Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Some imperative electoral reforms
D. N. Bezboruah
Over the decades since Independence, we have seen how our general elections have been systematically subverted to make a mockery of democracy in India. What seems to have actually happened is that we have turned our general elections into a kind of periodic ritual wherein the rules of the democratic system have been retained but used to perpetuate a form of neo-feudalism or to perpetuate the rule of a particular party, caste or community. However, a far greater danger has been the use of the democratic system to enable those with criminal propensities to enter the legislature. As a result of this latter malaise, we have noticed the state legislatures of the country as well as our Parliament having a larger proportion of elements with criminal case from one general election to the next. A few illustrative examples may not be out of place.
In 1947, when it was imperative for independent India to forge a nation out of a large number of princely States as well as the other states, there was a great deal of salutary action by leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India’s first Home Minister, to liquidate princely States and to merge them with the Indian Union. Had this not been done expeditiously, the process of nation building would have got much delayed. But no matter how swiftly the process of liquidating the princely states was completed, what could not be eliminated from the Indian psyche was the deeply ingrained preference for the feudal system and hereditary rulers. In fact, the preference for monarchs and kings is so strong among a large section of Indians that even today people talk of elected leaders being enthroned or the selection of the Chief Minister of a State as a sort of coronation. In the former princely States, private but not so quiet coronation ceremonies are still held on the passing away of the old monarch in order to muster fealty to the successor. Having been a former maharaja, raja, prince or nawab always yields electoral advantages to those from the old royal families conferring undue advantage. And let us not forget that there are very few saints among that lot. With very few exceptions, they have all got back to their feudal ways. And most of the former rulers of princely states have been able to combine their easy electoral victories with accustomed ways of getting officials to favour them in various ways. One of the worst fallouts of the princely order having chosen to return to power by contesting elections is that they have perpetuated dynastic rule in a so-called democratic system and encouraged even others outside their fold to start political dynasties. As also they generally provide protection to criminal lot for ‘services rendered’. And that is how the process of law-breaking feudal lords and their criminal henchmen getting into the Legislature as lawmakers in increasing numbers began. Today, the Legislature is seen as a safe haven for the criminal, and more and more of them have become our law-breaking lawmakers. The 15th Lok Sabha has good number of (76) MPs with serious criminal charges against them. Some State legislative assemblies like Maharashtra have over 50 per cent MLAs with criminal charges against them. These charges include murder, rape, loot, arson, kidnapping, inciting communal riots and so on. What is the future of our democracy if such a large number of our lawmakers are law-breakers?
The talk about electoral reforms has gone on even longer than the talk about taking corruption ‘head on’ in this country. We are all aware of the real progress made in this regard. As far as the Election Commission of India is concerned, earlier its track record in respect of electoral reforms had been disappointing one. It has been too lenient to criminal elements seeking to become legislators and too keen to give such elements the benefit of doubt. The Election Commission seeks indisputable evidence of crime actually having been committed. It is not enough that someone has filed a case in a law court or an FIR in a police station against an election candidate. The Election Commission insists on convictions. It also insists on the candidate making a statement in the nomination paper as to whether there are any criminal charges against him/her. In fact, the Election Commission would do well to take a stern view of all defaulters in view of the fact that a large number of candidates contesting parliamentary or assembly elections have personal assets worth crores of rupees. MP or MLA whose personal assets are worth less than a crore of rupees are now in minority. The Election Commission should be asking difficult questions to election candidates who have defaulted in the matter of paying taxes regularly. It should also acquire discretionary powers to debar such candidates from contesting elections to Parliament or to legislative assemblies. Some useful recommendations of the Election Commission to reform the electoral process and give it more powers are pending with the govt. for quite sometime.
There are other aberrations in our electoral system that will also have to be addressed in order to ensure that elections as they are held in India constitute a true representation of the people. As things are today, they do not. This is largely because of the system of elections that we have chosen. Indian elections are first-past-the-post elections. This implies that in any election, whichever candidate polls the largest number of votes is the winner and is deemed to represent the people of the constituency from which the candidate contested the election. In a land where money and muscle-power are still a force in elections, this system of elections makes it advantageous for a candidate to prevent or stuff votes. For about four decades we watched thousands of people in Bihar being turned away from polling booths because of booth capturing. In the 1983 Lok Sabha elections that the people of Assam boycotted, we had the late Biswanarayan Shastri getting elected to the Lok Sabha from the Lakhimpur parliamentary constituency on just one vote (doubtless his own) because none cast vote. So, for five years Shastri was a Lok Sabha MP who represented only himself. This is an extreme example. But it will remain there to mock our electoral system for all times to come. Everyone will agree that the proportional representation system will simply not work for a country as large as India and with the kind of pluralism that prevails. So, what alternatives do we have? There are majority electoral systems that many European countries use for presidential elections. Majority electoral systems are also called "second ballot" or "second round" systems. Such systems attempt to provide for a greater degree of representativeness by requiring that candidates achieve a majority of votes in order to win. In some countries voting is carried even to a third round if a candidate with a majority cannot be determined in the second round. In fact, the majority electoral systems show up how badly lacking in representativeness the first-past-the-post (FPP) or the "winner take all" system prevalent in India can be. What happens when five candidates contest a general election from the same constituency. It is hardly surprising that people in Europe should wonder what kind of a democracy the "world’s largest democracy" is talking about with its defective FPP system of elections.
There is no denying that general elections in India are highly expensive affairs. The parliamentary elections of 2009 involved an electorate of 714 million voters (a larger number than both the EU and the US elections combined) and cost the nation $300 million. It was also an election that made use of one million electronic voting machines (EVMs). Even so, if we really mean business when we talk of electoral reforms, we must adopt a second ballot or second round system as many advanced countries do. In a State like Bihar, many voters were unable to vote for about four decades because they were prevented from voting. With a majority electoral system, it would be in the interest of the prospective winner to ensure that the maximum possible number of voters turn out to vote at the election. This difference alone should be enough to start a crusade for the abolition of the existing FPP system and the adoption of the "second ballot" system of elections.
Finally, it is imperative that we stop using the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and get back to manual counting of ballots. When the EVMs were first introduced, there had been two demonstrations of how EVMs could be tampered with. In India, it is more likely that political parties in power would prefer the EVMs for that very reason. There are strong reasons to suspect that EVMs were tampered with in the last Assembly elections of Assam. This was about the only instance in the electoral history of the country when election results were announced one month and two days after the last round of elections. And few people even in the Congress expected the party to win 73 out of the 126 Assembly seats. The use of EVMs is banned in countries like the United States, Germany and Great Britain—obviously for very good reasons. It is time we mounted a crusade in India to ban the use of EVMs in our elections.
There are a whole lot of things to be done by way of electoral reforms in India. But serious electoral reforms must begin with three major initiatives. First, we must stop criminals and law-breakers from being able to contest elections and to win them with the use of money and muscle-power. Second, we must change the system of elections from the FPP or "winner take all" system to a majority electoral system like the "second ballot". Third, we must staunchly oppose the use of electronic voting machines. These are electoral imperatives that are attainable through concerted public activism.