination of candidates in transparent manner through elections voted by party membership. Political parties play a crucial role in democracy. Individual candidates do not have much success today and their percentage is ever declining. There is also party position on various issues which can be enforced in the legislature through whim. Political party reform ensues recruitment and nomination of candidates with abilities, good governance credentials and talent.

Basic democratic principles of member control, elected representatives from lower tier electing leadership at higher levels, open membership rolls, fair and free elections, no power to central party over regional and local units, easy and effective challenge to incumbents, no recourse to expulsion or removal of potential rivals, and no nominated office holders at any level, should be integral to the functioning of any political party.

Every party, by law, should be obligated to practice internal democracy in all respects. The details of functioning can be left to the party’s own constitution, but it should conform to the broad principles of democracy stated clearly in law. The actual practice of internal democracy should be verifiable by an external agency, say the Election Commission. Mandatory publication of membership rolls of political parties at local level, election of leadership at every level by secret ballot supervised by the Election Commission, a comprehensive prohibition on nominations of office bearers or expulsion of rivals, a well-established system to challenge the leadership of incumbents at every level, and justiciability of these internal democratic processes through special tribunals – all these measures could form the basis of any meaningful reform and regulation of political parties.

Systemic inertia

People realized with experience that the outcome of elections is of little consequence to their lives in the long run. Whatever be the outcome of the election, there will be no real improvement in the quality of governance. This remarkable inertia and the seeming intractability of the governance process have convinced citizens that there is no real long-term stake involved in electoral politics. Therefore many poor citizens are forced to take a rational decision to maximize their short-term gains. As a result the vote has become a purchasable commodity for money or liquor. More often it is a sign of assertion of primordial loyalties of caste, religion, group, ethnicity, region or language. Very often without even any material inducement or emotional outburst based on prejudices, the sheer anger against the dysfunctional governance process makes most voters reject the status quo. In short, even the illiterate, ordinary voter is making a rational assumption that the vote has no serious long-term consequences and he is attempting to maximize his short-term material or emotional gain.

Anti-defection law

Though it was intended to combat the political defections, it did lead to suppression of inter party discussion and holds against the freedom of opinion and expression of  party members against party line even if those matters are not concerned about the stability or survival of the political party like in no confidence motion, budget sessions etc. The ill-conceived legislation on muslim women’s maintenance after the Supreme Court verdict in Shah Bano case is one sad example of such a case. An even more shameful episode is the whip issued by Congress Party to its MPs in the impeachment case of Justice Ramaswamy. Parliament sits as a court while deciding on impeachment matters, and only evidence of wrong doing and the judgment of individual MPs should matter. Party whips have no place on such issues, and are manifestly illegitimate, and are probably unconstitutional. However, once the law gives the same enforceability to all whips, the legislators have no choice but to obey, or risk disqualification. This undermines the very discussion and dissent of the democracy.

The electoral reforms as a result should encompass the following issues

1. Criminalization of politics.
2. Abuse of unaccounted money power.
3. Electoral irregularities of flawed electoral rolls, personation, false-voting,
rigging and booth capturing.
4. Autocratic, unaccountable political parties.
5. Electoral reforms in local governments
6. Elections to RajyaSabha
7. The curse of defections for personal gain
8. The deficiencies of FPTP system.

More on the above issues in the next article.