Electoral Reforms- Part II

SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS

Electoral Reforms- Part I
Electoral Reforms in India

As discussed in the part I of this article, even though high standards have been mentioned in the constitutional and statutory laws of the country and many reforms been brought since the 61st CAA, the true meaning of free and fair elections has deteriorated progressively with every election that takes place. The discussion on electoral reforms in India often deflects from the main issues becoming mostly irrelevant and meaningless than the pre-existing challenges.  Proposed reforms are not discussed and researched thoroughly usually indicating the vested interests of the proposing parties. Grand proposals are not always correct proposals- stands true even for the proposed and more debated reforms discussed in the Part I of this article. The following are the criticisms for the same.

SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS

It has been usually pointed out that elections for the first 2 decades after independence were held simultaneously.  However it was only possible because there was a stable majority of a single party at both the centre and states and the elections held simultaneously were not constitutionally mandated. Ever since the hegemony of a single party was broken, coalition governments have brought stability in Indian politics. Coalition governments formed by various regional parties and national parties reflect the disparate groups in the society with disparate aspirations. We have been chanting ‘unity in diversity’ since time immemorial, coalition politics is just a reflection of the diversity in democracy. If simultaneous elections are held then it would be the death of this diversity.

The draft report by Law Commission of India (LCI) and the working paper by NITI Aayog both have cited the example of Odisha where even though the elections were held simultaneously the regional party had the advantage over the national parties. The ruling party in the state of Odisha has had absolute majority in the state legislature, while the same cannot be said for other states where the arguments cited above would not stand true. Research on all simultaneous elections to state assemblies and Parliament between 1999 and 2014 shows simultaneous elections do have an impact on the voting behaviour. Voters chose the same political party in both centre and state in 77% of these constituencies when they voted on the same day.  When elections were held 6 months apart 61% chose the same political party. Voters chose different political parties when elections were further staggered. Hence there is clear empirical evidence to suggest that voters chose same political parties when held simultaneously than when held at staggered.

For aligning all the elections it has been suggested that the elections of state assemblies to be held at the interval of 2.5 years until elections are held simultaneously. Further to sustain the cycle of simultaneous elections ‘no confidence motion’ to be accompanied by a ‘confidence’ motion. And still if there is a necessity to dissolve the legislature, then the President would carry on the government until the next elections with the help of a Council of Ministers chosen by him. Same is suggested for the states where Governor is supposed to carry on the government with the help of Council of Ministers chosen by him. For these suggestions to be implemented the Constitution would need amendments to its articles to the scale of the 42nd Constitutional Amendemnt. For example Article 74 says that there shall be Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advice the President, similarly Article 163 says same for the states where the Chief Minister is the head of the council of Minister. The Constitution has fixed the terms of state legislature as 5 years. But curtailing the terms of the state legislature would need amendments to the Article 172. Further the President is elected by proportional representation while the governor is appointed by the President. The constitution makers chose indirect elections for the President because he is a nominal executive, so if the real executive power is vested in the President as suggested by LCI and NITI Aayog would it not be a fraud to the people of the country? Same question stands true for the suggestions on governors.

Making the President and governors real executive means breaking down the federal polity of the country. It would give way for Presidential form of government in place of the present Westminster model and flatten out the political diversities for a unitary form of government which is ill fit for a diverse country.  Supporters of simultaneous elections seem to favour a stable government more than a responsible government. Making ‘confidence’ motion to accompany ‘no confidence’ motion is giving way for stability over responsibility. If this happens then a government with a majority would stay at the centre even if it is incompetent or autocratic or corrupt because the opposition with inadequate numbers of Members of Parliament would be unable to form a government.

 The most farcical of all the demerits pointed out for the frequent elections is about the huge election expenditure. The Election Commission of India (ECI) incurs total cost of Rs. 8000 crore for both state and federal elections in span of 5 years or around Rs. 1500 crore per year. A total of 600 million of Indians can vote in these elections which mean Rs. 27 per voter per year is incurred every year. This value is even less than that in the USA and Europe. 0.05% of India’s total annual expenditure is a not big price to pay for being the world’s largest democracy. Based on these figures it would mean we are debating to get the cheapest democracy possible instead of a responsible and effective one. Moreover the debate should be on how much the political parties and candidates are spending which seems to go way over what the ECI does.

The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) says that the government has get the permission of the ECI before it introduces a programme or policy that has a bearing on the result of election. The ECI has on numerous occasions given such permission. The MCC does not say that all existing programmes need to be stopped. So to say that elections have adverse effects on governance and development is wrong. Political parties focus on the development measures of the last 3 or 6 months before the elections hence the contention with frequent elections.

Today election to any state is taken as a referendum on the national government and hence both national government and political establishments get involved in assembly elections. A state election should be fought by the people of that state. Ministers from the centre and from other states getting involved into state elections indicates that it is not frequent elections which affects governance but electioneering to hold on to power in each and every state. Ministers when assuming office take an oath to fulfil his ministerial duties to the best of his ability for 5 years. A case should be made on this to restrict the ministers running off for campaigning because elections of one state should not bring the rest of the country to standstill.

Electoral bonds

While the Electoral Bond Scheme (EBS) was envisaged to act against the under-the-table donations, several key provisions of the scheme makes it highly controversial. The anonymity or lack of disclosure requirements for the individuals or corporate buying electoral bonds is against the fundamental principle of transparency in political funding. It would only make convenient channels to infuse black money into the economy. It would help in round tripping the cash parked in tax havens to political parties. The removal of the 7.5% cap on corporate donations by amending the Companies Act 2013 allows for unlimited corporate donations. Further the government of the day would have an upper hand because the sole repository of the donor details would be with the public sector bank i.e. State bank of India.

From March 2018 to January 2019 seven tranches of electoral bonds have been rolled out. In less than a year around Rs. 1407 crore had flown in the forms of bonds. What is alarming of these figures is that a single party has captured as much as 95% of the total bond donations. The figure shows the hegemony of the ruling party. It undermines the principle of equality, a cornerstone for equitable and healthy democracy.

As mentioned in the Part I of this article, Electoral Trusts were used for political funding before 2016. In 2017-18 the Electoral Trusts has collected Rs. 194 crore whereas the electoral bonds garnered Rs. 222 crore in the first tranche.  This indicates that individual corporate which earlier used the Electoral Trusts route moved to the new channel. Moreover, 99.95 of the donations have been made by high value denomination bonds of Rs. 10 lakh and Rs. 1 crore indicating corporates preferring bonds over the Electoral Trusts. Given the anonymity clause of EBS, this should be a wake-up call for the policy makers of the country. Or else it would bring unrestrained influence of corporates in governance and politics of the country. The negative implication of the business-politics nexus is well known in India. To put it simply, EBS is an anathema for a healthy democracy and the early warnings should be readbefore its too late.

Proxy voting

Proxy voting as envisaged by the government would make the non-resident feel valued and counted in the country given the amount of money they remit. States like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Gujarat where the number of people working abroad is higher would attract overseas voters. However, the implementation has its own challenges.

For one, proxy voters voting as per the wishes of the actual voter could never be guaranteed. The problem of ‘trust deficiency’ violates the principles of ‘free and fair’ elections and ‘secrecy of voting’. Further it would be impossible to keep a check on bribery and inducements of voters. There would be no guarantee that the overseas voter is exercising their vote in a free and fair manner. A majority of foreign migrants are poor workers who are often at the mercy of their employers.

Further the Indian embassies and high commissions are usually low on human resources. Frequent elections would only add to their workload. In addition to this regional parties would surely be at a disadvantage who do not have the resources or enough political funding to reach out to the overseas voter. It would surely be a political bonanza for the ruling party because the highest functionary of the government-the Prime Minister addresses the Indian diaspora abroad. During elections the Indian diaspora would seem to be a constituency with only one party campaigned and represented by the Prime Minister.

Proxy voting goes against the principle of right to equality. It gives a special privilege to people who have moved abroad but ignores a migrant worker within the country. A person who moves to Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata loses his right to votes, but if he moves to New York or London can vote through a proxy. It is outright discriminatory.

Conclusion

Elections are the only time when a common citizen feels part of the political system. Electoral reforms are only way to make her feel that her participation is important. With changing times and role of technology increasing everyday, the reforms should be inclusive and protect its voter from vested interests of a majority party. Hastily and insufficiently discussed reforms would only increase the problems.

Simultaneous elections though necessary cannot be implemented without enough sacrifices made at the altar of democracy. Federalism would take a massive hit if implemented even if it reduces the amount of time and money the country focuses on elections. The whole issue should be discussed enough before making a move for it. Same stands true for proxy voting and state funding of elections as well. Reforms while including some should not leave out others.

Electoral bonds which were envisaged to make political funding transparent has only made it more opaque bringing in the ‘chicken and egg’ phenomenon. Paid news should be curbed at the earliest by amending Representation of People Act 1951. Moreover, enough heed should be paid to the electoral reforms suggested by the Election Commission of India before moving any by the political parties.

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