Thoughts on economics and liberty

A 2016 paper by Forum for Electoral Integrity, Lok Raj Sangathan, and Nalaya India on electoral reforms

Someone had forwarded this paper to me a couple of years ago. It missed my attention but I chanced upon it today. Given shortage of time, I’ll publish it here now, but review and comment when I find time.

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Elections sans Integrity-Democracy in Deep Distress

[Paper based on deliberations at Delhi Roundtable held on 17 June, 2016: Jointly organized by Forum for Electoral Integrity, Chennai; Lok Raj Sangathan, Delhi and Nalaya India, Chennai]                                                                         

Backdrop

Country’s track record of timely and efficient elections has given considerable prestige and legitimacy to India’s democratic polity and its politicians who are the beneficiaries. But the moot question is what kind of people gets elected? Are they ‘leaders’ or ‘dealers’?  Nearly a third of elected representatives face serious criminal charges such as murder, rape, abduction and offences relating to moral turpitude.  Almost all of them have amassed wealth much beyond their known sources of income!

Successive governments did not lift a finger to set right things. However Supreme Court intervened and in its judgment in March 2003 directed all candidates contesting elections to file affidavits before the Returning Officers stating their criminal antecedents, assets and liabilities. This was meant to curtail criminal and money-power in elections. The same court on 09 July 2013 struck down Section 8 (4) in the Representation of People’s Act (RP Act) allowing MPs and MLAs to continue to be elected representatives even after they get convicted for criminal offences.  On 5th July 2013 Apex Court decreed that ‘Freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree’ and directed the Election Commission (EC) to frame guidelines for election manifesto.

But all these have come to naught and the rot is deepening. We saw this glaringly in Tamil Nadu Election-2016 where money-power and freebies were in full flow. Role of money-power is described by EC itself in its order rescinding election in Aravakurichi and Thanjavur assembly constituencies: “decision is based on the Commission’s assessment about the vitiated atmosphere in the constituencies created by the illegal use of money-power to allure the electorate by unethical and unlawful means resorted to by the candidates and the parties.” The word ‘vitiated’ appears at several places in the Order. What was written of these two constituencies was applicable mutatis mutandis to almost the entire state!

EC’s Model Code of Conduct-2014 (MCC) on Freebies directs Political Parties and Candidates to “avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise”. Also in the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, manifestos should “reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it”.

Election Manifesto released by the AIADMK Party on 05 May 2016, just 10 days before the polling date, was in total violation of the Supreme Court Judgment and the MCC. Earlier DMK party had issued Manifesto with some freebies. EC did not take any action on these blatant violations except issuing a belated and weak Notice to these parties that too on the representation from civil society. No further action was taken, polling proceeded and government was installed in power. Post-poll surveys clearly revealed that the massive freebies in the Manifesto were the clincher.

Added to these was the serious matter of seizure of huge cash of Rs. 570 crores at Tiruppur just two days before election (around mid-night on 13/14 May 2016) that had raised suspicion of humungous electoral bribing. The totally unbelievable story of this money (supposed to belong to SBI) moving from Coimbatore to Vizag is yet to be fully investigated. On the orders of the Madras High Court CBI is looking in to it. But since this happened in an election-bound state under the virtual administration of EC it is their responsibility to ascertain facts and initiate stringent action.

Why the rot?

Major factor is the attitude and approach of political parties who are a law unto themselves. These entities have failed to bring about inner party democracy, transparent funding and functioning as well as merit-based selection of candidates free of criminal and corruption taint. The Political Parties (Registration and Regulation of Affairs) Bill, 2011 drafted by Association for Democratic Reforms is in cold storage. What is worse, political parties do not even want to be considered as ‘public authorities’ and have willfully defied the RTI Act. They liberally field criminals and corrupt as candidates seeking election. They indulge in electoral corruption of alarming proportion that includes individual bribing and vote-buying as well as mass inducement through lavish showering of fancy/consumer goods as freebies in the election manifesto. All these have made the electoral field an uneven cesspool.

Being controlled by these very political parties Central Government is averse to any change. Proposals from EC are pending for decades. Though all kind of reforms are being brandished to make India a super-rich and super-clean country there is not even a whisper about electoral reforms to clean-up and enrich India’s democracy which is our greatest asset. Most glaring instance is rendering the SC mandate of filing of Affidavit by the candidates into a damp squib because Government has failed to amend rules to disqualify corrupt and criminal elements at the thresh-hold. Political parties continue to field these politicians who become MPs/MLAs even after filing false affidavits about their criminal record and illegal wealth! And most of them get elected!

