The possibility of improving the quality of leadership is the redeeming feature of democracy. Declining standards in political probity, the unrepresentative character of the elected legislatures, corrupt practices like electoral bonds are major concerns and call for reform of the electoral system.
According to an analysis of affidavits of winners in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 43% have criminal cases and 29% have serious criminal cases against them including offences where maximum punishment is five years or more. These offences are non-bailable and relate to assault, kidnap, rape, murder, electoral offences like bribery, corruption causing loss to exchequer, and crimes against women. In 2009, it was 30% and 14% respectively, and the present figures indicate that the number of elected parliamentarians with serious offences has doubled over the past 10 years. As excuses, the foisting of false cases and the pathologies of the criminal justice system are touted to prevent reform. Ironically, a weak criminal justice system favours the perpetuation of political deceit. To expect that the narrow self-interests of political parties will let them push for electoral reform that improves leadership quality would be deluding.
Technology now seems to offer hope. Electoral democracy is soon to expand its reach and provide 10.17 million NRIs the facility of utilising the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). They can vote from any place. In 2016, this facility was introduced for nearly 2.5 million Armed Forces, Central Para Military Forces and staff at embassies. ETPBS could be a gamechanger that has potential to transform India’s electoral system by expanding inclusion, cheaper conduct of elections and bringing about reforms that could enhance the quality of elected leaders at every level.
The ETPBS, being an electronic ballot system, would offer the scope of reducing the existing scale of resources required to conduct elections. Considering the frequency of various levels of elections that encompass the parliament, state, district, panchayat and municipalities, the efficacy, ease of voting and savings to exchequer would be considerable. The ETBPS cannot, however, immediately and wholly replace the existing system but can, in the short term, supplement it and progressively reduce the load on the extant system. The feasibility of keeping the ETBPS voting period much longer than the current tight timeframes also offers considerable advantages to increase the inclusivity of those entitled to vote.
Technologically, it should be feasible for the ETBPS to allow electronic voting through mobile phones. Presumably, some safeguards to ensure voting only by eligible individuals would have already been built into the ETBPS. The possibility of individuals being coerced to vote always exists and could be an argument used to deny the migrant and electronically challenged population this facility. But the technological feasibility of voting through ‘clicks’ provides solutions. Notably, these arguments falter at the doorstep of equality of opportunity. However, there are existing laws that penalise acts of voter coercion.
The meta-question is whether the ETBPS can be utilised to improve the quality of India’s leadership, at all levels? The answer is in the affirmative, because now it is practicable to move beyond the first-past-the-post system. With the growing multiplicity of interest groups that is a natural output of India’s diversity, the first-past-the-post system generates winners who sometimes have only 10-15% of votes in that constituency. The winner is not a representative who enjoys majority support. This violates the basic principle of democracy, based on the rule by majority. Till now, this anomaly was difficult to rectify, but now technology has opened up possibilities.
In May 1990, the Law Commission of India, headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, presented the 170th Report on the Reform of Electoral Laws. The report highlighted the need to go beyond the existing system and adopt the principle that only a candidate obtaining 50%+1 votes be declared elected and the holding of a “run-off” election between the first and second candidate wherever no candidate had managed 50%+1 votes. It also recommended the negative vote, now known as NOTA.
The report underlined two important objectives for these reforms. First, “Curtail the significance and role played by caste factor in the electoral process. There is hardly any constituency in the country where any one particular caste can command more than 50% of the votes. This means that a candidate has to carry with him several castes and communities, to succeed.” In contemporary times, religion could also be added to caste. Second, “the negative vote is intended to put moral pressure on political parties not to put forward candidates with undesirable record i.e., criminals, corrupt elements and persons with unsavoury background”. The report, however, signposted the administrative difficulties of holding the run-off elections but recommended that the government examine its feasibility.
In 2002, the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution (NCRWC), also known as the Justice Venkatachaliah Commission, recommended changes that had earlier been recommended by the 170th Law Commission Report. Not surprisingly, political parties have not made any move to implement these recommendations.
In 2013, due to the efforts of electoral reform activists and despite resistance from the government, NOTA was enforced by a Supreme Court judgement. Now, with ETBPS and NOTA being implemented, the feasibility of the real major reform by way of run-off elections should become increasingly plausible. Run-off and NOTA in combination will assign values to the reputation and background of the candidates. In the long run, the technological possibility exists of doing away with voting booths through a mobile or computer-based voting system. Importantly, such a possibility is now only limited and could be further delayed by the lack of political will.
It would be reasonable to assume that there would be enormous resistance from political parties to introducing the run-off election system. The only possibility of change is the legal route and for that, the case is only getting stronger, thanks to technology. Three decades ago, the Law Commission described the need to reform the first-past-the-post system as an urgent and crying necessity to strengthen democracy. Today, the legal rod wrapped in scientific innovation holds the promise to fulfill that pressing requirement, like never before.
(The writer is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat)