Why should we vote at all?

Why should we vote at all?

An Election Commission member has said that whether or not we get a good government after the Lok Sabha elections fully depends on the voter and on how s/he decides to vote. But what choice do the voters really have in choosing between the kind of candidates imposed on us by the various parties? 

Every step taken by civil society and the courts to make political parties accountable has been opposed by almost all parties. Political parties opposed the case in the Supreme Court filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) about giving affidavits regarding their assets, criminal records, etc. They have ignored the direction of the Central Information Commission bringing them under the RTI Act. No party opposed the amendment to the law that legalised, that too retrospectively, foreign funds received by parties. Electoral Bonds, touted as bringing in greater transparency into political funding, has actually made it even less transparent, and no party opposed it! 

If parties had the political will to give us good governance, why have none of them brought in good governance practices within their own parties? No party says it will bring in a law to regulate political parties to make their functioning more democratic, transparent and accountable to the public. Such laws exist in many countries. 

Most parties do not select candidates through inner-party democracy. It is common knowledge that money rules the roost -– to get tickets to contest, to buy vote, to get ministerial berths, and to poach MLAs, if denied power. There is apparently a revolving door between parties as those who were today in the opposition party are tomorrow in the ruling party and vice versa, revealing the hollowness of their commitment to any political ideology. What good governance can one expect from persons who buy their way to positions of power? 

If money power is one aspect, muscle power is the other. No doubt, the law allows even candidates with heinous crimes to contest as long as they are not convicted. But if parties really want to give us a clean government, why has no party announced that they will voluntarily refrain from giving tickets to those facing criminal charges, until they are proved innocent?

Also, it was pointed out at the recent ADR annual meet that if charges under the IPC involving ‘moral turpitude’ are framed against a government servant, he is immediately suspended. Then, why is a person with similar charges, who gets elected, also not suspended immediately? Currently, cases against elected representatives drag on for years and there is no sign of these being ‘fast-tracked’ as directed by the SC. ADR admits that all civil society efforts to cleanse elections have not resulted in tangible results as money power and criminalisation are only increasing. Given these facts, is it any wonder that many people have lost faith in parties and have to be coaxed to go and vote? 

Is NOTA an option?

However, in a historic judgement in 2013, the SC directed the Election Commission (EC) to provide an option to the dissatisfied voter to press a NOTA (None of the above) button in the EVMs. But pressing the NOTA button has no impact on the result of the election as the EC said that even if the number of NOTA votes exceeds that obtained by the candidate with the highest number of votes, s/he would still be declared winner. In such a case, a re-election is not held with a fresh set of candidates.

Hence, a succeeding case was filed asking the SC to direct the government to legislate on this anomaly. However, the SC refused to give such a direction. Thus, despite NOTA, parties are still fielding candidates with criminal cases against them, and they continue to win. 

But despite this lack of a law, the Maharashtra State Election Commission (SEC) took the bold decision of issuing a notification in November 2018, stating that fresh elections would be held if the NOTA option received the most votes in a constituency. The Maharashtra SEC justified this order stating that the spirit of the 2013 SC judgement required it. But the Maharashtra order did not bar the rejected candidates from contesting in the re-election. So, the purpose was not served as the same candidates could get elected again! 

The Haryana SEC issued an order similar to that of Maharashtra, but went a step ahead by barring the losing candidates from contesting in the re-election. However, an appeal to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to bring in a similar order nationally has been rejected by it. If the SECs of two states could do it, then why not the CEC? Or, is an amendment to the law itself required to enable this? 

Until political parties show the will to reform themselves by at least promising in their manifestos that they will bring in necessary laws to cleanse the system and their own functioning, electors are justified in asking why they should vote at all. 

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC Bangalore)