President Pratibha Patil inaugurated the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Election Commission. Country's top leaders, across the political parties stressed the need to eliminate the election-related malpractices, including the 'paid news.'

The Election Commission’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on Monday got off to a start with the country’s top leadership expressing serious concern over malpractices ranging from money and muscle power to paid news syndrome vitiating the electoral process.

They called for corrective action by the EC and the political parties to cleanse it of the evils even as they praised the contribution in the last 60 years of the Commission which came into existence on this day on the eve of India becoming a republic in 1950.

President Pratibha Patil, who inaugurated the 60th anniversary celebrations, said the impediments, lacunae and malpractices in the electoral process would have to be removed with determination to make Indian democracy “cleaner, healthier and stronger.”

The ceremony was attended by the who’s who of politics, including Vice President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj, NDA Convener Sharad Yadav, several Chief Ministers and leaders of national and state political parties.

The Prime Minister voiced concern that the “best and the brightest” were not attracted to politics and the educated professionals and the growing middle-class often shy away from the electoral process.

As the country’s top leadership went into an introspective mode, Vice President Hamid Ansari dubbed as a “blot” the extensive media-related malpractice of “paid news” and “coverage packages”.

UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi underlined the need to check money and muscle power in elections and prevent persons with criminal background from entering the poll arena.

Role model

The President said India has impressive democratic credentials, but yet has the challenge of becoming a “role model” for other countries.

“This requires that we should be aware of the impediments, the lacunae and malpractices in the electoral process. These would have to be removed with determination, to make our democracy clear, healthier and stronger,” she told the gathering which comprised 30 heads of electoral bodies from various countries and diplomats.

Paying a tribute to the EC, the President said that the Commission has been making every effort to create a level playing field between various candidates.

“As we carry on with our work, we should not forget that we swear by the Constitution, and, therefore, we must adhere to its values, spirit and principles. Democracy adorns our Constitution. We have to see that the power of voting vested in the people makes them powerful enough to change their own destiny through democracy,” the President said.

Emphasising the importance of making democracy fully participatory, the President said efforts should be made to deepen the reach of democracy through the Panchayat Raj Institutions and Local Urban Bodies.

Challenges

Evaluating the contributions of the EC, the Vice President said “six decades on, a fair verdict would be that the glass is neither empty nor full but well above the half way mark” and it faces three challenges.

The first was that while the country has traversed a long distance in providing a Constitutional basis for local government, real empowerment and participatory governance at the third tier is still a “work in progress”, she said.

Second was that despite stringent efforts, unaccounted election expenses constitute the major expenditure of political parties and their candidates.

“These relate to distribution of freebies, liquor and cash during elections, the phenomenon of surrogate advertisements and the extensive media related malpractice of ’paid news’ and ‘coverage packages’,” he said.

“Each of these is a blot on the democratic process and on the objective of free and fair elections. Corrective action by the EC and our political parties is imperative,” Mr. Ansari said.

Third, he said, the EC has insisted upon and enforced procedural inner party democracy in recognised political parties. “The challenge for the political parties now is to bring about substantive organisational democracy,” he said.

The Vice President noted that the country had established and sustained procedural democracy.

“And yet, Dr Ambedkar’s foreboding about the contradiction between political equality and social and economic inequality remains valid. The realisation of ‘one person one vote and one vote one value’ continues to be elusive,” he said.

The Prime Minister regretted that many of the educated professionals and those from the growing middle-class were not even willing to take the trouble to cast their vote.

“Poor turnout in many constituencies undermines to some extent the legitimacy of the victor in a ‘first past the post’ system that we follow,” Dr. Singh said.

There was a general worry that people without sufficient means cannot contest elections and that the background of many contestants and quite often the winning ones does not inspire confidence in voters.

“There is no easy answer to these questions. While there is near unanimity that something needs to be done about these issues, there is no consensus on how exactly to go about it,” Singh said.

The Congress President said the election management in the country has become a model and has attracted the international attention.

Today, the country moved from the traditional ballot paper to Electronic Voting Machines on which the EC has made a pioneering work, Gandhi said, adding that the process and procedure followed in the run-up to the elections had received widespread credibility and acceptance.

Making a strong plea for increased participation of women in decision—making, Ms. Gandhi said, “We have the first step by introducing the legislation (Women’s Reservation Bill) in the Upper House. But unfortunately we are still some distance away from it becoming a reality.”

Besides, she said, there was need to build a consensus on how to prevent individuals with a criminal record from contesting elections.

The Lok Sabha Speaker said that the country could feel “justifiably proud” of the EC as it has conducted 15 Lok Sabha polls and 326 general elections to state assemblies which was not a mean achievement.

Law and Justice Minister M Veerappa Moily assured the EC of government’s full support in its reform agenda.

Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj said the fact was that even a powerful person in politics are afraid of the EC was a tribute to its fairness and credibility in conducting polls.

NDA Convener Sharad Yadav wanted the EC to ensure that the common man can be able to vote easily and does not face any hindrances.

Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla, welcoming the guests, said political parties both at national and State level had displayed immense maturity in strengthening democracy in the country.

While the President released a commemorative stamp on the occasion, the Vice President released a 250-page book titled “Reinforcing Indian Democracy — Lok Sabha Election 2009”.

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