Senior BJP leader LK Advani has made a plea to President Pranab Mukherjee to "take an initiative with regard to poll reforms in their totality". In a blog entry dated August 12, Advani has requested Mukherjee to "accomplish" at least one thing, i.e. a fixed tenure for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, and simultaneous elections at the Centre and states every five years.
But the seemingly good suggestion raises far more serious questions about the functioning of the Indian polity than it seeks to answer. Instead of providing political stability, a fixed tenure for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas can further complicate our problems. What if a government falls before its five-year term? Is it all right to cobble together a coalition at any cost? Will it not encourage horse-trading? There are no definite answers to these questions.
Further, requesting the president "to take an initiative" on poll reforms may not be desirable, as the Constitution does not envisage an active or activist head of State.
Advani appears to be impressed by the US where the law lays down that the presidential election shall be held every four years "on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November".
But India is not America and ours is not a presidential system. The two nations — the oldest and the largest democracies in the world — have different historical reasons for adopting different forms of government.
Our founding fathers made a deliberate choice in favour of the parliamentary form of government in which going to the electorate to solve a political problem — even before the term of the Lok Sabha or a Vidhan Sabha has expired — remains the ultimate option.
One cannot disagree with the proposition that India badly needs electoral reforms. But Advani's suggestions cannot be the starting point. In fact, in the last 15 years, the Election Commission (EC) has proposed far more pressing reforms to check poll-related malpractices and rid our polity of criminal elements. But successive governments have chosen to ignore them.
It was during the NDA rule in 1998 that the EC proposed changes in the Representation of People Act. To prevent criminalisation of politics, it demanded that a person against whom charges have been framed by a court for an offence punishable by imprisonment of five years or more should be disqualified from contesting elections. Under the existing law, a person is disqualified only if she is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more.
The EC reiterated its proposal in November 1999, when the BJP-led NDA was still in power. After the Congress-led UPA came to power in May 2004, the EC sent the proposal to the government in July 2004 and October 2006. But nothing has happened so far.
More than reforming the electoral system, which is by and large free and fair and has been hailed as one of the best in the world, India needs to reform its political parties, whose funding remains largely opaque.
Way back in July 1998, the EC suggested a law to regulate the functioning of political parties and putting their accounts in the public domain every year after auditing. It also wanted to enforce transparency in their fund-raising and expenditure. The EC reminded the government of its proposal in 2004 and 2006. But, as usual, there has been no progress on this front.
The EC has made many other sensible suggestions, including amending the law to make 'paid news' an electoral offence, enhancing punishment for electoral offences, banning advertisements highlighting the government's achievements and punishing candidates filing false affidavits. If political parties are serious about electoral reforms, there are at least two suggestions from the EC that must be implemented soon — a restriction on the number of seats from which a candidate may contest and negative voting, which gives voters the option of rejecting all candidates, if she thinks none of them are worthy of her vote.
Finally, rather than the EC requesting the government and political parties to introduce electoral reforms, it should be the other way round. Unfortunately, we don't see this happening.