When the Election Commission of India turned 60 on January 25, 2010, The Hindu opened its lead editorial of January 29 with the words, “After overseeing 15 General Elections to the Lok Sabha, the ECI, in its diamond jubilee year, can with justifiable pride claim to have nursed and strengthened the electoral processes of a nascent democracy. The successes have not been consistent or uniform, but over the last six decades the ECI managed to make the world’s largest democratic processes freeer and fairer.”
Largest management exercise
As the Chief Election Commissioner of India, I had the satisfaction of stewarding the general election of 2009, arguably the largest management exercise in the world, with integrity and transparency on display in each of the country’s 543 parliamentary constituencies. It is however important to remember that this globally admired institution was built brick by brick from the days of Sukumar Sen, who faced innumerable odds when he conducted India’s first general election in 1951-52, when literacy was a dismal 16 per cent and where an enormous structure had to be created in even then, the world’s largest democracy.
Over the years the Commission kept pace with changing needs, aspirations and technology. In 1988 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government amended the Constitution to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18, thereby enfranchising a whole new generation of voters. In 1982, electronic voting machines made a quiet trial entry in the by-election to the Parur Assembly constituency of Kerala. Later, they were tried in a few States until 2004, when Chief Election Commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy took the plunge and conducted the entire general election using almost a million machines.
For paucity of space, the reforms and good practices that developed over the years can at best be briefly recounted. These included the creation of a fully computerised database of electors, followed in 2009 by a comprehensive photo electoral roll; election cards reached 514 million voters in time for the general election and de-duplication technologies helped further eliminate bogus and duplicate entries. A Booth Level Officer was created to become the custodian of the electoral roll at each polling station, leading to constant door-to-door verification of electors. Myriad forms of voter assistance were built in on and prior to the election day. General and Expenditure Observers were supplemented by micro-observers to keep the poll day processes transparent. Video cameras began to record the polling and counting procedures. Through the strategy of “vulnerability mapping,” first tried on any scale in the Uttar Pradesh election of 2007, localities that for reasons of deliberate exclusion, accident or design did not turn up to vote, were identified and enabled to vote. The Commission developed a system of online communication (COMET) that made it possible to monitor every polling booth on the day of election. In the recent Himachal Pradesh election, there was real-time monitoring of polling at all 7,553 booths using GPS and a web-enabled facility through the Google search engine. Above all, a vital instrument of the Election Commission of India’s impartiality, the Model Code of Conduct, designed to neutralise the ‘lal batti’ culture and level the playing field between candidates of the ruling party and those in opposition, earned even the grudging respect of political players in the fray! Throughout these years of innovation and development, the Supreme Court of India has stood like a rock behind the Commission, ensuring it a clear field once elections are announced and until they cease. This respect and support have earned the admiration of many polities in our neighbourhood and beyond.
On the flip side, however, The Hindu editorial also pointed out the challenges of criminalisation of politics and the misuse of money power. “The dominant role of money in elections, which is taking more and more outrageous forms, is deeply worrying. Instances of politicians paying for news coverage and bribing voters were widespread in the 2009-2010 elections”.
I do agree that these are major problems which have already assumed such proportions that I fear that the electoral process in the future may well stand compromised at the altar of ‘winnability.’ The process is also reflective of a growing disconnect between the governed and several of those who are elected by means of financial clout and covert muscle power, to dangerously fill the vacuum that stands created. The subject of criminality in politics as well as the dangers of huge overspending, are part of the reforms package that successive Election Commissions have addressed to successive governments. The response over two decades has been tepid, but now there are glimmers of hope that change may come.
Let me take electoral finance first. Although statutory limits were increased in 2011 to broadly Rs. 40 lakhs for a parliamentary seat and Rs. 16 lakhs for an assembly election, levels of actual spending exceed these limits. The ECI does its best by posting as many as 2000 senior officers as observers during a parliamentary election, but in spite of such a large machinery, the candidates and parties use stealth to their advantage. Clearly, raising the monetary ceiling from time to time will not be the answer, while doing away with the ceiling altogether will lead to the creation of oligarchies with little trace of true representation. According to one estimate, in the recent elections in Himachal Pradesh, the declared income of the 10 richest candidates is cumulatively over Rs. 394 crores! In the recent Gujarat election, the 20 richest candidates all won, among whom the richest declared assets of a whopping Rs. 268 crores!
As early as 1972, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Amendments to Election Laws suggested that the state assume the burden of legitimate election expenses of candidates and political parties. In 1978, the Tarkunde Committee echoed the need for some electoral expenses being taken up by the government. The Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990) suggested state funding in kind. The Law Commission Report of 1999 pointed to partial state funding. In 2004, the President in his address to the Joint Session of Parliament announced the new government’s intent for state funding, itself an item on the National Common Minimum Programme of the UPA. However, when the ECI convened an all-party meeting in February 2006 to discuss the Centre’s proposal on state funding and invited the six recognised national and 44 recognised State-level political parties, on the proposal of funding not in cash but in terms of facilities, the majority view was that this would only add to the advantages of bigger parties.
It is true that in many well set democracies the proportion of state funding has been increasing vis-à-vis private financing, but if the 2006 dialogue was anything to go by, it would necessitate the strong will of the national parties to deliberate different models where state funding can be supplemented by proportional air time in the electronic media, which the ECI can administer on the basis of an agreed formula. The ECI must also be empowered to de-register non-serious political parties and the Representation of People Act 1950 amended to more harshly punish electoral violations.
Dealing with criminalisation
As regards dealing with those with criminal antecedents, the ECI has time and again written to the Government of India of the day to debar through legislation those against whom charges stand framed for heinous offences. However, parliamentary committees hold that such a provision is liable to misuse by parties in power seeking vendetta. They suggest special courts and speedy trials instead, but these recommendations have not yet been translated into action. Yet many discerning parliamentarians privately accept that the “winnability” factor that induces a party to offer tickets to those against whom criminal cases are pending (albeit in appeal), also has the effect of increasingly alienating large sections of people from the political and ruling class itself. Of course this also reflects the widening gap between the leadership of a party from those it seeks to represent. To illustrate my point, did the mass movement of the freedom struggle need those with criminal antecedents to provide it momentum or to drive it when obstacles arose?
However, I draw hope from the speeches at the ECI Diamond Jubilee Celebration on January 25, 2010 where both the Chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, took a public position against this growing unhealthy trend. I remain hopeful, too, that the present Law Minister will take forward the pending draft legislation on this subject which would be a vital step towards strengthening our democratic structure.
(Navin Chawla was Chief Election Commissioner from April 2009 to July 2010)