Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49
Electoral Reforms in India: Proactive Role of Election Commission
Tuesday 25 November 2008, by
One of the most important features of a democratic polity is elections at regular intervals. Elections constitute the signpost of democracy. These are the medium through which the attitudes, values and beliefs of the people towards their political environment are reflected. Elections grant people a government and the government has constitutional right to govern those who elect it. Elections are the central democratic procedure for selecting and controlling leaders. Elections provide an opportunity to the people to express their faith in the government from time to time and change it when the need arises. Elections symbolise the sovereignty of the people and provide legitimacy to the authority of the government. Thus, free and fair elections are indispensable for the success of democracy.
In continuance of the British legacy, India has opted for parliamentary democracy. Since 1952, the country has witnessed elections to the legislative bodies at both the national as well as State levels. The electoral system in India is hamstrung by so many snags and stultifying factors. Such maladies encourage the anti-social elements to jump into the electoral fray. Our system was largely free from any major flaw till the fourth general elections (1967). The distortions in its working appeared, for the first time, in the fifth general elections (1971) and these got multiplied in the successive elections, especially in those held in the eighties and thereafter. [Dash 2006: 50] Many a time, the Election Commission has expressed its concern and anxiety for removing obstacles in the way of free and fair polls. It has had made a number of recommendations and repeatedly reminded the government the necessity of changing the existing laws to check the electoral malpractices. The Tarkunde Committee Report of 1975, the Goswami Committee Report of 1990, the Election Commission’s recommendations in 1998 and the Indrajit Gupta Committee Report of 1998 produced a comprehensive set ofproposals regarding electoral reforms. A number of new initiatives have been taken by the Election Commission to cleanse the electoral process in India. The important among these are being discussed here.
Model Code of Conduct
THE Election Commission of India is regarded as guardian of free and fair elections. In every election, the EC issues a Model Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates to conduct elections in a free and fair manner. The Commission circulated its first Code at the time of the fifth general elections, held in 1971. Since then, the Code has been revised from time to time. The Code of Conduct lays down guidelines as to how political parties and candidates should conduct themselves during elections. A provision was made under the Code that from the time the elections are announced by the Commission, Ministers and other authorities cannot announce any financial grant, lay foundation stones of projects of schemes of any kind, make promises of construction of roads, carry out any appointments in government and public undertakings which may have the effect of influencing the voters in favour of the ruling party. Recently, the Punjab Government, which announced the budget for 2008-2009, did not propose any new concessions, because the Code of Conduct was in force for the May 2008 Panchayat elections. However, the Punjab Congress levelled serious allegations against the ruling SAD-BJP alliance for misusing government vehicles and making certain announcements, thereby violating the Model Code of Conduct. [The Tribune: 2008]
Despite the acceptance of the Code of Conduct by political parties, cases of its violation have been on the rise. It is a general complaint that the party in power at the time of elections misuses the official machinery to further the electoral prospects of its candidates. The misuse of official machinery takes different forms, such as issue of advertisements at the cost of public exchequer, misuse of official mass media during election period for partisan coverage of political news and publicity regarding their achievements, misuse of government transport including aircraft/helicopter, vehicles. For example, during the 2003 Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, the Commission had issued strict instructions to the political parties to abstain from the use of plastic and polythene for the preparation of posters and publicity material. But the political parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, put up a large number of saffron and green publicity flags made of polythene. [The Tribune: 2003] During the 2002 Punjab Assembly elections, an aggressive advertisement campaign was launched by the Congress against Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son, accusing them of corruption and bartering away the interests of Punjab. The Akali Dal hit back with its own set of equally aggressive advertisements against the Congress leaders. [Prashar: 2002] The Election Commission of India had to intervene to clarify that under the Model Code of Conduct, personal allegations against individual leaders were not allowed, though criticisms of policy decisions and performance were permitted. Similarly, the EC also held Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi responsible for violation of the Model Code of Conduct by making controversial remarks during election campaign in the 2007 Gujarat Assembly polls. The EC expressed its severe displeasure over its violation by the two leaders and expected that both of them in future would adhere to the salutary provisions of the Code in letter and spirit. [The Financial Express: 2007] Despite sincere efforts on the part of the EC to check malpractices, in each and every election India witnesses violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
Disclosure of Antecedents by Candidates
IN June 2002, the EC on the direction of the Supreme Court, issued an order under Article 324 that each candidate must submit an affidavit regarding the information of his/her criminal antecedents; assets (both movable and immovable) of self and those of spouses and dependents as well; and qualifications at the time of filing his/her nomination papers for election to the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. But political parties believed that the Election Commission and the judiciary were overstepping their powers. At the all-party meeting, held on July 8, 2002, representatives of 21 political parties decided that the Election Commission’s order should not be allowed to be implemented. The Supreme Court again came out as a guardian of the citizen’s right to information. The Apex Court gave its judgment on March 13, 2003, basically asserting its previous June 2002 decision, which required full disclosure by all candidates. The order made it clear that failing to furnish the relevant affidavit shall be considered as a violation of the Supreme Court’s order and as such the nomination papers shall be liable to be rejected by the Returning Officer. Furnishing of wrong or incomplete information shall result in the rejection of nomination papers, apart from inviting penal consequences under the Indian Penal Code. The 2004 General Elections were conducted under these rules.
