India is often referred as a vibrant and vigorous democracy. But just because we have elections regularly, or rather far too often, does not necessarily mean that we have an effective democracy. Election can be defined as a system by which voters or electors, select their representatives by casting of votes. It is a cardinal necessity of every democracy and Right to Vote is a Constitutional right of its citizens. The Constitution of India provides for an Election Commission of India which is responsible for superintendence direction and control of all elections. It is responsible for conducting elections to both the Houses of Parliament and State Legislatures and for the offices of President and Vice-President.
Inconsistencies in the Election System in India
India has experienced an epoch of elections for innumerable times and has undergone great transition crossing several upheavals, engrossed with numerous discrepancies. The way our legislature and State assemblies function, does not make us proud. One of the major causes for the unruly and unproductive functioning of the legislatures is the quality of people who find their way into the legislatures. The birth of scourges like communalism, corruption, under-development, poverty, etc. can be attributed to the unethical practices, our leaders indulge in.
There persists a big swarm of burning issues hampering the democratic piousness and productive representation in our Indian society. The rampant issues bulging out as a handicap to election process are-
- Dominance of money power and Muscle power
- Criminalisation of politics
- Financing of election exceeding the legal limit
- Booth capturing
- Intimidation of voters
- Buying Voters
- Tampered electoral rolls
- Large-scale rigging of elections
- Abuse of religion and caste in the enlistment of voters, etc
The elections today more or less have become an ambitious investment venture, where everyone wants to try their hand at. Therefore each and every step of election process is packed with loads of inaptness as discussed below.
History of Election Reforms in India
The journey of corruption in election process did not befall all of a sudden but gradually in a time span of several decades. Initially the requirement of money was felt for campaigning and since the majority voters were illiterate masses so, electioneering was required to be on a large scale. The candidates fetched support, aid and finances from criminals and muscle men. Generation and accumulation of money requires a robust support from the bureaucracy and these tend to encompass the bureaucracy too in the political web. After a while the criminals involved in non- bail able and cognizable offences themselves started participating in politics since they could easily win the elections by threats and coercion. The battle of ballot became battle of bullets. And when these kinds of people aspire to become the part of our honorary legislature, what better reforms can we expect from our government?
Taking cognizance of these serious shortcomings several commissions came up with the proposal for reformation of Electoral process in India including Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms 1990, Vohra Committee Report 1993, Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections 1998, Law Commission Report on the Electoral Laws 1999, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution 2001, Election Commission of India with Proposed Electoral Reforms, 2004 and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission 2008. These committees first outlined the alarming divergence and irregularities of the Election process and then made recommendations for its implementation.
Challenges before the Election Commission and the Steps taken
Taking into consideration the major contentions pertaining to the unruly conditions of electoral system, several issues were highlighted.
Criminalisation of Politics
Criminalisation of politics has many forms, but perhaps the most alarming among them is the significant number of elected representatives with criminal charges pending against them. In 2005 elections of Bihar, out of 385 candidates 213 were found to be alleged of non- bail able and cognizable offences. Obscuring of the facts and criminal records acts an as an impediment to the fair election process. In order to combat the said anomaly, the Vohra Committee Report on Criminalisation of Politics was constituted to spot the degree of the politician-criminal nexus and suggest conduct to combat the menace. It stated “The nexus between the criminal gangs, police, bureaucracy and politicians has come out clearly in various parts of the country and some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs/armed senas and over the years get themselves elected to local bodies, State assemblies, and national parliament.” The election commission projected that any attempt to obscure the antecedent illegal evidence under Rule 4A of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was to be punishable with imprisonment for two years or more, in a pending case in which charges have been framed by the Court. The cases where the accused was convicted for an offence other than any of the offences mentioned in Section 8 of Representation of the People Act, 1951, and sentenced to imprisonment for one year or more, led to imposition of penalty under section 125A of the Representative of People Act, 1951 to provide for more severe punishment for two years imprisonment or imposition of fine.
The National Election Commission proposed that candidates alleged of serious crimes whose punishment exceeded 5 years shall be disqualified by the Court of law. And where the year of imprisonment was six years under Sec. 8 of R.P. Act, 1951 an inhibition of 6 years from contesting elections. During the 13th Lok Sabha elections candidates having criminal cases against them numbered 12 in Bihar and 17 in Uttar Pradesh. Although, whatever may be done to prevent a criminal from contending elections no single step is taken to put a restraint on the representatives who have already been elected, having a criminal record. Therefore, the law breakers are sitting in the parliament as law makers.
Financing of election exceeding the legal limit
The issue of financing of election exceeding the legal limit has adverse repercussion creating compulsion for corruption in public arena. The instance of “Hawala Scam” which unleashed several high profile politicians involved in the perpetrating booth capturing, rigging of elections and aiding dreaded criminals and muscle men. In order to tackle this issue the national election commission proposed the legal limit or ceiling of the election expenditure to be fixed at a reasonable rate taking into cognizance the present economic scenario concomitant with disclosure of assets and state funding too. Other than that, the EC appoints expenditure observers to keep an eye on the individual financial records of election outlays made by contestants, during election campaign. In pursuance of an order of the Supreme Court judgment, in the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties & another vs. Union of India [(1997) 1 SCC 301] case, the EC apprehended for electoral office to submit mandatorily, an affidavit disclosing his assets and liabilities. The 2004 report of the Election Commission acknowledged that political parties were required to make public their financial statement. Therefore, refinement of elections is the imperative itinerary by which corruption and maladministration can be cramped. It would not be wrong to say that the whole superstructure stands on the infrastructure of corruption.
