Reforming parties

Reforming parties

Need of the hour

Anna Hazare has switched from tweeting to talking to threaten yet another fast if a ‘strong’ Jan Lokpal bill of his liking is not legislated by the end of the forthcoming winter session of Parliament. Why this ‘threat’ when the standing committee of Parliament is seized of the matter which will thereafter go to the Lok Sabha with cabinet approval?

The constant reference to official and Parliamentary ‘assurances’ given to Anna that must be fulfilled (or else), is a gross misreading of the facts. The only promise made and accepted in black and white was that Anna’s proposals and last three ‘demands’ would be placed before the standing committee for consideration. No more.   

To equate a ‘strong’ Lokpal bill with the ‘Jan Lokpal bill’ is another misjoinder. Corruption has to be fought in multiple ways and on multiple fronts. There cannot be a single magic formula and a monolithic authority with all power over every domain is dangerous as it would be authoritarian and could impede good governance.

Habitual resort to emotional blackmail – for that is precisely what constant threats of fast until death or near death, inevitably followed my mob violence,amount to – is a bluff that must be called. The Team Anna  has been anything but Gandhian and has practised double stands of morality. Those who demand a ‘strong’ Lokpal must themselves display ‘strong’ ethical standards and not plead petty technical and procedural excuses that they scornfully deny others. 

Anna has properly turned to electoral reform as a priority issue, as electoral funding is a major font of corruption and black money. But he has focussed on somewhat peripheral issues such as the need for ‘rejection’ and ‘recall.’ The Election Commission which his team met has explained the practical difficulties in implementing such suggestions, offering instead the possibility of introducing a ‘none of the above’ button in the voting machines. The right to recall has been rejected by the BJP also. This is a questionable proposition in a country with huge constituencies and diverse populations.

Some argue that representation would be improved if candidates are not elected on a minority vote but are required to garner 50 plus one per cent of the total votes cast, something that could be achieved by a run-off. Here too the CEC pleads that this could lead to a five day delay between voting, counting and re-polling and frustrate the electoral timetable and security arrangements in remote and troubled areas, which many already complain is far too stretched.

A higher voter turnout, through voters’ education and some form of incentives and disincentives, and fewer candidates through some suitable filter, could give serious candidates a higher proportion of the votes cast. The EC is already working on these ideas.

Reducing election expenses
State funding has been mooted to curtail expenses but there is reason to suppose that this will be an additionality unless given in kind. The EC now has an expenditure division that monitors expenses and the first scalp has been taken for paid news for which the concerned media houses must also be held accountable. The other approach would be to cut down election expenditure by further reducing the election period and mandating common platforms for all (leading) candidates through the electronic media, social media and in town halls, market squares and maidans.

Anyone with a criminal record should be barred from contesting. All candidates must declare their family (wife, children and dependants’) wealth and tax returns over the past three years and must file annual declarations thereafter, including gift income from adoring citizens who seem prone to pour money into the coffers of those elected. The sources of such gifts and the tax returns of the ‘philanthropists’ must also be examined and condign punishments for default awarded.

However, electoral reform by itself will be insufficient without political party reform. The two have seldom been interlinked in public debate. The Constitution makes no reference to political parties except in Schedule 12 relating to defections. The Representation of the People Act too is silent on political parties except with reference to their recognition. This constitutes a major lacuna. The Constitution should be amended to provide that representation in legislatures shall normally be through political parties that shall  be registered. Such a formulation would not exclude independents.

Given such a constitutional amendment, a Registration of Political Parties Bill can be introduced to flesh out provisions in relation to the party’s constitution, roll of members by state and constituency, subscriptions, election of office bearers, public audit of accounts, and so forth. Supervision of such an Act could also be brought under the jurisdiction of the Election Commission so that all electoral levers are in one hand.

Absence of any political party regulation gives licence to parties to collect and conceal funds, cook their accounts, enrol and jettison members at will, set up dummy candidates who can be adopted if they win, indulge in aberrant behaviour and allow cabals to gain control over the party machine.

Most parties will baulk at this idea as they talk democracy but are themselves somewhat undemocratic entities. Public audit of funds is taboo for them. Nevertheless it is desirable that such a one line constitutional amendment be framed in the first instance and let any party that opposes the very principle of party registration and accountability explain it.