More reform bark from poll panel, but where's the bite?

Postponed polls, voter-bribing, have put the spotlight on how to elect leaders

Published: 12th June 2016 03:28 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th June 2016 03:28 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: The issue of electoral reforms gets debated endlessly, but is rarely acted upon. It was back in public discourse after the postponing of elections in Aravakurichi and Thanjavur Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu and the sting operation that exposed attempts to bribe voters in Rajya Sabha elections in Karnataka.

The latest request from the EC to the Union Law Ministry a few days ago is about inserting a new clause ‘58B’ in the Representation of the People’s Act to allow adjournment of polls or countermanding elections on the grounds of bribing voters. Provision 58A in the RP Act, inserted in 1989 allows the EC to cancel an election if muscle power has been used or booths captured to influence the outcome of the elections.

The fresh impetus for electoral reforms came after the May 16 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. PMK chief ministerial candidate Anbumani Ramadoss met Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi a few days ago and submitted a representation.

Among his key demands were reverting to ballot paper system, ban on opinion polls from the day of election notification, appointment of IAS cadre of other states to conduct polls, ban on government advertisements six months prior to elections, relieving all political appointees from their positions during elections and bestowing powers to EC to disqualify candidates if money distribution is confirmed both before and after elections.

Of course, many NGOs and other organisations that act as watchdogs of election-related issues have been calling for electoral reforms for many decades and on many occasions, they had approached the Supreme Court and got the remedy. For example, it was an SC order that brought the None Of The Above (NOTA) button in the Electronic Voting Machines.

For many decades, sustained efforts have been on to ensure that elections are transparent and fair. Since this could be achieved only through a multi-pronged approach, the EC has, from time to time, been recommending various measures based on its experience gathered in each election.

Curbing the influence of money and criminal elements in politics, expediting the disposal of election petitions, introducing internal democracy and financial transparency in the functioning of the political parties, paid news and political advertisements, banning opinion polls, restriction on the number of seats from which a candidate may contest, restriction of government sponsored advertisements, anti-defection law, merits and demerits of proportional representation, public funding of elections,  independent candidates, preparation and use of common electoral rolls for general elections as well as for local body elections, are among the key issues that have been considered for electoral reforms.

The Law Commission, in its 170th Report on ‘Reform of the Electoral Laws’ in 1999 and the EC in its 2004 ‘Proposed Electoral Reforms’ report addressed some of these challenges.

Other Committees and Commissions that examined these issues are: Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990), Vohra Committee Report (1993), Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998), National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001) and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008).

“Unfortunately, the recommendations made by these committees were not followed by legislative action, required for the enhancement of the quality of democracy, by reducing the influence of money and media in politics and ensuring free and fair elections,” points out the latest report of the Law Commission tabled last year (Report No. 255).

It was after T N Seshan became the Chief Election Commissioner that electoral reforms gained momentum. Orders issued by him were hailed as ‘Seshan Commandments’ for conduct of elections and they themselves formed part of electoral reforms. The Seshan Commandments read: Thou shall not - Bribe or intimidate voters; Distribute liquor during the elections; Use official machinery for campaigning; Appeal to voters’ caste or communal feelings; Use places of worship for campaigns and Use loudspeakers without prior written permission. And above all, political parties which splashed their slogans and symbols on the walls should wash them off the elections.”

An old horse knows the way

T S Krishnamurthy, former CEC, spoke at a national seminar on politics, democracy and governance, in IIT Madras. Exerpts:

  • Political parties do not readily implement resommended reforms. For example, parties are tightlipped about electoral reforms in their election manifestos
  • Some reforms could be done by amendments to the Constitution and the Representation of the People’s Act.
  • Many electoral reforms have come only because of the intervention of the Supreme Court
  • Elections are carried out using a first-past-the-post electoral system. This should be done away with
  • The candidate who gets 33.33 per cent, or one third of the votes polled, should be declared winner
  • There should be a National Election Fund. Everyone who wishes to give donations to political parties should give their money to this fund. Candidates should not be allowed to spend anything beyond what is given from this fund
  • I gave copies of the “proposed electoral reforms” to all MPs and political parties numbering around 800 in 2004. They are yet to act upon them due to lack of political consensus

Unfortunately, the recommendations made by various committees were not followed by legislative action, required for the enhancement of the quality of democracy Law Commission Report, 2015

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