Originally Published 2011-10-31 00:00:00 Published on Oct 31, 2011
The Election Commission's proposal for fixing eight per cent vote-share in Lok Sabha polls as the lower-limit for conferring the status of 'National Parties' is fraught with consequences that go beyond the constitutional mandate.
Legitimising a two-party system?
The Election Commission's proposal for fixing eight per cent vote-share in Lok Sabha polls as the lower-limit for conferring the status of 'National Parties' is fraught with consequences that go beyond the constitutional mandate. It is so even for recognition of 'Regional Parties' in individual States, where sub-regional identities, aspirations and concerns have found electoral expression over the past couple of decades. Suffice is to point out that even smaller parties have had their share in Government at the Centre and in their respective States, one way or the other, during this period. While a healthy discourse on the relevance of regional and sub-regional political entities should continue at all levels, to manipulate decision-making through an artificial process could add to the already existing frustration among the 'denied lot'. This in turn could be exploited by those that have been denied such 'recognition'. The signs of such a course are visible all across the nation's political spectrum.

In the 'coalition era', and not only at the national-level, over-emphasis on poll percentages for official 'recognition' could also end up defeating the very purpose the much-needed and equally well-enforced anti-defection law. We have had at least one instance of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi staying on in power for five full years of the State Assembly's term (2006-11) at the head of a 'minority government', with continuing 'outside support' from one or more of his electoral allies. More importantly, we have had a Chief Minister in Jharkhand, Madhu Koda, for two years (2006-08) who did not belong to any party. Despite their political affiliation, Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, were acceptable to coalition partners and the Congress under-writer, not because they were 'strong leaders'. The reverse was the truth. Specific situations throw up specific solutions. External stimulus like 'recognition' by the Election Commission could hamper rather than regulate political stability in those specific circumstances.

The success of the Indian political and constitutional schemes owes it to their dynamism, not to stringent codification at birth. The flexibility afforded by the numerous constitutional amendments has made the politico-administrative scheme inclusive and contemporary. Their relevance could be understood if only looked at our success in forting unity despite diversities, in the post-Independence era. Governments may have suffered in some cases, but those are in areas that are amenable to repairs as we go along. That is already happening on fighting political and electoral corruption. The Election Commission, with guidance/assistance from the Supreme Court, has been doing a commendable job on this score. As constitutional/administrative entities, the Election Commission, the CAG, CVC and the CBI have all begun standing up, to take on the Government of the days, on issues. Those issues are different from the question of conferring and withdrawing electoral recognition and allotting symbols. A more comprehensive scheme needs to be devised. It should be regulatory, not mandatory.

A House full of Independents?

The Constitution has not prescribed political identities for the choice of a ruler. The phrase 'political parties' do not figure in the Constitution even once. Yet, neither the Founding Fathers, nor the practitioners, had anything but a party scheme in their mind. Visionaries as they were, the Founding Fathers, if anything, had foreseen the possibilities of a fluid political situation of the kind that the nation experienced through the second half of the Nineties in particular. The situation was/is no different in the States, either. In short, the scheme did not rule out the theoretical possibility of a House full of 'Independents' coming together in groups and formations to form a government with a majority of members voting in favour in crucial hours and critical situations. Read in the context of the Constitution, it is so even otherwise.

The scheme for conferring 'recognition' on political is not without its fault-lines. In turn, this could put political stability at stake, as much at the Centre as in the State. For contesting as independents without an allotted symbol but under the banner of a party 'registered' as such but not 'recognised' as one for the allocation of a separate symbol, 'minor parties' have been pledging their identities to such other smaller brethren that have an allotted symbol from the past. The reverse is also true when the latter feels threatened about falling short of the required poll percentage for retaining the symbol allotted earlier. Over the past years, registered political parties, not one of them 'recognised' have contested under the same banner - a practice much hailed when Janata Party set a nation-wide precedent as far back as 1975, post-emergency. That should have been an exception, not the rule. Given the ideological differences and personality clashes (which are at the bottom of all those parties and leaders coming under a single banner), post-poll, there have been splits and defections that have made the due processes laughable.

Inspiring respect and confidence

It needs to be underscored that the Election Commission, like the Supreme Court, the CAG and a few other constitutional entities has inspired and retained the respect and confidence of the people at large, despite the inherent inadequacies from time to time. In turn, they have also instilled the fear of the scheme and of the people in political parties and their leaders. In practice, these institutions have drawn their greater sustenance from the people as the political class deems it alone has done. By continuing to link the allocation of election symbols to the poll-percentage and unilaterally fixing a higher share than existing one for such recognition, the Commission may have denied the emergence of newer parties at the national-level, and at the same time also enable only regional political parties with a high vote-share to aspire for the 'National' status. Translated, it would mean that only two parties as at present, namely the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would qualify for such recognition.

It is in this background that the events and developments since the Nineties need to be studied. What had started off as a campaign for a two-party system after the late P V Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister withered away after 1996 when a Deve Gowda became his successor without notice. The mixes and fixes of the subsequent years meant that 'political stability' became a successful campaign-point for the BJP in the 1998 parliamentary polls. Yet, the fact remains that since then whether the BJP or the Congress is in power, the one in the Opposition has managed to stall Parliament sessions for most days, as if in cohort with the main rival in power, and not necessarily with the alliance partners that they deem to head. Through the BJP-NDA 'stable rule' from 1999-2004, credit went to Prime Minister Vajpayee for flagging controversial Hindutva issues on the very of parliamentary sessions, for the Congress Opposition to stall Parliament. So much so, the House would have only a day or two to dispose of legislative business after a farcical truce that would be worked out towards the end of the session. The pattern became unmistakable yet we have had under the Congress regime, the entire budget being passed without debate at least on one occasion. Today, the Election Commission's innocent proposal, upping the vote-share for official recognition could end up legitimising a dangerous trend on the ground.

