The government must consider State funding of polls. Otherwise, we could soon have a Parliament comprising oligarchies, writes Navin B Chawla
Not long ago, I attended a seminar in Mexico City where over three days, statesmen, academics and electoral officials discussed different aspects of what constituted a real democracy. As the sole representative from the South, I found myself in the midst of informed discussions wherein democracy appeared to be inextricably linked to per capita incomes.
The premise seemed to be that true democracies could exist only where individual freedoms were assured: freedom from the insecurities of hunger, shelter, unemployment, and most importantly, fear. In the discussions that ensued, it was recognised that I represented a country where, in spite of the many problems that we faced, the world’s largest election was conducted fairly, transparently and efficiently.
The audience was stunned by the sheer statistics that constitute India’s general elections: 716 million voters on the electoral rolls for the 2009 polls and now closer to 760 million. That is more than the population of the Americas, more than Europe, more even than Africa. In 2009 about 59% of 716 million eligible voters cast their ballots in approximately 8,34,000 polling booths, using 1.3 million electoral voting machines.
While the poll process took almost a month to complete, counting of votes took less than a day. To many in the audience, the completion of such a gigantic exercise on time was a matter of amazement.
There were other positives about India that needed to the placed before the statesmen, who had witnessed varying degrees of turbulence in their own countries or in their neighbourhoods. I pointed out that in spite of poverty India had always conducted its elections regularly. There had always been an orderly transfer of power. The loser had invariably passed on the baton to the winner. The Election Commission (EC) was, and is, seen by the country as a free and fair umpire.
These are no mean achievements, especially if we look into our neighbourhood: India is among a clutch of nations that gained independence from colonial rule at almost the same time. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was our special history of the freedom struggle under the Mahatma, we had charted a democratic and largely non-violent path.
We benefited immensely from the wisdom of Babasaheb Ambedkar and equally from the statesmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru who presided over the creation and early nurturing of our vital institutions: the judiciary, the EC, the civil services and Parliament. In some of these countries in our neighbourhood and beyond, democracy has often been a brief interlude in long spells of military rule, or the most difficult of insurgencies.
But let me go back to Mexico City and the per capita income debate. The theme was frequently that where countries faced severe inequalities, where freedom of expression was not guaranteed, where hunger or want of housing and health services manifested itself in malnutrition and misery, how could true democracy co-exist in such a milieu? While my hosts and their neighbours enjoy per capita incomes above $15,000, India’s per capita income is one-tenth of that.
It is also true that many have neither enough food nor adequate shelter nor even potable water to drink. Yet we are the world’s largest democracy and conduct polls fairly, enjoy all the freedoms of free speech, have a robust and growing middle class, a strong press and the vitality of a young population.
On our election scene, in spite of our many strengths, we have yet to vanquish ‘money and muscle power’. While, the EC of India has successfully put an end to overt forms of violence, as for instance ‘booth capturing’, ‘money power’ remains a major destructive force. By nominating an increasing numbers of ‘crorepatis’ to contest elections the statutory financial limits are more easily breached.
The data of recent elections reveal that crorepatis have the edge when it comes to winning elections. The second issue is of criminality that has got interwoven in the electoral matrix leading to almost 30% members with criminal antecedents in the 15th Lok Sabha. Both these issues have spawned other tangential negatives: ‘paid news’ is one such adverse result.
It is in this context that the recent win by AAP may be viewed. For whether it continues to run the government of Delhi or for how long, is secondary to my principal point, which is that its members were largely elected by spending sums within financial limits. Nor did they need ‘muscle power’ to connect them to the electorate, because they were in every sense a part of the neighbourhood that they sought to represent.
The raising of statutory limits on electoral spending “to keep up with inflation” is completely out of place, because if actual spending is already vastly more than the permitted limit, then even a 50% increase in statutory expenditure serves no real purpose. A more meaningful panacea must lie either in the major political parties coming together on a common platform to see if they can agree to an acceptable common formula governing electoral spending.
If this fails, the government must consider State funding of elections. There are many models to choose from. Unfortunately, if we fail to seriously deal with this malaise we will eventually witness a Parliament made up of several oligarchies, leaving far behind the aspirations of our freedom struggle and the architecture of our Constitution.
Navin B Chawla is former Chief Election Commissioner
The views expressed by the author are personal