Constitutional mandate and Supreme Court judgments hold EC squarely responsible for conducting fair and free elections, which is a basic feature of the Constitution. For this Commission is vested with legal (RP Act) and plenary powers (Article 324 of the Constitution). Yet EC is finding itself between a rock (political parties) and a hard place (government).  For instance though Section 58A of RP Act empowers EC to countermand election for ‘booth capturing’ it has not been extended to ‘vote capturing’ through bribes and freebies. Bullied by political parties and disheartened by government’s indifference, EC has compromised on electoral integrity. Result is the sharp diminishing of India’s democracy. However in TN Election-2016, exercising plenary powers, EC rescinded elections in two constituencies due to widespread bribing of voters. EC also issued Notices to the two major political parties on the lavish promises of freebies in their election manifestoes. One has to be thankful for small mercies.

Issues & Posers

We need to look at India post Liberalisation, Privatisation & Globalisation regime starting from early nineties. No doubt the country has made great strides in many fields and is now being heralded as world’s fastest growing economy. 25 years down the line we are in the grip of a market economy. Rich have become richer, black economy has boomed and there is extreme poverty and inequity.

In these years, election technology and management has advanced with EVM’s, IT solutions and vast array of observers, surveillance/raiding teams and Para-military forces. But democracy has decayed. Among the three players in the election field, rule-less political parties are going from strength to strength, rule-bound government is indifferent and EC is paralysed. Another key and powerful player, judiciary is treating election in a casual manner and would not decide election-petitions for ages, making it a mockery.

In all it turns out that election is a mere exercise to facilitate political parties to capture and retain power by fair or foul means.  Fundamental principles of democracy such as electoral integrity and level playing field do not seem to have much space in the scheme of things.

We are seeing this happening right before our eyes. In TN politicians bought people’s votes and became MLAs. In many other states MLAs sold their votes to money-bags to make them MPs (Rajya Sabha). MP (Lok Sabha) election is no better. Grassroots elections (Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies) are even worse. India’s ingenuity for jugad has morphed world’s largest democracy into world’s biggest Satta Bazar!

What needs to be done?

Post-TN Assembly and Rajya Sabha elections a Round Table of eminent activists, senior politicians, and civil society leaders along with representatives from the EC was held at Delhi on 17 June 2016. The Round Table was attended by leaders of political parties, former senior civil servants, delegates of activist organisations, representatives of the Election Commission of India and others.

Prominent among the participants are: Justice Rajinder Sachar (PUCL), Com D Raja  MP (Communist Party of India), MG Devasahayam (Forum for Electoral Integrity), SY Quraishi, former CEC, Prof Jagdeep Chokkar (Association for Democratic Reforms), YP Anand (former Chaiman, Railway Board), Raghavan Srinivasan (Lok Raj Sangathan), Prakash Rao (Communist Ghadar Party of India), Dr Sanjeev Chhiber (Naya Daur Party), Dr ND Pancholi (Citizens for democracy), Prof Bharat Seth (former Professor, IIT, Mumbai) , Suresh Babu (Naalaya India), Rajarajan (Gandhi Initiative for Social Transformation), Ms. Sucharita (LRS), Ms. Renu Nayak (Purogami Mahila Sangathan),  Dr Venkatesh (Committee for Judicial Accountability & Reforms), Shri Mohammed Arif  (Welfare Party of India), Dr. M D Thomas, (Institute of Harmony and Peace Studies), Shri Amit Kumar (National Alliance of People’s Movement), Adv Vishwajit Singh (Reclaim India) and representatives from Election Commission – Dr. NC Swain and Shri SK Rudola.

Wide-ranging discussion took place among participants, particularly in the light of recent experiences in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections. Several concrete suggestions emerged from the Round Table which have the potential to bring about far-reaching changes in the electoral system that can pull India’s democracy out of its deep distress. These are:

