The recent round of assembly elections has once again demonstrated the vitality of India’s democracy, but it has also raised other significant issues. Before I come to these, let me record some very positive features as an overview of India as a democratic State.
Right from the first general election of 1951-52, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has conducted elections on time, every time. Election results have invariably been accepted by all stakeholders and, indeed, by the vast majority of our country. The elections, whether to Parliament or to state assemblies, have invariably resulted in orderly transfer of power. The ECI has, over a period of time, taken many tough measures that have brought an end to booth-capturing and overt criminal activities. The central police forces, and a large civilian staff who are not under the control of different state governments or their chief ministers, but directly under the ECI’s supervision and control, help to maintain public order and conduct flawless elections. Over the years, several transparency measures have been introduced. In the 2009 general election, for instance, almost 2,000 joint secretary-level central observers were posted in various constituencies (outside their home states). Almost 1,41,000 micro observers, also senior officials, were deputed to those polling stations which the Opposition or independent candidates felt insecure about. Video and still cameras recorded the poll process. All of these helped to contribute to an election which all stakeholders believed to be universally free and fair.
Now we have only to look in our own neighbourhood to measure where we have reached as a practising democracy. It was at about the same time in 1947 that India and a clutch of other nations in our region achieved freedom from the British rule. Since then, several countries lapsed into military dictatorships, with only periodic intervals of democracy. Meanwhile, our founding fathers and statesmen established and strengthened the independence of our pivotal institutions, including the judiciary, the Election Commission and Parliament.
However, some negative factors now threaten to stymie democracy at its very roots. One such disturbing trend lies in the growing number of contestants with criminal antecedents.
When I was Chief Election Commissioner, I ran into a leader of a major political party at an airport lounge. I asked him why his political party nominated candidates with criminal backgrounds and whether it would help if I convened an all-party meeting to discuss this issue. He replied, “When elections are on the horizon, our only ‘mantra’ is winnability. But if there is no election on the horizon, then I will attend such a meeting and sign on the dotted line”. I put the same question informally to other leaders. They cited similar reasons. ‘Winnability’ triumphed.
Witness the candidates in the current round of just concluded assembly elections. The figures posted by the Association of Democratic Rights (ADR) on its website are revealing. In Delhi, out of 796 candidates analysed, 129 (or 16%) declared criminal cases against them. Of the 16%, the party break up has the SAD leading with its two candidates (100%), the BJP (46%), the Congress (21%) and the JDU (30%). According to the ADR, even the Aam Aadmi Party gave tickets to five candidates with self-declared criminal cases. In Rajasthan, the CPM led (41%), the BJP followed (16%) and the Congress was third (14%). In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress led (40%) followed by the BJP (27%). In Chhattisgarh, the BJP led (17%) and the Congress followed (11%). What also emerges from the trend is that the party in power is less prone to field criminal candidates than the party in opposition.
Is there a way out of this impasse? For long years, the ECI had been writing to successive governments that if a court frames charges against someone for heinous crimes (punishable by five years imprisonment plus), this candidate should stand debarred until finally proven innocent. The ECI believes this to be a reasonable restriction. This was rejected by the Standing Committee of Parliament on the ground that political parties foist false cases on their political opponents when they come to power. The ECI amended its suggestion to include only such cases that were decided six months prior to an election. Parliament’s Standing Committee in turn offered only fast track courts. These too were never set up.
A breakthrough arose dramatically on July 10, 2013, when the Supreme Court (in the Lily Thomas vs Union of India matter), struck down Section 8(4) of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1951, which effectively meant that those parliamentarians and legislators who are henceforth convicted for certain crimes will not enjoy the immunity of the House while they appeal and obtain stay orders from courts. This saw Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rashid Masood being sent to jail.
The second major problem is money power. Although spending limits were raised in 2011 to `40 lakh (parliamentary election) and `16 lakh (assembly election), it is everywhere recognised that candidates exceed this statutory limit. They are, however, very careful not to be caught by the Election Commission. Is it then any coincidence that parties prefer to give tickets to very rich candidates in the belief that they have a head start? In the recent Delhi elections, the Congress fielded 61 crorepatis for 70 seats; while the BJP fielded 58 for 68 seats. To the astonishment of the nation, the AAP demonstrated that big money could be defeated by the aam aadmi with practically nothing in his or her pocket. There is a huge lesson in this for our polity.
Surely this is now all the more reason to debate the malaise of money power. For even if spending limits are doubled, will it make much difference if spending is already in excess of that amount? Or if Parliament does away with any statutory limit, will we not overnight become a ‘de jure’ oligarchy? In my view, which I have been expressing for a while, the only way to get the genie back into the bottle is to seriously deliberate the question of State funding of elections. There are plenty of global models to choose from, but our own model can now be forged as we witness the recent triumph of the ‘jhadoo’ over bulging pockets.
Navin B Chawla is a former chief election commissioner of India
The views expressed by the author are personal