The world’s largest democracy is witnessing fast-track electoral reforms, courtesy the Supreme Court (SC). In the run-up to assembly elections in five states and Lok Sabha polls early next year, the top court has delivered a series of verdicts that seek to change the rules of the game. Notorious for doing caste calculations, using muscle power and offering freebies, political parties are finding it difficult to deal with the changed scenario.
Ruling that freebies promised by political parties in poll manifestos vitiated the electoral process, on July 5 the apex court asked the Election Commission of India (EC) to frame guidelines to check it in consultation with political parties. Within five days, it ordered immediate disqualification of MPs and MLAs on conviction attracting a jail term of two years or more. This was followed by two verdicts in September. First, the SC ruled that knowing about a candidate was the voters’ natural right in a democracy, and non-disclosure of information by a contestant in his/her affidavit, leaving the relevant columns blank, will result in rejection of the nomination. And now, the court has given voters the right to negative voting empowering them to reject all the candidates.
No doubt this is a landmark verdict. First, it recognises a voter’s right to reject all the candidates. Under the existing rules, to exercise a negative vote, a voter has to expose his/her identity and such votes are not counted. Now, the SC verdict ensures secrecy to those pressing the ‘none of the above’ button on the electronic voting machine and their votes would be counted as well. It’s a different thing that it would not have a bearing on the poll outcome as the candidate getting the maximum number of votes is declared elected.
Second, it would lead to a gradual improvement in the quality of candidates. “When political parties will realise that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates...political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity,” the SC rightly says.
Third, it would ensure greater participation of the electorate in the democratic process. Those who don’t like any of the candidates, generally stay away from the polls. But now even such voters would exercise their franchise and register their protest.
The verdict, however, leaves an important question unanswered. What if a majority of the voters reject all the candidates? In such a scenario, should there be another election with the voters being offered fresh candidates? Democracy keeps evolving with the passage of time and one hopes that there will be appropriate answers to these questions in the coming days.
But there is a larger question that haunts our democracy. Why is it that all the initiatives for electoral reforms are coming from the SC and not from the government or political parties? Despite the EC writing to successive governments and political parties, proposals for electoral reforms do not see the light of day. In 2002, when the apex court made it mandatory for all contestants to declare their assets, liabilities and criminal antecedents, the verdict was reversed by a law. It took another court verdict in 2003 to declare the law unconstitutional.
Political parties oppose such moves, the glaring example being the ordinance to shield convicted legislators. Initially, political parties were unanimous that the court ruling be reversed. But as and when they sensed that popular mood was against criminalisation of politics, one by one they changed their stand. Sadly, Rahul Gandhi realised it quite late. But who knows, the Congress’ volte-face could be the beginning of a new era of clean politics in India.