As espoused by many, including the President, the Prime Minister and several committees, the time is ripe to bring reforms in electoral politics. This will curb criminalisation, bring transparency and control corruption

It was heartening that President Pranab Mukherjee, while speaking at the inaugural address at an all-India seminar on economic reforms, talked about the much-needed electoral reforms. The President pointed out the need to correct certain areas regarding holding of elections as there are aberrations. Even the Chief Justice of India recently stated that political parties should be held accountable for their manifesto promises.

The President’s remarks are timely as big-bang electoral reforms are long overdue. His statement is also significant in view of the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) countermanding of prestigious RK Nagar by-poll in Tamil Nadu this week. The Sasikala faction had been brazenly distributing money to the voters, which led to the decision.

The need for electoral reforms has been much talked about. Several committees have been setup but all reports have been gathering dust. Various committees suggested methods of dealing with money power and muscle power. The ECI had proposed electoral reforms in 2004. The Vohra committee noted that “Some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs/armedsenas and over the years get themselves elected to local bodies, State Assemblies, and national Parliament.” Even model code of conduct, stipulated by the commission, was violated in absence of backing for ECI’s powers.

As former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi said in his article in The Indian Express on March 31, “The ECI’s proposals could broadly be divided into three categories. One, reforms to cleanse the electoral system (debarring criminally-tainted politicians from contesting, checking money power, empowering the ECI to de-register defunct and dubious parties). Two, reforms to make the ECI stronger and independent (appointment of the election commissioners through a collegium, their elevation to Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on the criterion of seniority and their protection from removal through impeachment as available to the CEC). Three, reforms to make the electoral system more efficient (like the introduction of totaliser machines to prevent disclosure of polling patterns in a polling booth).”

Above all, the ECI has been pressing for more powers to regulate the functioning of political parties. Black money spent during the polls is alarming. Candidates spend hundred times more than the stipulated amount by the ECI. State funding of elections has been suggested by many committees. According to Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the commission seized around Rs300 crore of unaccounted cash and more than 17,000 kg of drugs, and large amount of liquor and arms during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Presently, an estimated 70 per cent of all political funding came form unknown sources. Even the Law Commission expressed concern about the dubious donors.

The Government has already taken a necessary step in the recent Budget by ordering that political parties cannot take cash of more than Rs2,000 from a particular donor. The Modi Government’s idea of electoral bonds are more to do with eliminating black money and less to do with electoral reforms.

The ECI has always been wary of state funding, insisting that this should be accompanied by reforms to curb criminalisation of politics, financial transparency and stricter laws to control corruption.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mukhejree too have been talking of simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and Assemblies. This will help save the  exchequer’s money on the polls. For this, the Centre, States as well as the ECI must sit together to find a solution. After all, for two decades after independence, elections were held simultaneously. It was only from the 1970s that it began to be held at different times. There are also concerns about the long phase of elections. The efficacy of electronic voting machine has also come into question.

President Mukherjee had also talked about increasing the number of Lok Sabha seats from the present 543 seats. The delimitation of the Lok Sabha constituencies is on the basis of the 1971 census. India has over 800 million voters and the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies represent 1.28 billion people.

Women have been demanding 33 per cent reservation in Parliament as well as Legislatures.  The percentage of women in Parliament is abysmally low. The Rajya Sabha even passed the reservation bill on March 7, 2010, but the Bill lapsed in the Lok Sabha as there was no political will to get it through. The BJP had given up the pretence of even talking about it in its manifesto in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and subsequent Assembly polls.

The Parliament discussed about poll reforms recently and some members wanted the first past the post system to be replaced with proportional representing which would assure every section gets representation.

Therefore, electoral reforms would strengthen the democracy further and there is need to attempt them sooner than later.

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