President Pratibha Patil on Monday called for determination to fight the impediments, the lacunae and malpractices in the electoral process to make democracy cleaner, healthier and stronger.

“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 cleaner, healthier and stronger,” she said inaugurating the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Election Commission of India here.

Releases stamp

Ms. Patil, who released a commemorative postal stamp, stressed on the need to uphold the independence of EC at all times as it was one such body of independent and neutral institutions created to ensure the continued existence of democracy.

She received a book Reinforcing Indian Democracy-Lok Sabha Election 2009 brought out on the occasion and released by Vice-President Hamid Ansari.

Ms. Patil said the three stakeholders in the poll — an independent and impartial electoral machinery; political parties and candidates; and the electorate — must act responsibly. “The conduct of free, fair and impartial elections depends much upon the performance of these three stakeholders.”

“We can be justifiably proud that free and fair elections have been held with regularity in the last six decades. India and democracy have become intertwined concepts and it is hard to imagine one without the other.” The EC not only helped strengthen democracy at home, but also helped to enhance the prestige of India’s institutional mechanisms. “It is for these reasons that the EC has been called upon often, to share its experiences about the conduct of elections with other countries.”

On voting rights, she said that while in many countries different groups, especially women, had to struggle for their voting rights, in India the age-old inequalities were done away with and political equality established.

Time for introspection

Mr. Ansari, referring to the EC’s celebrations, said it was also a time for introspection. “Six decades [of EC] on, a fair verdict would be that the glass is neither empty nor full but well above the half way mark. We have 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.”

Three challenges still remained in the electoral system. The real empowerment and participative governance at the third tier of the government was still a work in progress. He expressed the hope that the electoral process at the local self-government level would benefit from coordination and sharing of experiences and resources with the EC.

Similarly, despite stringent efforts, unaccounted election expenses constitute the major expenditure of political parties and their candidates. These related to the 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.”

“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 political parties is imperative.”

Inner party democracy

On the enforcement by the EC of procedural inner party democracy in political parties, Mr. Ansari said the challenge for the parties now was to bring about substantive organisational democracy. It was said in the Constituent Assembly that democracy was only a top dressing on an Indian soil that was essentially undemocratic.

“The EC deserved appreciation and gratitude for making our soil more fertile for the seed of democracy,” he said.

For consensus

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed the hope that solutions, through “consensus”, could be found to issues such as the best and brightest people not being attracted to politics, professionals and middle class shying away from the electoral process, poor voter turnout and use of money power in elections — on which the EC had given its recommendations. Many of these issues had been in the purview of the Parliamentary standing committee. “Poor turnout in many constituencies undermines, to some extent, the legitimacy of the victor in a ‘first past the post’ system that we follow,” he said.

There was a worry that people without sufficient means could not contest elections. The background of many contestants, and quite often the winning ones, did not inspire confidence in the voters.

“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,” Dr. Singh said.

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