How free and fair are our elections?

Chief Election Commissioners never tire of extolling the Great Indian Election process and how other countries wish to learn from us. But, how fair and free are our elections, and how representative and democratic our elected bodies? Much light was thrown on these issues at recent gatherings called by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (FDCA) and the Praja Jagruthi Samiti.

The very first step of trying to get one’s name in the electoral roll is a big hurdle for slum-dwellers and migrants -- who have no proof of address -- and even for the affluent who submit on-line applications. Often, forms are rejected, acknowledgements are not given, and even if given, they have no tracking numbers. The Representation of People Act (RPA) requires either self-affidavits to be obtained from those lacking proof of address, or verification of their ‘place of ordinary residence’ by electoral officers. These are sufficient for including their names on the electoral roll. Also, hardly anyone receives a reply, giving reasons for rejection of their application. All these are mandatory procedures detailed in the RPA, which none seem to be following. The irony is that while these genuine citizens are denied their right to vote, NRIs, who do not even live in this country, have been given the right.

Experts question how empowered the Election Commission (EC) is to curb the ‘4 C’s plaguing our elections - criminalisation, corruption, communalisation and casteism’. Candidates are required to reveal their assets and liabilities, the criminal cases they are facing, etc., to the EC. Now, as per the SC ruling in the Lok Prahari case, candidates have to also reveal the source of their assets/incomes. But, can the EC get the affidavits verified and disqualify the candidates if the affidavits are found to be false? And should those facing charges of heinous crimes be allowed to stand for election and hold office?

Everyone is aware of freebies -– cash, biriyani, saris, etc., -- being given during elections. But the number of cases where the EC has been able to countermand elections for such corrupt practice is very few. To curb money power, one good suggestion is that no campaigning should be allowed once the code of conduct is announced. The service rendered by the candidate during the preceding five years to the constituency should be placed before the public and that should be the only deciding factor. Television shows could be allowed to all candidates.

The RPA also says that religion, race, caste, community and language cannot be used to appeal to voters. But in all above-mentioned violations, the EC can only file FIRs which take years to be decided in courts. So, no one gets punished. The EC has to hence declare even defaulters as winners.

Also, the provision on not using divisive statements based on religion, etc., can be enforced only during the 40 days before elections. But, after the elections, nothing can stop politicians from making any number of such statements. There is a need to regulate such post-election behaviour through a law if we really want clean politics.

Caps on election expenditure apply only to candidates and not to the political parties supporting them. Is it not ironic that electoral bonds have been introduced by which the donations received by political parties will become completely opaque? And that by removing the ceiling on the donations that corporate entities can make to political parties, the corporate sector’s hold over policy-making post elections has been enhanced? And by giving the law retrospective effect, funds to the two main political parties from foreign sources have been regularised? A comprehensive law to regulate the functioning of political parties; banning corporate funding, as in Brazil; making inner-party democracy and transparency mandatory – these are the need of the hour. Funding of parties by the State, based on the percentage of votes they get has been mooted as a solution.

How are representative of people’s choice our elections? Experts point out that the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is good only in countries where a two-party system prevails, and that in a country of India’s diversity, the Proportional Representation (PR) system is better. Under PR, the Congress would have got 105 seats in 2014 for their vote share of 19.52%, instead of just 44. In the PR system, every party will get seats as per the percentage of votes it receives, and thus every voter’s vote gets a value.

Those who defect to other parties after elections can be disqualified only by the Speaker. But, often, the term of the elected representative gets over before the Speaker takes a decision. The Election Commission should be allowed to take action in this regard, rather than the Speaker.

Currently, those who disrupt parliament for days together go scot free. We need a rule by which they are marked absent on those days. And anyone with less than 90% attendance during a five-year term should not be allowed to contest in the next election. That is the only measure that will make them behave. Cutting legislators’ salaries, as has been suggested, will have no effect on them.

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC Bangalore)

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