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A change from within

The subject of electoral reforms is not new. While all electoral reforms demand attention, we must first bar those accused of serious crimes from contesting, writes Navin B Chawla.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2013 01:10 IST

The subject of electoral reforms is not new. Many committees, including the Law Commission, have already made recommendations to the government. But for purposes of this article, I will confine myself to what I consider are the more important issues, and those that I hope will prove feasible to implement before the next general elections.

Successive chief election commissioners (CECs) have (largely unsuccessfully) addressed the issue of reforms with respective governments in a formal sense. MS Gill initially compiled a list of reform proposals in 1998. Thereafter, in 2004, TS Krishnamurthy added new proposals to this list. In my view, the foremost proposal among these included an amendment of the law, which would thereafter exclude anyone accused of serious criminal charges from seeking election, particularly where the trial court is prima facie satisfied about such a person's involvement in a heinous crime like murder, attempt to murder, rape and dacoity, or where the charges framed can lead to a sentence of five years imprisonment and more. The premise is that this would be a reasonable restriction in greater public interest.

Other recommendations incl-uded amendments to prevent a person contesting from more than one constituency, as well as amending Section 29A of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. This would, in turn, enable the Election Commission of India (ECI) to de-register parties that do not contest elections. Strange as it may sound, while the ECI has no option but to register a group of persons who fulfil the basic criteria to form a party, it has not been given commensurate powers to de-register parties that have either never contested an election or have not contested one for a long period. In 2004, of the 650 unrecognised political parties registered with the ECI, only 231 contested in the year's general elections. By 2009, the registration figure of unrecognised parties rose to 1,018, of which only 322 contested. Today that number has grown to 1,392. The ECI believes that the real intention here is to receive non-taxable donations and to convert 'black' money into seemingly more legitimate funds. Since 1998, no action has been forthcoming from any government.

Another pending recommendation includes the right to not vote for any candidate. 'Negative' or 'neutral' voting would see the existing Rule 49-O translated into a button on the electronic voting machine that reads 'none of the above', thereby giving an elector the freedom to reject all the candidates on offer. The ECI has also sought simplification of disqualification procedures for persons found guilty of corruption, and has asked that the submission of false affidavits by candidates be deemed an offence under the law.

Criminality, though, is the one issue that seems to most exercise the minds of people. Individuals with criminal cases pending against them now form a sizeable percentage of both Parliament and state legislatures. Citizens, in particular the youth of this country, have become less accepting of the lawbreaker becoming a lawmaker overnight. The political establishment must factor in the power of youth and the omnipresence of our 24x7 media. By insisting on major changes in our response mechanisms, their collective reaction to the December 16 gang rape in Delhi has helped demonstrate their strength and their vitality.

To return to the subject of criminality, the Standing Committee of Parliament, which was set up to examine this issue (among other proposed reforms), has held in its report dated February 27, 2007, that debarment of those charged with heinous offences could instead become an instrument of misuse by vendetta-seeking political parties in power. The committee unanimously turned down the ECI's proposal, and instead suggested the appointment of special courts and day-to-day trials. However, no such mechanism has yet been set up. Privately, discerning parliamentarians accept that the 'winnability' factor which induces a party to offer tickets to those against whom criminal cases are pending (albeit in appeal), has already had the effect of alienating large sections of the educated middle class.

However, I continue to draw hope that the government may move more decisively in this direction. At the ECI's diamond jubilee celebration on January 25, 2010, important leaders took a public position against this growing unhealthy trend. Soon thereafter, the then law minister, Veerappa Moily, had held a series of seven regional consultations where a wide section of informed opinions were considered. The law ministry went on to draw up a blueprint. But the question arises - where do we stand today?

All said and done, there are options before us: a PIL filed in 2005, is before the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen when the judgement is delivered and what is its content. However, a judicial verdict in the future does not foreclose the government from initiating a debate in Parliament. Yet, another option is for the nationally recognised political parties to initiate a dialogue among themselves. It may be recalled that in the 1960s it was the state political parties in Kerala who had come together themselves. From their deliberations, there emerged the genesis for the present Model Code of Conduct, a facet unique to India's electoral landscape. It is noteworthy that such an effective instrument used by the ECI had initially emanated from the political class. If it could happen then, I prefer to remain sanguine that it is within the realm of the political structure to find a solution, rather than finally have to abide by a judicial pronouncement.

Navin B Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India
The views expressed by the author are personal