  1. Selection process of candidates by political parties to contest elections should undergo a paradigm change. India needs a system wherein people can select and elect their representatives who can be recalled if they don’t perform or indulge in corrupt practices.
  2. We need to develop mechanisms at the level of the constituencies where an elected Constituency Committee will involve the electorate in the process of selection of candidates. In open meetings of this Committee, merits of potential candidates should be discussed and selection made. These selected candidates will be known and trusted by the people.
  3. As of now electoral arena is totally biased in favour of the established parties who have a permanent symbol that can be easily recognized by the voters. Since this is not available to smaller parties who want to enter the fray to provide alternatives they are put at tremendous disadvantage. Either all registered parties should be assigned permanent symbols or none. Every party should get different symbol for different election. This could usher in level playing field which is the biggest bugbear in today’s elections.
  4. Political parties should submit their draft manifestos to the EC within seven days of announcement of election. Only on its certification by EC that it is MCC compliant can the parties make it public. Mind-boggling freebies in the election manifestos in violation of MCC should be electoral offence punishable with de-recognition and disqualification of the concerned political party from contesting elections.
  5. Corporate funding should be banned since it brings undue influence of money power. This was done for a brief period in the late 1970s. It was again permitted under the plea that they have as much right to fund elections. This ban should be brought back.
  6. The present first-past-the-post system is an anachronism wherein an individual/political party polling hardly 25% votes get elected and rule the roost. India should adopt the German model of list-based proportional representation system.
  7. Present election expenditure limits is very high and works in favour of the money-bags who are only interested in capturing power and against those with ordinary means who have public interest at heart.
  8. What is worse, there is no limit to expenditure by political parties. In the event well-endowed political parties with deep-pocket and corporate support indulge in extravaganza and bribing thereby totally screwing the electoral field. This must be put an end to immediately.
  9. To prevent criminals from getting elected, MCC must demarcate political activists from criminals. For this purpose Section 8 of the RP Act needs to be amended. It may not be foolproof but at least there can be a check.
  10. The appointment of Election Commissioners should be by a Collegium rather than being left to the whims of the government of the day.
  11. Media, particularly the vernacular TV that reaches almost every home and hearth is playing havoc to the electoral process. By their tirade and over-reach they effectively block emergence of any alternative outside the established power-wielding ‘cash-rich’ parties. This is so because these media is being controlled by big corporate houses and political parties themselves. It is they who decide the winner through opinion polls and creating non-existent ‘waves’ about a particular party or messiah. This is detrimental to the very foundation of democracy. EC should rein them in and ensure equal access to media for all players.
  12. Party politics has drowned good governance. EC has power for about two months to control the parties. EC should have power throughout and not just at the time of elections.
  13. People may be accepting cash-for-votes since they know that they will not get anything after the elections. So they feel take whatever is given before the elections. Political parties are reportedly funded by mafia and it is their money which is used to bribe the voters. EC should take action to stem this before, during and after the elections.
  14. Mafia-money used for bribing voters is accumulated and stacked over a period of time and it is not possible for EC to unearth it in a time-period of two months. This is the responsibility of Income-Tax department and Enforcement Directorate. EC should evolve a mechanism to involve these agencies over longer period instead of doing fire-fighting at the nick of time.
  15. Election petitions should be finally disposed of and the guilty candidates disqualified within six months as stipulated. This is possible only if Fast-Track courts are set up with streamlined process and continuous hearing. In the alternative EC can be vested with this authority since it already enjoys the status of Supreme Court.
  16. There is need for an all India non-government body, whose main objective would be to oversee the process of political integrity. This body should go into the whole issue of political funding. It can check the character and experience of the proposed candidates and can keep a watch on the entitlements of elected representatives. This body can work with EC to bring about political and electoral integrity.
  17. People-at-large are ignorant about the basic tenets of democracy and the purpose of holding periodic elections. They think it is just about political parties capturing power. Massive education and awareness building is required to undo this. Democracy and electoral process should be made part of the school and college syllabus in all streams of studies.

Consensus: Election Commission should act as Catalyst

Consensus is that due to near-total lack of electoral integrity, India’s democracy is facing serious decay. Neither political parties nor governments are willing to take the necessary remedial steps to pull democracy out of this morass by ensuring stringent standards of electoral integrity.

But all hopes are not lost because “We, the people, who gave ourselves the Constitution” have not given this responsibility to the government or political parties but to the EC.  People have also bestowed the Commission with legal and plenipotentiary powers.  In a catena of judgments Supreme Court has further strengthened it by ruling that “conducting free and fair elections is the basic feature of the Constitution” and this is the responsibility of EC. It is therefore imperative on the part of EC to function as a catalyst to rally the forces and ensure electoral integrity by all means and not remain tied to the apron-strings of the government.

As of now EC does not consult the people, the sovereign and the real stakeholders who give power to the politicians. Instead they pander to the political parties, who are only interested in grabbing power by fair or foul means. EC is not placed there by “We, the People” to bring political parties to power and allow them to do whatever they want. EC is there on behalf of the people to sustain democracy and make it vibrant. So, EC must initiate a country-wide discourse wherein people across-the-board should be involved. Civil Society Organizations that includes everyone except those governed my military laws can assist the Commission in this task.

Conclusion

EC is not a subordinate entity of the government. They represent “We, the people” to ensure electoral integrity. In that capacity EC, after extensive public consultation, should seek a fresh RP Act incorporating all the above suggestions as well as the provisions of the draft Political Parties Bill-2011. Sooner this is done the better for India’s democracy!

 

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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