In an article published fifty years ago, the great Indian democrat Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari deplored ‘the unconscionable and grievous expenditure on elections, which gives overwhelming advantage to money-power..’ Rajaji argued that ‘elections now are largely, so to say, private enterprise, whereas this is the one thing that should be first nationalized.’ Towards this end, he recommend that the Government issue voter cards, take votes not at fixed destinations but at mobile booths that went from home to home and hamlet to hamlet, and provide state funding to parties and contestants.
In the decades since Rajaji wrote, money-power has become even more pervasive and influential. A candidate for Parliament requires crores of rupees to fight an election. These costs are obtained through party funds, which rest not (as they should) on membership fees and small voluntary donations, but on commissions creamed off government contracts, and on bribes given by industrialists to whom the parties have granted favours. The funds provided to (or gathered by) contestants are then used to seek to bribe voters. The money spent in fighting elections is recovered many-fold in case the party or contestant wins.
In Rajaji’s time, a minority of politicians (perhaps 20% or so) were corrupt. And virtually none were criminals. Now, certainly less than 20% of politicians in power are completely honest; and somewhat more than 20% have criminal records. That said, the electoral system itself is relatively transparent. Sterling work by successive Election Commissioners—such as T. N. Seshan, J. M. Lyngdoh, N. Gopalaswami and S. Y. Qureshi—have largely put an end to the practice—widespread in the 1970s and 1980s—of capturing booths, doctoring ballot papers, and ensuring that those who were not likely to vote in your favour were kept away from the electoral process. Also on the positive side, voter turn-out remains high, far higher, in fact, than in older and otherwise more mature democracies. Besides, the poor vote in larger numbers than the middle-class and the rich.
Indian elections, then, are by no means a farce; but they are surely in need of reform. They need to be made independent of money-power, and less captive to the interests of crooks and criminals. Recognizing this, the Ministry of Law and the Election Commission have been holding a series of meetings in different parts of India, soliciting views on how best to reform the electoral system. Asked to speak at the meeting in Bangalore, I took as my manifesto (the word is inescapable) a submission prepared by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), a remarkable organization that has single-handedly made electoral malpractice and the criminalization of politics topics of national debate. (It was a Public Interest Litigation filed by the founding members of ADR that resulted in a Supreme Court judgement making mandatory the declaration of assets and criminal records of all those seeking to contest Assembly and Parliamentary elections.)
The note submitted by the ADR to the Ministry of Law and the Election Commission makes twenty-seven recommendations in all. These are listed in detail on the ADR website. I will here highlight thirteen recommendations, which I shall divide into two categories—those that are immediately practicable, and can be put in place at once; and those that are highly desirable, and can perhaps be tested first in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and then implemented in subsequent Parliamentary and Assembly elections.
Seven proposals made by the ADR that can be implemented with immediate effect are:
1. Barring criminals from politics: A person charged with serious offences like murder, rape, kidnapping, or extortion, against whom charges have been framed by the police or the courts and which are punishable by sentences exceeding two years imprisonment, should be prohibited from contesting elections. To prevent vendetta by political opponents, the law can specify that such action will be taken only if the case and charges were filed six or perhaps even nine months before the date of the election which the person wishes to contest;
2. Sources of income: Along with the declaration of assets and liabilities (now mandatory), candidates for state and national elections should also make public their yearly income and its sources;
3. Appointments of Election Commissioners: At the national level, this should be done by a multi-party committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. Likewise, State Election Commissioners should be chosen by a committee comprising the Chief Minister, the leader of the Opposition, the Assembly Speaker, and the Chief Justice of the relevant High Court. Further, to obviate bias and harrassment, the Chief Election Commissioner of the State should be a person from outside the state cadre;
4. Provision for negative voting: The Electronic Voting Machines, while listing the names and affiliations of candidates, should have, as a final option, ‘None of the above’;
5. Bar on post-retirement jobs: All Election Commissioners should be barred from accepting government posts of any kind for a period of five years after their retirement, and from joining a political party for a further five years;
6. Financial transparency: It should be made mandatory for political parties to declare accounts annually, indicating their sources of funding, patterns of expenditure, etc.;
7. Curbs on Publicity at Public Expenses: Six months prior to the expiry of the House, the government should be forbidden from taking out advertisements in the media trumpeting their achievements (real or imagined);
Six further proposals made by the Association for Democratic Reforms, which can be made operational in the next few years are:
The winning margin of candidates should be at least one vote more than 50% of those cast. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, then the two top candidates in a constituency can ‘run-off’ against one another;
2. Elections should be funded by the state. The mechanics of this process have to be carefully worked out, to establish how much money is allocated to state parties, how much to national parties, how much to independent candidates, etc. But surely a committee composed of a selection of India’s many world-class economists can work out a formula that is both efficient and equitable;
3. The internal reform of political parties such that they have (a) regular elections (based on secret ballots); (b) term limits for office bearers;
4. The classification of political parties as public authorities, so that their finances and other activities come under the provision of the Right to Information Act;
5. The prompt detection of those who bribe voters by gifts of alcohol, televisions, etc., and their punishment by having their candidacy set aside;
6. The provision of annual reports to constituents by MP’s and MLA’s.
In recent months, the issue of political corruption has dominated the headlines—from the Commonwealth Games through the 2G scandal and the mining and real estate scams on to the controversy over the Lokpal Bill. Public discussion has been high on indignation and low on constructive proposals for reform. The document prepared by the ADR is an excellent starting point to move the debate from rhetoric to substance, from talk to action. For, to cleanse the election system is to cleanse the political class, and thereby, the process of governance itself.