The above order is an effective step to make democracy healthy and unpolluted. Citizens have every right to know about the persons whom they prefer as their representatives. The EC has directed all Returning Officers to display the copies of nomination papers and affidavits filed by candidates to the general public and representatives of print and electronic media, free of cost.
Registration of Political Parties
THE party system is an essential feature of parliamentary democracy. However, there is no direct reference of political parties in the Constitution of India. The statutory law relating to registration of political parties was enacted in 1989 which was quite liberal. As a result, a large number of non-serious parties mushroomed and got registered with the Commission. Many of them did not contest elections at all after their registration. It led to confusion among electors as to whom to vote.
To eliminate the mushrooming of parties, the EC had to take some rigorous steps. The Commission now registers a party which has at least 100 registered electors as its members and is also charging a nominal processing fee of Rs 10,000 to cover the administration expenses which it will have to incur on correspondence with the parties after their registration.
In order to ensure that the registered political parties practice democracy in their internal functioning, the Commission requires them to hold their organisational elections regularly in accordance with their constitutions. The measures taken by the Election Commission to streamline the registration of political parties have shown effective results. These have lessened the headache of the administrative machinery, as well as confusion of the electorate.
Checking Criminalisation of Politics
CRIMINALISATION of politics is a grave problem in India. This menace began in Bihar and gradually spread to every nook and corner of the nation. In 2003, a law was introduced to prohibit the election of criminals to the legislative bodies. However, persons with criminal background continue to hold seats in Parliament and State Assemblies. This leads to a very undesirable and embarrassing situation when law-breakers become law-makers and move around under police protection. During the 13th Lok Sabha elections candidates having criminal cases against them numbered 12 in Bihar and 17 in Uttar Pradesh. It has been rightly observed by J.P.Naik: “Power is the spoiler of men and it is more so in a country like India, where the hungry stomachs produce power hungry politicians.”
The EC has expressed its serious concern over the entry of anti-social and criminal persons into the electoral arena. From time to time, it has set down norms and made recommendations to the government to curb the menace of criminalisation of politics. The Commission has urged all political parties to reach a consensus that no person with a criminal background will be given the party ticket. The candidates to an election are also obliged to submit an affidavit in a prescribed form declaring their criminal records, including convictions, charges pending and cases initiated against them. The information so furnished by the candidates shall be disseminated to the public, and to the print and electronic media.
Limits on Poll Expenses
TO get rid of the growing influence and vulgar show of money during elections, the EC has made many suggestions in this regard. The Commission has fixed legal limits on the amount of money which a candidate can spend during the election campaign. These limits have been revised from time to time. During 2004 elections, the ceiling limits for Lok Sabha seats varied between Rs 10,00,000 to Rs 25,00,000. For Assembly seats, the highest limit was Rs 10,00,000 and the lowest limit was Rs 5,00,000. The EC, by appointing expenditure observers keeps an eye on the individual accounts of election expenditure made by a candidate during election campaign. The contestants are also required to give details of expenditure within 30 days of the declaration of the election results. However, political parties do not adhere to the financial Lakashman Rekha (limits) as huge amounts are spent by parties under the garb of their supporters.
Apart from this, the EC is also in favour of holding the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections simultaneously, and to reduce the campaign period from 21 to 14 days. This, they feel, will lead to trim down the election expenditure. The Election Commission’s attempt to impose these measures has been a move in the right direction.
Multi-Member Election Commission
THERE was a longstanding demand to make the EC a multi-member body. The Supreme Court in the S.S.Dhanoa versus Union of India case had observed: “When an institution like the Election Commission is entrusted with vital functions and is armed with exclusive and uncontrolled powers to execute them, it is both necessary and desirable that the powers are not exercised by one individual, however wise he may be. It also conforms to the tenets of democratic rule.” With the 1993 Constitution Amendment Act, the Election Commission was made a multi-member body. The EC was made a multi-member body by the government in the wake of certain controversial decisions taken by the Chief Election Commissioner, T.N.Seshan. The Act provided that the decision of three members ‘shall, as far as possible, be unanimous’. But in case of difference of opinion among three members, the matter ‘shall be decided according to the opinion of the majority’. It was a significant step to remove a one-man show in such an important function as that of conducting elections. A single member EC would have no longer ‘unbridled’ powers. In view of the large size of the country and the huge electors, the Election Commission also made a proposal for the appointment of Regional Commissions to different zones to reduce its burden.