The issue haunting the electioneering process is Booth capturing, by which the parties patrons try to manipulate and the number votes in their votes. The tampering of electoral rolls in the elections is done on large scale. To curb such activities the election commission has laid down guidelines to ensure if any booth capturing is going on the returning officer is to notify it to the election commissioner and apt decisions would be taken to declare the polling in that area to null and void.
The practise of enticing the voters by distribution of stuffs in cash and kind to the masses are done since they form the major chunk of the voter bank. To the extent they are also served with liquor and drugs to gather votes, thanks to the slothful and sluggish people. And if these tricks don’t fetch votes then intimidation and coercion serves as the last resort. By manipulating, tampering of electoral rolls or by use of force, intimidation and coercion the process of rigging of election has been quite successful down the line of several decades. The National Election commission directed the returning officer, civil society and any person to intimate about booth capturing or any kind of rigging to the commission to take strong action against the perpetrator of anarchy under section 58 A of Representation of people Act, 1951.
Abuse of Caste and Religion
The question of abuse of caste and religion is of greater magnitude. The political parties tend to allow only those candidates to fight elections who can muster the minority groups and castes to their favour. Communal loyalties are used at the time of election campaigning to attract the minority voters. And it is very well observed that the electorates too cast their vote taking into consideration the case and religious prejudices. The National Election Commission also commended about the paradigm of ‘Neutral Voting.’ This concept states that if the voter does not find any candidate suitable, he may get the ‘Right to Reject’ also with the management of every EVM’s (electronic voting machine) having option in the end as ‘None of the above.’ The basic notion behind this paradigm is to bring transparency in the election process but it has not been implemented yet due to various issues involved (Read further on Right to Reject)
First –Past- the- Post- System: Legacy of Colonialism
One of the basic reasons for these many inconsistencies is the structural defect in the procedure of election. The process followed in our country is first –past- the- post- system. The ideal principle of election is the ‘majority rules principle’, whichever party gets more than 50 % votes emerge out to be victorious in the polling. But the principal followed in our country i.e., the First-past –the-post-system is based on irrational ground. Since, according to this principle a person can win elections even if the margin is less than 100 votes and the party which gets just 30% – 35% votes will count to emerge victorious in the elections. Hence he or she cannot be the choice of majority. The National Election commission therefore, proposed to replace this system with two staged election. If no candidate gets majority more than 50% then second round will take place consisting of top two candidates and whoever gets more than 51% shall be deemed elected.
Initiatives by the Election Commission
Other than dealing with challenges faced in the election process, the Election commission lays down the model of Code of conduct, since it is the custodian of fair and free elections. But the harsh reality is that political parties never obey the code of conduct.
The predicament is not lack of laws, but want of any strict execution. In order to squash out this iniquitous inclination, there is a need to reinforce the hands of the EC and to give it more officially authorized and institutional powers. The EC must be delegated with powers to penalize the wayward politicians who go astray and disobey the electoral laws.
The Commission has taken numerous new initiatives in the recent past. Prominent among these are, a scheme for Electronic Media as a medium for broadcast by Political parties, checking criminalization of politics, computerization of electoral rolls, providing electors with Identity Cards, un-complicating the formula for maintenance of financial records and filling of the same by candidates. A multiplicity of channel for stern compliance of Model Code of Conduct provided a level for contestants during the elections. And this is the rationale why the EC has been operational for the renovation of the election process since it came into motion. It is apparent from the varying electoral system is full of upheavals but the demand of time is to preserve and strengthen the Democracy.
Reform is not single time effort but a continuous process. The accomplishment of the modification would depend upon the operational compliance of the coordination of electoral machinery, the political parties, the candidates and electorate at all levels. Over the years, the Election Commission has handled a number of issues and accomplished commendable electoral reforms to fortify democracy and augment the even-handedness of elections. These alterations are ample and venerable. Undeniably, the election machinery, under the sponsorship of the EC, justifies its credibility for organising elections in a free and fair method. Nevertheless, our system is still overwhelmed with many vices and these can be combated by the tripartite support of the candidates, electorates and the Election Commission of India.
Student, Chanakya National Law University, Patna
1) National Seminar on Electoral Reforms, Calcutta, 17th Nov, 2000
2) J, Balaji, “EC keen on poll reform to decriminalize politics: Quraishi”, The Hindu, New Delhi, Nov 19, 2011
3) “Criminals can be kept away from legislature: Qurashi”, New Global Indians
4) Jagdeep S. Chhokar, “The Citizens Right to Know Electoral Reforms: key to Effective Democracy”, The citizen
5) Raja, CPI Leader, “Right to reject”, The economics times, Times of India.
6) patricia mukhim, “The statesmen Electoral reforms and democracy”, 19 June 2011
8) Background paper on Electoral Reforms, Legislative department , Ministry of Law and Justice, Govt. of India, Dec, 2010
9) Vivek Ramkumar, “Beyond Democratic Rights and Electoral Reform Campaigns: Challenges facing Non Party Political Movements”
10) S.K. Rakesh, “Challenges in the Management of Electoral Rolls, C.E.O., Bihar
Picture Courtesy: rediff.com