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For cleaner polling, it’s time to push through big bang electoral reforms

Despite inaction and unwillingness of successive governments, the judiciary has initiated electoral reforms, preparing the ground for a bigger overhaul of the poll machinery.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2017 12:13 IST
Satya Prakash
Despite inaction and unwillingness of successive governments, the judiciary has initiated electoral reforms, preparing the ground for a bigger overhaul of the poll machinery.
Despite inaction and unwillingness of successive governments, the judiciary has initiated electoral reforms, preparing the ground for a bigger overhaul of the poll machinery.(Reuters file photo)

“It needs little argument to hold that the heart of the Parliamentary system is free and fair elections periodically held, based on adult franchise…,” the Supreme Court said in 1977.

Given the diversity of the electorate and the enormity of exercise involved, the Election Commission (EC) has been doing a commendable job of managing elections despite the five-fold increase in the number of voters from 17.32 crore in 1952 to 81.45 crore in 2014.

But there are areas that require reforms. And the EC has a long list it has been pressing for years. Decriminalisation of politics, political parties’ reforms, auditing of parties’ accounts, checking use of black money in polls, making ‘paid news’ an electoral offence, government-sponsored advertisements and punishment for false affidavit by candidates — are a few, besides more powers for EC to regulate the parties’ functioning.

Last month, chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi cautioned that trust in the electoral system could be affected if these challenges remain unattended. For the first time poll reforms are being raised by the Prime Minister. Narendra Modi has said people have the right to know the source of BJP’s funds.

Fortunately, 2017 has begun on a positive note. The Supreme Court ruled that seeking votes in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language of a candidate, his agent or voter would amount to corrupt practice — a ground to set aside elections. Coming on the eve of polls in five states, the verdict is expected to preempt communal conflagration, particularly in UP. But the Indian electoral system is not only affected by these factors.

Notwithstanding the fact that the system is run by political parties, the Constitution, adopted on January 26, 1950, didn’t even mention them. Under the Representation of People Act, 1951, EC can register parties but cannot deregister them even if they do anything illegal. This has created a situation where the constitutional authority mandated to maintain the sanctity of the poll process feels helpless.

“There are over 1,900 registered political parties in India. Every two days, a political party is registered. They hardly contest elections. Many of them are used as conduits for siphoning off black money,” Zaidi said recently.

Law Commission’s recommendations
  • Political party reforms: Amend Representation of People Act to allow EC to regulate parties
  • Internal party affairs: EC should have power to look into political parties’ internal democracy, constitutions, organisation, elections, candidate selection and voting procedures
  • Power to de-register: Law Commission says EC should have power to rescind recognition of political parties if they violate laws
  • Watch on funding: Recommends mandatory disclosure of contributions above ₹20,000, including aggregate contributions from a single donor. Also suggests that names, addresses and PAN numbers of such donors be disclosed
  • Account books: Suggests that parties submit to EC annual accounts audited by a CA
  • Corporate funding: Contribution from a company’s funds to a political party should be authorised by the company’s Annual General Meeting (AGM)
  • Expenditure limit: Expenses incurred by candidates currently extends from the date of nomination to the date of declaration of results. EC wants this to be extended from the date of notification of polls to the date of results

Reform proposals

Over the last 25 years, several panels have made suggestions to cleanse the poll process and strengthen the EC: Goswami Committee (1990), Vohra Committee (1993), Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998), Law Commission Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws (1999), EC’s Proposed Electoral Reforms (2004), Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008).

But these recommendations have never been a priority for governments perhaps because status quo allowed them more leeway to manipulate the system. Despite this, the Commission has been persistent with its agenda for reforms. After much persuasion, it evolved a Model Code of Conduct and parties agreed to abide by it. However, in the absence of any statutory backing, the Code is often violated. AICC Legal Cell secretary KC Mittal noted that the model code ensures a level playing field for every party and candidate.

“More particularly, it is intended to ensure that the ruling party doesn’t abuse its position. That’s why the party in power can’t make announcement of schemes and programmes that can influence voters,” he said, targeting the BJP for advancing the budget date.

Read | Demonetisation could lead to long-pending electoral reforms

However, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli refuted the allegation, saying budget is “merely a statement of accounts of the previous year with plan for the forthcoming year”. Noting that Congress had done this numerous times in the last 50 years, he said by its standard, nothing can happen in India as elections take place multiple times in a year.

In its 255th report submitted to the government in 2015, the poll panel made many suggestions, including the idea of independent secretarial staff. But majority of reforms recommended were related to the functioning of parties, their funding and internal democracy.

Proposals by Election Commission
  • Political party reforms: EC has suggested that legal provisions be made to regulate the functioning of political parties and the Commission should be empowered to regulate registration as well as de-registration of political parties
  • ‘Paid news’ an electoral offence: EC has proposed the Representation of People Act, 1951, be amended to make publishing and abetting the publishing of `paid news’ for furthering the prospect of election of any candidate an electoral offence under the Act with punishment of a minimum of two-year imprisonment
  • Government sponsored ads: For six months prior to the date of expiry of the term of the House, there should be a ban on advertisements on achievements of government
  • Punishment for false affidavit: The RP Act provides for punishment but there is no clear provision for follow-up action in the event of candidates filing false affidavits
  • More powers to poll panel: Election Commission wants power to countermand elections in cases of bribery and abuse of money. Currently it has power to countermand polls only in cases of booth capturing

Supreme Court’s interventions

All electoral reforms have happened because of the Supreme Court’s interventions. Acting on PILs filed by civil society organisations, the top court has ensured that the poll process is cleansed to the extent possible. In the face of inaction on the part of the government, the SC’s interventions have been welcomed even by critics of judicial activism.

According to Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the EC seized around ?300 crore of unaccounted cash and more than 17,000 kg of drugs, and an equally large amount of liquor and arms during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Read | In enlightened self-interest, political parties must welcome electoral reform

ADR founding member, Professor Jagdeep Chhokar said that no poll reform will serve any purpose unless the functioning of political parties is regulated and their internal functioning and finances are made democratic. He sought immediate implementation of the law commission’s recommendations, particularly those on political parties.

ATTEMPTS TO STEM THE ROT IN ELECTORAL SYSTEM
Over the last 25 years, several panels have made suggestions to cleanse the poll process
Apex court rulings
  • MARCH 2003: A voter has right to know candidates’ assets, qualifications liabilities and criminal antecedents, if any
  • JULY 5, 2013: Freebies promised by political parties in poll manifestos vitiate the electoral process. SC asks EC to frame guidelines
  • JULY 10, 2013: An MP/MLA convicted of any offence attracting a punishment of two years or above will be disqualified immediately. SC declared unconstitutional Section 8(4) that allowed a convicted MP/MLA to continue if he/she appealed within three months
  • SEPT 13, 2013: SC rules that knowing about a candidate is the voter’s natural right and non- disclosure by a contestant in affidavit, leaving the columns blank, will result in rejection of nomination
  • SEPT 27, 2013: SC gives voters none of the above (NOTA) option in EVMs
  • MARCH 10, 2014: SC sets one-year deadline for lower courts to complete trial in cases involving MPs and MLAs
  • FEB 5, 2015: A candidate’s election can be declared "null and void" for not disclosing criminal antecedents
  • JAN 2, 2017: SC rules that if votes are sought in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language it would amount to corrupt practice — a ground to set aside elections

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