Use of Scientific and Technological Advancements
THE Election Commission of India has been trying to bring improvements in election procedures by taking advantage of scientific and technological advancements. The introduction of ‘electronic voting machines’ (EVMs) is one of the steps in that direction. The Election Commission has recommended the introduction of electronic voting machines with a view to reducing malpractices and also improving the efficiency of the voting process. On an experimental basis, the EVMs were first tried in the State of Kerala during the 1982 Legislative Assembly Elections. After the successful testing and long legal inquiries of the technological aspects of the machines, the EC took a historic decision to go ahead and start the use of EVMs for certain Assembly elections in November 1998. The Commission selected 16 Assembly constituencies in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Union Territory of Delhi. Later, in the June 1999 Assembly elections, Goa became the first State to successfully use EVMs in all its Assembly constituencies. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the machines were used all over the country. It is a major initiative taken by the EC to make the electoral process simple, quick and trouble-free. It has saved money, solved several logistical issues and also contributed to the conservation of environment through saving of paper. Another major advantage of these machines is that the counting of votes becomes more fast and accurate. Now there are no invalid and wasted votes at all, as every vote recorded in the machine is accounted for in favour of the candidate for whom it was cast.
The Election Commission has not lagged behind in making use of Information Technology for efficient electoral management and administration. It launched a website of its own on February 28, 1998 [that is, www.eci.gov.in.]. This is now a good source to have accurate information about elections, election laws, manuals and handbooks published by the Election Commission. During the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the Commission’s Secretariat was directly connected with nearly 1500 counting centres across the country. The round-wise counting results were fed into the Commission’s website from those counting centres. These results were instantly available throughout the world.
In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media—both electronic and print—were encouraged and provided with facilities to report on the actual conduct of the poll and counting. The Commission had, in cooperation with the State owned media (Doordarshan and All India Radio) taken several innovative and effective steps to create awareness among voters. All recognised national as well as State parties were allowed free access to the state-owned media on an extensive scale for their election campaign. During the 2004 general elections, the total free time allocated to political parties was 122 hours.
With a view to prevent impersonation of electors at the time of voting and to eliminate bogus and fictitious entries into electoral rolls, the Election Commission took a bold step. In 1998, it decided to take a nationwide programme for the ‘computerisation’ of electoral rolls. The printed electoral rolls as well as CDs containing these rolls are available to the general public for sale national and State parties are provided these free of cost after every revision of electoral rolls. The entire country’s electoral rolls are available on its website. Karnataka became the first State to prepare electoral rolls with the photographs of voters in the 2008 elections. The State EC developed the electoral roll management software called ‘STEERS’ (State Enhanced Electoral Roll System) [The Hindu: 2008] to prevent duplication of voters lists and to eliminate wrong addresses. The EC has decided to introduce photo electoral rolls for proper verification of voters across the country by the 2009 general elections.
In an attempt to improve the accuracy of the electoral rolls and prevent electoral fraud, the Election Commission in August 1993 ordered the issuance of electors’ photo identity cards (EPICs) for all voters. A modest attempt to introduce the photo identity cards was made for the first time in 1978 at the instance of the then Chief Election Commissioner, S.L. Shakdher, in the case of elections to the Legislative Assembly of Sikkim. During the 2004 Assembly elections, it was mandatory for people possessing EPICs to furnish it at the time of voting. People who did not possess EPICs had to bring the proofs of identity as prescribed by the EC at the time of voting [Rao 2004: 5438] During the 2007 Punjab Assembly elections, Parneet Kaur (MP from Patiala), could not cast her vote till late afternoon as she had misplaced her voter card. [The Tribune: 2007] The distribution of EPICs, on the part of Election Commission, was a major step to reduce electoral malpractices. Only genuine voters were listed in the rolls with the issuance of voter identity cards.
OVER the years, the Election Commission has conducted a number of laudable electoral reforms to strengthen democracy and enhance the fairness of elections. These reforms are quite adequate and admirable. Undoubtedly, the election machinery, under the aegis of the EC, deserves credit for conducting elections in a free and fair manner. However, our system is still plagued by many vices. To win votes, political parties resort to foul methods and corrupt practices. Such maladies encourage the anti-social elements to enter the electoral fray. The problem is not lack of laws, but lack of their strict implementation. In order to stamp out these unfair tendencies, there is a need to strengthen the hands of the EC and to give it more legal and institutional powers. The EC must be entrusted with powers to punish the errant politicians who transgress and violate the electoral laws.
Our Election Commission tries its best to weed out the virus of malpractices. It is optimistic of strengthening and improving the working of democracy through free and fair elections. It has always devised better systems and is using advanced scientific technologies for maintaining the high reputation of the Indian elections. However, the success of reforms will largely depend upon the will of the political parties to adhere to and implement such reforms. An independent media and an enlightened public opinion have no substitute in pushing through reforms. If people vote according to their convictions and punish those who infract the rules, corrupt practices will automatically disappear. And this will go a long way towards enabling democracy to flourish and grow to its full capacity.
• Dash, Siddhartha (2006): ‘Need for Electoral Reforms’, Orissa Review, January.
• Prashar, A.S. (2002): ‘Feeling the Heat, Parties Talk of Hung House’, The Tribune, February 7.
• Rao, Ritu (2004): ‘Assessing the Electoral System: A Positive Verdict’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 18.
• The Financial Express (2007): December 23.
• The Hindu (2008): February 15.
• The Tribune (2003): February 1.
• The Tribune (2007): February 14.
• The Tribune (2008): April 30.
The author is pursuing research on Electoral Politics in Punjab in the Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala.