The right to recall legislators

It must coexist with the right to vote in order to deepen our democratic roots

Updated - April 05, 2017 10:44 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2017 12:02 am IST

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There can be no doubt, that if power is granted to a body of men, called Representatives, they like any other men will use their power not for the advantage of the community but for their own advantage, if they can.

— James Mill

The ancient Athenians, under their unique democracy, came up with a social custom. Each year, in the sixth or seventh month of their 10-month calendar, all the men were asked in their assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If it was a yes, an ostracism was held two months later, in a reserved section of the local agora. Here, citizens wrote down the names of those they wished to be ostracised on shards of pottery, which were then deposited in urns. Officials counted the shards. Whoever had the largest pile of ostraka — the pieces of broken pottery that were used in voting — was banned from the city for 10 years.

Even though such methods lacked due process and the course of justice, many would-be tyrants and individuals accused of corruption were banished this way.

The modern-day right to recall is a direct successor of such methods. A recall election is typically a process by which voters seek to remove elected officials through a direct vote before their term is completed. It has been in place in Canada’s Legislative Assembly of British Columbia since 1995. Voters can petition to have their parliamentary representatives removed from office, even if the MLA is the premier, with a by-election ensuing soon after. In the United States, the states of Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island and Washington allow for recall on specific grounds such as misconduct or malfeasance.

Its progress in India

This is not a new concept for India. The concept of “Rajdharma”, wherein the lack of effective governance was a cause for removal of a king, has been spoken about since the Vedic times. One of India’s leading humanists, M.N. Roy, proposed, in 1944, a shift to a decentralised and devolved form of governance, allowing for representatives to be elected and recalled. Jayaprakash Narayan, in 1974, spoke extensively on the subject. Section 47 of the Chhattisgarh Nagar Palika Act, 1961, provides for holding of elections to recall elected officials due to non-performance. The Right to Recall also exists at local level bodies in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Nearly a decade ago, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee sought the introduction of a system of a “Right to Recall” of a legislator to ensure accountability. According to a media report of 2011, in Gujarat, the State Election Commission had advised amendments to introduce a right to recall of elected members in municipalities, districts, talukas and village panchayats.

In a first-past-the-post system in a democracy, unfortunately, not every elected representative truly enjoys the mandate of the people. Logic and justice necessitate that if the people have the power to elect their representatives, they should also have the power to remove these representatives when they engage in misdeeds or fail to fulfil their duties. There exists no recourse for the electorate if they are unhappy with their elected representative. The Representation of the People Act, 1951, only provides for “vacation of office upon the commission of certain offences and does not account for general incompetence of the representatives or dissatisfaction of the electorate as a ground for vacation”. However, due care must be taken in the introduction of legislation associated with such laws. California’s gubernatorial recall elections are notorious for the influence of special interests, with Governor Davis’ recall vote, in 2003, a classic example.

Some safeguards

To encourage the process of the right to recall, legislative change is needed which seeks to introduce recall petitions, for elected representatives in the Lok Sabha and in respective Legislative Assemblies. While it is necessary to ensure that a recall process is not frivolous and does not became a source of harassment to elected representatives, the process should have several built-in safeguards such as an initial recall petition to kick-start the process and electronic-based voting to finally decide its outcome. Furthermore, it should ensure that a representative cannot be recalled by a small margin of voters and that the recall procedure truly represents the mandate of the people. To ensure transparency and independence, chief petition officers from within the Election Commission should be designated to supervise and execute the process.

Having such a right offers a mechanism to ensure vertical accountability. Such a right would be a significant check on corruption along with ongoing criminalisation of politics. Numerous studies highlight that “elected representatives who are not up for election behave differently to those who are” — economic growth is typically higher and taxes, spending and borrowing costs are lower under re-election-eligible incumbents than those operating under fixed-term limits.

A free and fair election is a right of the citizens of the country. When their elected representatives no longer enjoy the confidence of the people, the people must have a right to remove them. The true idea of democracy can only be achieved on this edifice of accountability for politicians. Having a process to recall could also limit campaign spending, as morally skewed candidates weigh the risk of being recalled. This right would help engender direct democracy in our country, broadening access and raising inclusiveness. To deepen democracy, the right to recall must be given hand in hand with the right to vote.

Feroze Varun Gandhi, a Member of Parliament representing the Sultanpur constituency for the BJP, has introduced a bill in Parliament on the right to recall

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