The process of reforms in the electoral system to ensure electoral integrity has began, but much remains to be achieved. Ultimately, electoral integrity could be restored only by the will of the people and it is in people's power to do so.
"In a recent speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that political intervention is necessary for democracy. However, no questions have been asked as to what these interventions are." Commenting on this, Mr G Devasahayam, veteran civil servant and Convenor, Centre for Electoral Integrity, said that the very job of politicians was to ensure democracy and this cannot be termed as "intervention". He was initiating a weekly Interaction at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, on "Ensuring Electoral Integrity".
Mr. Devasahayam started his talk noting how the Election Commission was perceived as being the finest institution in the country. However, it should be reflected in the quality of people being elected to various offices. He said that there was only a physical sense of elections being conducted efficiently, but this didn’t translate to greater integrity in the electoral process. He was also of the opinion that reform was not conceivable in the current context and complete overhaul was necessary.
Mr Devasahayam further spoke about what he said were ’wrong notions’ about the concept of democracy. He pointed to the fact that the Constitution had no provisions for local body elections until they were provided for by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. He spoke about the politician’s claims that the two amendments gave power to the people and explained that it was the political class that derived power from the people and not otherwise. He said that power springs from the people and the political class mustn’t condescend to give power to the people
The local body elections, even though now provided for by the Constitution, have several inherent lacunae. Mr Devasahayam noted how panchayat polls and urban local body elections were still outside the purview of the Election Commission and came only under the State Election Commission, created by the two Amendments. He said these State Election Commissions lacked in structure and were woefully inadequate in dealing with the scale and complexity of conducting these elections efficiently and without bias.
In the larger context, the speaker laid out the problems being based by the Election Commission of in conducting fair elections. Earlier, there were issues of booth-capturing using muscle power. The Election Commission in a bid to put an end to this situation militarised the poll process, with paramilitary forces being deployed in large numbers. Mr Devasahayam opined that such a militarisation of elections was extremely unfortunate but necessary. While this reduced the use of muscle power to a great extent, the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) stamped out booth capture entirely. Of late, this muscle power has given way to money power which is being used to undermine electoral processes.
The Election Commission tried to counter the illegal usage of money by increasing the number of observers in a constituency from one to 10. This has not lead to any enhanced integrity in the procedure. In this context, Chief Justice AP Shah’s law commission report, Mr Devasahayam felt, focussed only on the macro reforms and did not address any basic problems on the ground.
He said that the situation could be rectified in three ways. One, political parties could reform themselves to ensure better politics. The problem lies in the fact that political parties themselves have no mention in the Constitution. The anti-defection laws introduced through the 52nd Amendment of the Constitution gave rise to section 8(A) of Representation of People Act (RPA), which alone has had a mention of ’political parties’. They are only provided for in a roundabout manner. There are no rules or regulations governing them.
Mr Devasahayam said the vacuum created by the Constitution on ’political parties’ led to creation of political parties that answer to no law. He pointed to the reluctance of the political parties to comply with the Chief Information Commissioner’s order to come under the RTI Act as further evidence of their disinterest in reforming.
Two, the government can introduce reforms in the electoral process. In reality, this too has problems as any reform has to be approved by the EC and the political class themselves. In the matter of State funding of elections, Mr Devasahayam said that such a move was unfeasible in the context of Indian politics where most elections were fought with black money. He also raised questions about regulation of election expenditure. He asked how an upper-limit on party expenditure could be fixed as they were non-entities in the scheme of elections and election laws. He advocated for disqualification of parties which refused to comply with rules and laws.
Three, Mr Dvasahayam felt that this process could be cleaned up by greatly strengthening Election Commission and giving them greater powers to make rules. He regretted the fact that though the ECI was raised as a constitutional body, it had virtually become an extension of the government. It was only supported by a few judgements by the Supreme Court.
’Forward-buying’ of votes
Mr Devasahayam further explained the problems on the ground saying that even though a department was set up to track and penalise vote-buying, there was little that the ECI could do to stop it. Vote buying has transformed into forward market type of transaction with coupons, vouchers and slips being used well ahead of time to avoid detection.
He felt that making both vote buying and selling cognizable offenses were a step forward in curbing this practice. He also said that by creating a technology platform and diffusing it amongst the public thoroughly could help in better election practises. He pointed to how technologies like Totaliser and VVPAT could bring greater transparency to the process.
Responding to questions from the audience, Mr Devasahayam spoke about the effectiveness of countermanding the election as a powerful weapon and urged that it must be used more effectively by the ECI to bring the political parties and candidates in line. He spoke of the urgent need to bring political parties into the Constitutional ambit to better regulate and monitor them.
Mr Devasahayam said that the First Past The Post (FPTP) system was fundamentally flawed and proportional representation (PR) system of election was better suited to the country. But that this reform was out of reach for now and the foreseeable future. He concluded by saying that electoral integrity could be restored only by the will of the people and it was in people’s power to do so.
(This report is prepared by Aswin Murthy, ORF-Channai Chapter)