REFORMS ON FREE AND FAIR ELECTION

image description

While the country is gearing up for the next upcoming election, taking a look into the past elections in order to appreciate the admirable precision with which the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducting the polls from year to year. It is the largest management event anywhere on Earth involving 543 Lok Sabha seats, 85 crore eligible voters, 1.1 crore polling personnel (all government servants), nearly 10 lakh polling stations and more than 18 lakh electronic voting machines (EVMs) and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines.

The quest to reach every voter has made our election machinery the envy of the world with US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton calling the Indian elections “a gold standard”. A prominent writer also remarked rhetorically in an op-ed recently that the US should “hire the ECI to conduct their polls”, because of the glaring flaws in their system, and the robustness of ours.But the electoral system is not free from some correctable flaws. Out of the many concerns that have been raised over the years, the issue of EVMs and VVPATs continues to make news. Ever since EVMs were introduced in 1982, it has been questioned by every political party at some point or the other. But EVMs have stood the test of time. The judiciary has also applauded the machines. The debate refuses to die down over the credibility of the machines, even though parties accept the results when they are in their favour. I have time and again reiterated that EVMs use the simplest technology and go through multiple rounds of testing in harsh weather conditions and in the presence of relevant stakeholders. The countries that reverted to paper ballots from EVMs did so because of legal and not technical reasons. Our machines have both technical as well as administrative safeguards. The dispute over it should end after the provision of VVPATs. The Supreme Court in its 2013 directive said that “it is an indispensable requirement of free, fair and transparent” elections, which will ultimately remove doubts in the minds of the voters. Now, the debate should revolve around VVPATs rather than EVMs. I feel that at least 5 percent of all VVPAT slips should be tallied as opposed to one per constituency at present.  This will further add a layer of credibility to an already robust process.

 

 

On the other hand, ECI officials should go out of their way to repeatedly assure the public regarding the safety of their ballot. Any unwarranted uproar over EVMs directly leads to an erosion of the ECI’s credibility, which is deeply disturbing for our democracy. The political parties need to substantiate their allegations; else they are hurting our democracy by creating confusion. Another issue is of simultaneous elections. It is a suggestion with many advantages, but is laden with some practical difficulties. Proponents of the system opine that voting will become convenient and the cost to the exchequer will be reduced. The country will cease to be in constant electioneering mode. There is no respite from communalism, casteism and vote bank partisanship when the country goes through one election after the other. It is also said that the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) disrupts civilian life and also policy implementation.

But the current system of staggered elections also has a host of benefits. It generates employment for a sizeable section of our population. Common people love elections as they have the power to oust their dysfunctional representatives. Politicians have to be accountable to the people on a continuous basis. Regional and national issues do not get mixed up when elections are held separately. As for any policy announcements, they can be made before and after the polls. The urgency during the MCC period is unwarranted. In case of any urgent announcement, the government can always ask for the ECI’s permission and then go ahead.

In an era of coalition politics with lurking possibility of hung Assemblies, simultaneous elections do not appear to be feasible at present as they will interfere with our federal polity. Hence, although desirable, they are not feasible. Till simultaneous elections become a possibility, we can initiate many progressive reforms that solve the same problems. The enormous cost incurred in elections can be tackled by putting a cap on expenditure by political parties. Corporate funding and private collections must be banned and replaced by State funding of political parties (not elections) based on the number of votes obtained. Seen in this context, electoral bonds do not move us forward but many steps backwards when it comes to electoral transparency. To keep a check on constant electioneering, the duration of elections can be reduced from the current 2-3 months to 33 days, if the required Central Armed Police Forces can be made available.

 

 

The issue of legislators with criminal antecedents entering the corridors of power deeply concerns me. The fielding of candidates by political parties is done on the assessment of “win ability” in elections rather than their background. Parliament is obliged to make a law on the matter according to Article 102 (1) of the Constitution. But all parties seem to be united in their opposition to any legislation on the matter. The past three Lok Sabhas have only seen an increasing number of MPs with criminal background of rape, murder and kidnapping or pending cases against them - 124 in 2004, 162 in 2009 and 182 in 2014.

The doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty” does not stand ground for these candidates as there are 2.7 lakh under trial in our country whose fundamental rights to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of occupation and right to dignity remain suspended. On the other hand, contesting elections is not a fundamental but a statutory right. So, the argument does not have any moral substance.

The recent verdict of the Supreme Court unfortunately falls short of adequately aiding the ECI in its fight against the increasing criminalization of politics. The recommendations are welcome but have some practical issues. Even though the apex court has recommended that the candidates should publicize their criminal past and political parties should put up all information about them on their website, the suggestion seems counter intuitive. It is highly unlikely any candidate will abide by the recommendations as that would be against their self-interest. Additionally, ordinary citizens generally do not visit the websites of political parties to get information about the candidates. Hence, the verdict left much to be desired. One can only hope Parliament steps up to the task by keeping aside political self-interest for the greater good of the country.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the issue of social media manipulation of voters has gained special attention. The Statistical portal estimates that in 2019, there would be around 258.27 million social network users in India - up from 168.1 million in 2016. As a result, all major political parties have a social media wing for voter outreach. But the analysis of Big Data for ideological profiling of voters can tread a dangerous territory. It can distort political outcomes as it can exploit our confirmation bias to spread fake news. Hence, stricter data protection laws have to be in place to ensure that political parties do not indulge in unethical practices such as voter intimidation or undue influence of any sort.

 

 

India is all set to break its own unparalleled records yet again in the 2019 general election. Preparations by the ECI are ongoing to ensure they deliver on the robustness of the process and the outcomes yet again with precision.  But the world’s largest democracy is in need of a multitude of electoral reforms to make political representation free, fair and more meaningful.