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Called into account

After his 12-day fast on the lokpal issue, social activist Anna Hazare has made a call for giving the voters the right to reject elected candidates either by negative voting or using a right to recall law. Vinod Bhanu writes

india Updated: Sep 03, 2011 02:41 IST
Vinod Bhanu

After his 12-day fast on the lokpal issue, social activist Anna Hazare has made a call for giving the voters the right to reject elected candidates either by negative voting or using a right to recall law. Such options require very important reforms in our electoral system as well as in political parties. Right to recall provides citizens an important democratic licence to remove non-performing or corrupt legislators from office before their term ends. The non-responsiveness and non-performance of our elected representatives have damaged our democratic institutions. So the idea is that legislators with such a track record should not be allowed to continue in office that is maintained with public money and has in-built immunities and privileges. On the contrary, accountability is a diffused idea for for our elected representatives. Once elected, they are not answerable to the electorate for five years.

Over the years, there has been a growing mistrust between the people and representatives and that has extended towards political institutions. This was reflected amply in the massive support for the recent anti-corruption movement across the country.

There is hardly any doubt that Indians are proud of the fact, as stated by Sharad Yadav, that Parliament is an institution "where Dalits can be seen as equals and where names like Pakodi Lal, Garib Ram, Ghurau Ram walk around as MPs". However, the same "Pakodi Lal or Garib Ram" have not always lived up to the expectations of the people. This indicates that there is an accountability deficit in the system. Electoral sanction is dated and often uncertain. Accountability based on the electoral system needs to be expanded to include both a functional model of institutional mechanism and other safeguards like recourse to a referendum, complaint procedures, legal redress, watchdog groups, activities of civil society and recall election.

Recall is a democratic instrument that enables citizens to re-engage with electoral politics and democracy. The first models were created in Switzerland along with other direct democracy tools such as initiatives and referendum. The system of recall became operational in the US during the early years of the 20th century. In the US, 18 states authorise recall of state level officials, and 36 states allow recall of local-level officials.

In 2003, the Governor of California, Gary Davis, was called back by the electorate and later replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, it was a one-off case. The Venezuelan constitution also recognises and enables recall of elected representatives including the president. In 2004, an unsuccessful attempt to recall the President was made. Other countries where recall is allowed or is being debated are Canada, Uganda, Guyana, Sweden, The Philippines, New Zealand, Zambia and Germany.

Our Constitution, however, does not say anything explicitly about such a provision. However, the Constitution has room for more inclusive and participatory politics. In India, provisions for recall of legislators exist at the level of local bodies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar. Section 47 (recall of president) of the Chhattisgarh Nagar Palika Act, 1961, provides for holding of elections to recall elected presidents due to non-performance. The process of recall is initiated when three-quarters of the total number of elected representatives in the urban bodies (councillors) write to the district collector demanding a recall.

After verifying the circumstances, the collector can report to the state government. Once the report has been considered, the government can recommend to the state election commission to conduct a poll to recall presidents. Unlike in Chhattisgarh, in Bihar the recall process begins with the voters of urban civic bodies who can remove the elected representatives from office, if two-thirds submit a signed petition to the urban development department. In the Bihar model, there is some democratic improvement, as the power to recall is vested directly with the voters. In Chhattisgarh, the recall process starts from the councillors, and, therefore, can be politically motivated. Nonetheless, neither of these models are foolproof.

There are detractors of this democratic tool of accountability, especially among the political class. Right to recall is an idea that is being debated now and it is imperative that it is put into practice to ensure accountability of our elected representatives.

Vinod Bhanu is executive director, Centre for Legislative Research and Advocacy, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.