Every election is determined by the people who show up.
Larry J. Sabato, Pendulum Swing
Before everything there has to be an admission. Are we willing to sacrifice some element of personal freedom and democratic process for faster growth and development? If yes, then much of what follows here is worth the candle. If not, then it is an approaching encroachment, even a reengineering of our fundamental rights as citizens.
In the roiling manthan of the post demonetisation period, the near immunity of the political parties regarding their massive anonymous cash funding stood out in sharp contrast. It seemed as if the rule of law enumerated in the Income Tax Act was simply not applicable to the political class. Of the nearly 2,000 registered political parties, only a few ever fought elections. What did the rest do? Were they registered only to launder black money?
Ironically, once the Election Commission (EC) has registered a political party and allocated it a symbol, it does not possess the authority to de-register it. The largest amongst them, the Congress, the ruling party for decades past and the presently ruling BJP have long been opaque, even on the source of their non-cash funding. However, the Prime Minister has now said that the public has a right to transparent disclosure of such political funding too.
Hopefully, he will sponsor the legislation to make this happen. But of course, having made such a statement, he has already scored vital political points over those opposed. In addition, this government has boldly mooted state-funded electioneering, political donations entirely by cheque and simultaneous elections to the Centre and the States. It sounds improbably utopian and yet such ideas have never been spearheaded by an Indian Prime Minister before. Narendra Modi says he is determined to curb corruption and make India foreign investment friendly by way of motivation.
There have indeed been many committees on partial or complete state funding of electioneering already. Perhaps, once economic liberalisation came to our Soviet style “planned economy”, thoughts on improving political processes followed. There was the Indrajit Gupta Committee on the State Funding of Elections (1998), the Law Commission Report on Reform of Electoral Laws (1999), National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001), the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008) and the Law Commission of India Report on Electoral Reforms (2015).
Because of an endemic mistrust of the NDA’s brute majority and its alleged non-secular agenda, new laws on electoral reform, if any, will have to be pushed through by itself.
Were any of the worthy recommendations from so many studies ever implemented? The answer is no.
Advanced countries such as Germany, Austria, France, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Japan, Spain, Australia, South Korea, the presidential election in the US have had partial or comprehensive state funding of elections mechanisms in place and operational for 30 years now. But it must be said, everywhere, it has not prevented vast raising of monies and additional spending by a candidate and/or his political party. If state funding was intended to keep lobbies at bay, it has not worked in any of these countries and it won’t do so here either. But combined with white money funding and transparency on the names of donors, amplified during the electioneering, it might yet clean up the Augean Stables and better help the voter make up his own mind.
Despite its many edges, a potentially transformative discussion on this and related issues will be tabled at an all-party meeting just before the forthcoming budget session. Ideally, a political consensus would be desirable. But given the polarisation along party lines and routine acrimony in Parliament, this seems near impossible.
Because of this endemic mistrust of the NDA’s brute majority and its alleged non-secular agenda, new laws on electoral reform, if any, will have to be pushed through by itself.
And this, debate initiation notwithstanding, presumably only after it improves its numbers in the Rajya Sabha. This could happen shortly, particularly if the reported approval of its demonetisation initiative continues to prevail during the five forthcoming Assembly elections. So far, the BJP has done very well in almost all municipality elections held after 8 November. The government’s numbers in the Rajya Sabha will be boosted enormously by 2018 if the ruling NDA wins in Uttar Pradesh.
While the EC has been pushing for various aspects of electoral reform for quite some time, it has met with very little legislative support. Conventional wisdom too dismissed the possibility as it would reduce elbow-room for the political classes. And yet, the Modi government sees considerable advantage in it, thinking, no doubt, of 2019 and beyond.
The Prime Minister promptly welcomed the EC’s recent call to limit anonymous cash donations to political parties to just Rs 2,000 each, asking for them to be banned entirely. And he reiterated his call to hold simultaneous elections to the Centre and the states. That it would save time and money, and free the government to concentrate on its work uninterrupted for five years is both compelling and undeniable. And yet, smaller political parties argue that the elections to the Centre are fought on national issues, while state elections are focused on more localised matters. Some political pundits argue simultaneous elections would curb India’s essential diversity, never mind the chaos and expenditure. In addition, to club all of them may distort the voting patterns if there are pronounced swings in favour of a given party at the Centre. The resistant are, of course, thinking of the “Modi Wave of 2014” being repeated. And so, many regional parties, facing other existential crises, afraid of being swamped in their own strongholds, are not in favour.
The decision comes more easily to a national party that runs various state governments. But this currently applies only to the BJP, to a lesser extent to the Congress, and only slightly to the nearly vanished CPM. If Congress continues on its precipitous decline, it will leave just one national party standing to benefit. Besides, all the implied neatness is disrupted instantly if either the Central government or any of the state governments falls in the course of their tenure. As they do, owing to political tugs and pulls, quite often.
It would then imply, that to cement the process, there must be fixed tenures as well. How democratic that would be in a Westminster style parliamentary democracy as envisaged by our founding fathers, is yet another issue to mull over.
If we implement all this soon, we may have to make more changes still, probably towards a presidential form of government.
There will also have to be many practical adjustments made to make one-size-fit-all. Some states will have to cut short their terms to fall in line and others will need to extend theirs. However, it would only have to be done once and for all. But try telling that to an elected state government, say two years into its tenure.
The current narrative also leaves out problems such as a large number of parliamentarians and state legislators with criminal cases against them. Legislation has already been passed to debar those who are convicted. That it still doesn’t prevent them operating via proxies, often close family members, is another evolutionary loophole of our parliamentary democracy to be tackled in future.
It all began with the grand adoption of universal suffrage in a largely illiterate country. But after 70 years, the fact that this enormously complex electoral process for almost a billion voters works so well, warts and all, is impressive by any standard.
That it should also be in need of course correction and reform is not surprising. Particularly since the need to grow economically is essential to poverty alleviation and present day aspiration.
Getting rid of some enormously expensive and disruptive electoral freedoms will not take away anything from the people. However, the jury may be out amongst the much pampered political class.