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Sansad TV: Perspective- Election Commission Reforms

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Introduction:

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court Thursday unanimously ruled that a high-power committee consisting of the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition or the largest opposition party in Lok Sabha , and the Chief Justice of India must pick the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners. The apex court also made it clear that this will be subject to any law to be made by Parliament on this issue. The government had argued that in the absence of such a law, the President has the constitutional power to make these appointments. The verdict came on a PIL filed in 2015 by challenging the constitutional validity of the practice of appointment of members of the Election Commission. The president appoints CEC and election commissioners on the advice of the government. They have a tenure of six years, or up to the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. 20th Law Commission headed by Justice A P Shah (retd), in its 255th report on electoral reforms submitted in March 2015, had recommended a three-member collegiums to appoint the CEC and the election commissioners.

Need for electoral reforms:

  • Criminalization of politics: 40% of LS and 23% of RS MPs have criminal background.
  • Money and muscle power still influencing election outcomes.
  • Electoral participation is only 66% in 16th LS elections. So, there is need to increase electoral participation.
  • Women constitute only 11.3% in the 16th LS.
  • Role of EC – more Powers should be awarded. Appointments to EC need to be more transparent.
  • Political funding – Highly non-transparent and corruption prone zone.
  • Victimization of voters – through booth and constituency profiling.

System of election financing in India:

The system is two-tiered – based on parties and candidates. The parties are required to disclose income but not expenditure, while it’s the other way round for candidates.

  • The parties, whose main source of income comes from donations by individuals and corporations, use loopholes in the law to avoid disclosing identities of even the big individual donors. As regards corporate donations, despite the availability of tax breaks, most of it is done off-the-books mainly to avoid reprisals in case the opposing party wins.
  • On the other hand, the candidates grossly underreport expenditure while actually spending far higher than the legal limits allow. Most of the illegal spending by candidates comes from the assistance given to them by their parties which carry greater financial heft, and have no ceiling on expenditure.

What reforms are needed?

  • Prescribe a ceiling for political parties’ expenditure, like that for the candidates.
  • Consider state funding of political parties (not elections) with independent audit and a complete ban on private donations.
  • Enforce internal democracy and transparency in the working of the political parties. Bring them under the RTI.
  • Set up an independent national election fund where all tax-free donations could be made. It could be operated by the ECI or any other independent body.
  • Accept the ECI’s proposal to legally empower it to cancel elections where credible evidence of abuse of money has been found.
  • Debar persons against whom cases of heinous offences are pending in courts from contesting elections.
  • Empower the ECI to de-register those political parties which have not contested any election for 10 years and yet benefited from tax exemptions.
  • Make paid news an electoral offence with two years’ imprisonment by declaring it a “corrupt practice” (Sec 100 RP Act) and “undue influence” (Sec 123(2)).

Election commission of India (ECI) suggestions:

  • Election commissioners should be given the security of tenure similar to chief election commissioner.
  • ECI should have contempt power same as the court in India. Frequent contempt affects the dignity of the institution.
  • There should be transparency in the funding of political parties.
  • ECI should be given the power to make rules under Representation of people act 1951.
  • ECI should have the power to audit the accounts of political parties.
  • Election to the legislative assembly and to the parliament should be conducted simultaneously.
  • Debar the candidate from contesting election if the criminal cases are pending against him.
  • Make paid news an offence.
  • Do not allow one candidate to contest from more than one constituency.

The law commission of India’s suggestions:

  • The political parties should be brought under the ambit of the RTI.
  • There should be internal democracy in political parties.
  • greater financial accountability of parties
  • opening party affairs to public
  • experimenting with State Funding of election model to check black money in elections; among others.

The government has taken following actions as per the recommendations of ECI and law commission

  • NOTA was introduced to provide an alternative to the voters.
  • Limitation on funding to political parties, Electoral bond was introduced to improve the transparency in electoral funding.

Way Forward:

  • We have a very successful experience with democracy over the last 70 years but Vice- President’s concerns are also very genuine.
  • Political parties have to rise on this occasion and maintain self disciple.
  • There are many instances where people have rejected money and freebies but instead of people rejecting, the political parties should compete with each other on this issue.
  • Legislation will also not do much.
  • Need to educate people more and more to not indulge in this.
  • There should be limits on spending of political parties too.

However, there is a need of more innovative reforms to ensure – internal democracy, financial accountability in parties. A slew of reforms like use of vote- totaliser machines to protect voters privacy, simultaneous elections, penal provisions for compliance of Sec 29C, statutory backing to MCC , bringing political parties in RTI ambit, further increasing transparency in pol-funding , measures to increase political participation,etc. are needed for a strengthening our democracy.