The existing rule is for political parties to bag either one seat in every 25 Parliament or six per cent vote-share to qualify for such recognition and symbol-allocation. For recognition as a 'Regional Party', it's one Assembly seat in every 30. Under the new regulation, seat-share would not count for such recognition, either at the national or the regional-level. Such a scheme, even at the time of introduction suffers from the theoretical possibility of a political party with the  required poll percentage not winning a single seat - and that with below-part vote-share winning a few seats at the very least. While the poll percentage in the first case would justify recognition for a party, it would be incongruous for a party otherwise registered under the required legislation and rules, and also has legislative presence would not be recognised in terms of 'symbol allocation' and the like.

Need for regulation, still

There is a need for regulating the registration of and recognition for political parties. There is also a related requirement for periodic review. This has to be based on practical considerations, and should help strengthen democracy, not put it under strain. It is possible that the Election Commission's logic is based on the increasing voter turn-out in recent series of elections, and the consequent need for regulating registration and recognition for political parties. If that is the case, it would be justified if the parties that qualify for recognition and symbol-allocation account for a high vote-share between/among them. It is not always the case. Better or worse still, in a series of parliamentary polls in recent years, the top two parties under the new scheme, namely, the seat-share of the Congress and the BJP have barely managed to cross the half-way mark in Parliament for forming a new government at the Centre. This only means that all those parties outside the pale of the eight per cent cut-off mark may still manage to prop up a government at the Centre in a good election for them, but none of them need to have been recognised by the Election Commission in symbol allocation.

This is not a paradox or a parody of democracy. It is a fallacy. Decades after democracy and elections have come to determine the shape and substance of the Indian State and the Nation, any attempt to correct this anomaly should be grounded in realities more than in the past. At a time when fissiparous tendencies that are inherent to geographical India that the Constitution at birth sought to mitigate, if not remove, the denial of constituencies-based approach to the integration of the Indian nation should not be over-looked or side-stepped thus. We are not living in an era where older democracies, as in the West, cold sublimate constituency interests to symbols that may have left them out. The two-party system in place in the US and the UK belonged to an era in which men were travelling on horse-back. Twitter and SMS have changed the way people think, act and vote.

In the US, for instance, every generation has had its vagaries of the voter. The last time round, in 1992, independent Ross Perot bagged a fifth of the vote-share. The declaration by the media-savvy Americans that "we will not allow this to happen again" has brought people increasingly to the streets. Or, they have voted an Barack Obama. His election itself was a cause for celebration in the constituency-ridden American politics. In India, absence of adequate recognition for representation has been contributing successively to public protests, insurgencies and militancy of the Naxalite variety. It is as much about the scheme and system as about individuals and political parties that have failed their voters and constituencies. The cure thus should not be taking them back to the scheme, which was at the bottom of such constituencies-driven politics in the first place. The picture could be understood better if one saw the Independence movement and the Indian National Congress of the time in particular, as umbrella organisations that sub-served a natural cause and in which constituency interests were subsumed. When the spirit of those days are lost with the passage of time and generation, one should be revisiting the problems for solutions, and not at the existing solutions in a way that the problems are re-created in ways the existing scheme and system are unable to react.


Ending 'cash-for-vote' in elections is a case in point. Better or worse still is hyping the role of institutions in containing the same. Two elections in over six months in southern Tamil Nadu is a case in point. The Assembly elections in April became a globally-watched event, not for the result that it produced but for the way fighting corruption came under sharp focus. The campaign, spear-headed by the Election Commission and taken to the people by civil society organisations, peaked so  high that after the results were known the State may have already gone back to the old days, quietly and without irritating the nation's eyes any more. The local government polls in October showed money-power for what it was worth. With nearly 80 per cent of the registered voters casting their ballot in the second phase involving rural voters, and a substantial 70-plus per cent turn-out in the first round in the urban centres, there was no stopping money and material changing hands. Being local-level elections where every vote counted and every voter mattered, no serious candidate seemed to have taken a chance. Some local media reports even put the total cost to the candidates at a high  25,000 crores.

It is easy to argue that local government elections are conducted by State Election Commissions, appointed by the State Government concerned, and not by the CEC at the national-level. One, the former is as much a constitutional authority as the latter. Two, if correctives cannot be applied to the existing scheme on this score when the public mood is right and the nation's polity feels accountable, to a greater or lesser degree, they cannot be followed up on a later date. Probity may thus preclude the Election Commission at the national-level to forward recommendations that are considered as interference in the federal structure of the Constitution, as it has come to be seen. Yet, it is issues such as these that the civil society should be campaigning for, instead.

In doing so, the Election Commission, for its part, could look around for the best practices being followed in other nations, big or small, for commendation to the polity and civil society in the country. A small and infant democracy, Maldives, for instance, has a scheme for the Election Commission officials to be present at the general council meetings of political parties seeking registration and recognition, for verification purposes. It may not apply to India, where recognition is based on poll-percentages from the start (and rightly so, owing also to the much larger population), but Commission authorities could still be mandated to be present in party general council meetings, where leaderships are elected, re-elected or imposed. If it required additional resources, the health of our democracy would still demand such innovative and confidence-inducing measures, still.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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