Un-cashing Votes And Keeping Politics Popular

Akshita Manocha Words of Freedom 1 Comment

The need for electoral reforms is evidenced by the many PILs filed every year demanding transparency and accountability of politicians and the process through which they are elected. Last Saturday, we asked you what according to you is the one major electoral reform that India most urgently needs. The top two in the list of 7 reforms we got from 20 poll takers were “decriminalization of politics”, which 50% had recommended and “state funded elections”, which 15% had recommended. There were others who were so fed up of the state of affairs that one of them had even suggested that turning into a state like North Korea would be reformation actually.

We discuss the top two of your recommendations here to showcase the extent of the problem.

DECRIMINALISATION OF POLITICS: If political developments in the country in the last one year are any indication, then it is very clear that at least in urban areas most people feel ridding politics of criminal and corrupt elements is more important than other considerations that determine party preference. But that has not dissuaded the experienced political parties from fielding candidates with dubious antecedents for the 2014 general elections. The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) analysed the 70 people that made to the first list of candidates announced by key parties and found that almost half of them (34) have criminal cases against them. About 60% (20) of such candidates with criminal charges have serious criminal cases against them.

The issue of criminalisation of politics is discussed in a majority of expert reports on electoral reforms. Political parties choose their candidates based on their ability to win rather than their probity or principles. So they cannot be expected to not give tickets to criminal candidates who wield muscle and money power. A recent study by the Centre for Advanced Studies of India at the University of Pennsylvania (CASI) for Lok Foundation shows that the voter base is equally responsible for the candidates fielded by the parties. The study suggests that co-ethnicity is a greater determinant of voter preference than criminal records of candidates. Thus, the chances of winning the elections are higher for a candidate of same caste, irrespective of his or her criminal record, than that of another candidate with a cleaner background but from a different caste. Put in another way, at least for the present, voters cannot be relied upon to reject candidates with a criminal background. If this is true, then the solution to the problem lies in obstructing the entry of criminal candidates into the electoral fray. Most experts suggest that this can be achieved by amending the law regulating qualification and disqualification of candidates to make it stringent. Currently disqualification of a candidate kicks in only when he or she is convicted for a heinous offence. The experts opine that given the long time period it takes for a case to be decided, judgment is too late a stage to disqualify a candidate. Their recommendation is for disqualification at the stage of framing of charges. However, others have expressed serious concerns over a candidate losing his right due to false and motivated cases.

STATE FUNDING OF ELECTIONS: State funding is a popular solution recommended for curbing state-business nexus. It is often quoted for preventing scandals and reducing corruption. An advisory body, in 2011, recommended public financing of UK elections to prevent scandals and reduce the influence of rich donors. Considering the widespread corruption in India and a scam every other day showcasing the corporate-politician nexus, public financed elections can reduce the corporate influence on policies. State funding will also rid the elections of black money and the practice of giving monetary incentives to garner votes. Though not popular with the Election Commission of India, the idea has had supporters in several expert committees. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) maintains data on electoral funding patterns in 180 countries. As per their data, as of July 2012, 98 of these countries regularly fund political parties while another 56 provide public funding for campaigns. That is to say, more than 85% of the countries have adopted this idea. The infographic shows two maps from International IDEA that present this data.

The task of cleaning the politics of the country through changing the election process is long and tenuous, which the Election Commission has been leading with commendable reforms. Most notably, it introduced electronic voting machines (EVMs) in 1999 to assure accountability to the voters. Starting with the 2014 general elections, it is also going to introduce “paper trails” (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Tray) to further strengthen the process. Another notable change in recent times is its recommendation of NOTA (none of the above) as an option that the voter can exercise to register lack of good options for choice of representative.

The need for electoral reforms has been so strongly felt in the country that there have been eight different expert reports on the matter so far. In the infographic we give five most discussed reforms by these 8 committees.

Electoral reforms require political will and that is hard to come by from beneficiaries of a corrupt system. Therefore, a pragmatic approach for activists and agencies that are seized of the problem would be to identify low hanging fruits, and leverage public opinion and the active judiciary to press for incremental change. In fact, on the 10th of this month, the Supreme Court through Justice RM Lodha and Justice Kurien Joseph ordered that all cases of serious criminal offences against elected politicians should be decided within one year from the date of framing of charges. This is expected to affect 162 sitting MPs. Any party that believes in decriminalising politics in India should aim to implement two key measures next- partial state funding of elections, and stringent measures against defectors and candidates providing false affidavits. Needless to say, awareness and interest of the citizens about elections and candidates will continue to play a key role in cleansing the system.

-Akshita Manocha
Research Associate, Center for Justice @ India Institute

The poll referred to in the first paragraph is our Saturday Poll 21 that was posted on our social media on 14 March 2014.