Monday, August 29, 2011

Electoral reforms – yes, but can we have a more inclusive debate please?

Not only has Anna decided that the next agitation he is planning is in the area of electoral reforms, he has also decided what reforms he wants. The right to reject and the right to recall. Anything Anna says draws a lot of attention from media and the lay public and hence this announcement of his has also started an early debate on this subject. My humble suggestion to Anna is to desist from giving solutions upfront. And to allow a practical and appropriate solution to emerge after discussions in the public space.

Of course electoral reforms are needed. Everyone knows that. Our election rules and processes are responsible for much of the corruption that we see around in politics. But electoral reforms go beyond the two points that Anna has brought out. Let’s look at some of these points:

1)      Minimum candidate qualifications: At present there is no requirement for any minimum education. This may well have been justified at the time the Constitution was written when large sections of our population were uneducated. At that time, an uneducated junta was happy with an uneducated leader. Today is a different world. Today, a majority of the people are eduated and it would only be appropriate that the leader be educated as well. I think it is only appropriate that all contestants be graduates at the very minimum. I am not for a moment saying that education makes for a good leader; what I am saying is that in today’s changed world, an uneducated leader rarely inspires people. An uneducated leader becomes the butt of people’s jokes. An uneducated leader is not given a fair hearing. On the other hand, there are examples like Anna – technically not adequately educated – who have demonstrated the will and capability to inspire and lead. Many would argue that a leader needs to only inspire the people; he or she does not have to personally provide complicated solutions and ideas. So this is a good debate worth having; I am personally inclined towards minimum education standards being prescribed.
2)      Removing crime from politics: One of the primary problems with our democracy is that it attracts the criminal minded towards it. The criminal minded are attracted by the special privileges that MPs enjoy; the protection from criminal proceedings; the ability to abuse state institutions for personal benefit; the chance to be in charge of huge sums of governmental funds which can be diverted to more personally meaningful causes; the power that comes with politics. Now, if our justice system had been fast in delivering its verdicts, then we could have insisted that even if an FIR was filed against a candidate, he/she should be debarred from contesting elections. Unfortunately in our country, it’s easy to file FIRs against innocent people. Equally, it’s easy to prevent FIRs being filed against serious offenders. An FIR converts into a chargesheet if the initial investigation finds merit in the FIR. After a chargesheet is filed, the matter goes to the courts where it can stay unheard and undecided for decades at times. An honest candidate can be bogged down in this process by an astute political opponent. Till the time we can prescribe judicial timelines, it’s going to be very difficult to be able to use FIRs or chargesheets as disqualification criteria. Again, we need a lot of discussion on this point. Some people have suggested that “serious offences” should be grounds for disqualification at the chargesheet stage. But what is the meaning of serious offences? A murder charge is obviously serious; but are corruption charges serious charges? What about charges of rigging elections? We need a lot more discussion on all these matters.
3)      Election funding: This is a huge subject and I am only starting off a debate here. There are two types of problems with our present election funding norms. One is that most of the funding is in the form of black money. No corporate wants to officially state who it is supporting for the worry of inviting the wrath of the other party. In most cases, they end up giving contributions to both sides. Even here, they prefer to keep the amounts hidden so as not to upset one party or the other. The second problem is that even if a candidate manages to raise all funds legally, he/she is not allowed to spend beyond a certain limit legally. The limit for major constituencies is Rs 25 lacs or so; for smaller ones just Rs 10-15 lacs. These are arbitrary and unrealistic limits. How can you contest an election by spending just these measly amounts? But here is the loophole. Friends of candidates can spend as much as they want. Political parties can spend as much as they want on a candidate. This leads to unaccounted spending. And black money entering politics. We have much to learn from other countries – especially European and Latin American countries – on public funding of elections. But it is entirely possible that we may need our own rules to be developed. One of the earlier suggestions I have given is that the 3% education cess that used to exist till last year should be re-introduced as election cess. This would generate a huge amount of money. The EC may then decide whether we can do with less than 3% or not. Public funding of elections can lead to much lower levels of corruption in the election process. Here’s the very important side-effect: Good candidates, who are not well off, can also get a chance to contest elections. Today, political parties prefer to support candidates who can raise funds for the party. Another point worth considering is to give corporates tax concessions for political funding. This will actually bring out election funding in a much more open public arena – imagine shareholders asking for details on which parties their company supported. Basicaly, the idea should be to lift the veil on election funding…..
4)      Coalition politics – we have been in the era of coalition governments for nearly two decades now. And there is no sign that this is going to change. Coalition politics creates trouble in the functioning of a government. Small coalition partners are able to extract a much larger pound of flesh than they deserve; encouraging even more small parties to be formed. The main partner in the coalition is often subject to unfair pressures from small partners – to ignore their corrupt practices, to wrest better ministries etc. Besides, by threatening to quit the coalition and bring down a government, small parties enjoy powers they should not be entitled to. We need to change the rules here. Maybe we should only allow pre-election coalition partnerships. But what happens if pre-election partnerships fail to get the required majorities? If post-election partnerships are allowed, can we ban their dissolution before 5 years are over? This will bring stability to the running of the government. These things need to be discussed.
5)      National parties v/s regional parties: Should we have a rule that limits Lok Sabha elections to only national parties? Should we tighten the description of a national party? Today, if a regional party has a presence in a mere 4 states, it is called a national party. Even the RJD was considered a national party because it had made some gains in the North East (it was subsequently de-recognized). Likewise, the NCP today is called a national party because of its performance in the North East. Since the time this rule was framed, many more states have got created. Maybe today, the rule should be that the party must be represented in at least 8-10 states. Fortunately, in spite of the rather simple qualification criteria, there are only six national parties – the Congress, the BJP, the NCP, the CPI, the CPI(M) and the BSP. So in reality, there are only four groupings – the Congress and NCP as the 1st, the CPI and CPI(M) as the 2nd, the BJP as the 3rd and the BSP as the 4th. Maybe if the rules were tightened, the BSP would be eliminated. Maybe we should allow only the BJP, the Congress or the Left to form the central government. State parties could of course join any of these dispensations, but they would not be allowed to leave the coalition for five years.

As is clear, there are many areas of reforms possible with respect to elections. Right to Reject a candidate is a flawed concept as per most political analysts. Do we really vote for candidates at all? Or do we vote for political parties? Similarly, Right to recall a candidate is a flawed concept since even the winning candidate gets less than 50% of votes in most constituencies. So if a right-to-recall was exercised, almost all winning candidates could be recalled. Besides, if we can clean up our election system, we may not even need to recall our elected representatives.

The real truth is that we need debates on this subject; not a dictatorial declaration which prescribes at the beginning itself what the remedy should be. The methods of debate are as important as the debate itself. And let’s not start by assuming all politicians are bad and they will block reforms. Or that all civil society activists are noble hearted and have only the country’s good in mind. We need a new way of carrying out our public debates. Anna may want to revisit his style…..even though he continues with his substance.

1 comment:

  1. Really a good discussion, all have to start putting the maximum effort in spreading this one so as there will be a spark generated, of all the points I like the Minimum candidate qualifications, i support this one.