Loksatta "Anti-Corruption" Electoral Reforms


Electoral reform goals

The health of a democracy depends on the choice of representatives and leaders, which in turn is directly linked to the way political parties function and elections are conducted.

While we have outstanding men and women in public life, flawed electoral process is increasingly alienating public-spirited citizens from the political and electoral arena. The persons best equipped to represent the people find it impossible to be elected by adhering to law and propriety. If elected, decent citizens cannot survive for long in elective public office without resorting to, or conniving in, dishonest methods. Even if they survive in office, their ability to promote public good is severely restricted.

Indian people have often been changing governments and elected representatives. However, this change of players has little real impact on the nature of governance. Even if all those elected lose, and all losers are elected, the outcome is not substantially altered. This sad situation calls for a change in the rules of the game, and citizens cannot be content with mere change of players.

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Election expenditure - root cause of corruption

Excessive, illegal and illegitimate expenditure in elections is the root cause of corruption. Often the expenditure is 10 to 15 times the legal ceiling prescribed. Among elected representatives, almost everyone violates expenditure ceiling laws. Most election expenditure is illegitimate and is incurred in buying votes, hiring hoodlums or bribing officials. Abnormal election expenditure has to be recouped in multiples to sustain the system. The high risk involved in election expenditure (winner-tale-all process), the long gestation period required for most politicians who aspire for legislative office, the higher cost of future elections, the need to involve the vast bureaucracy in the web of corruption (with 90% shared by the large number of employees) - all these mean that for every rupee of expenditure, fifty to hundred rupees has to be recovered to sustain the system. One rupee election expenditure normally entails at least a five-fold return to the politician. To share five rupees with the political class, the rent-seeking bureaucracy has to recover about Rs.50. In order to extort Rs.50 from the public, there should be delay, inefficiency, harassment, humiliation and indignity worth Rs.500 heaped on the innocent citizens! Cleansing elections is the most important route through which corruption and maladministration can be curbed.

Many scholars wonder how despite massive irregularities the electoral verdicts still seem to largely reflect public opinion, and how parties in power often lose elections. The answers are simple. Happily for us, though parties in power are prone to abusing authority for electoral gains, there has never been any serious state-sponsored rigging in most of India. The irregularities are largely limited to the polling process alone, and most of the pre-polling activities including printing and distribution of ballot papers, and post-polling activities including transport and storage of ballot boxes and counting of ballots are free from any political interference or organized manipulation. That is why parties in power have no decisive advantage in manipulating the polls, and electoral verdicts broadly reflect shifts in public opinion. However, the massive irregularities in polling process make sure that candidates who deploy abnormal money and muscle power have a distinct advantage. Sensing this, most major parties have come to nominate 'winnable' candidates without reference to their ability and integrity. Thus, the use of money power and muscle power are sanctioned by almost all the parties, and often they tend to neutralize each other. The net result is that candidates who do not indulge in any irregularity have very little chance of being elected. Election expenditure - mostly for illegitimate vote buying, hiring of hoodlums and bribing officials - is often ten or twenty times the ceiling permitted by law. Criminals have a decisive or dominant influence on the outcome in many parts of India, and have often become party candidates and won on a large scale.

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Perceptions-Macro Level Vs. Micro Level

The elections are largely plebiscitary and the people vote for a platform or a leader or a promise or, as is seen more often, vote to reject the incumbent government or party in power. The individual candidate's ability is rarely an issue in our electoral politics. At the same time party workers and local oligarchies do not regard election as an opportunity to vindicate their policies or ideologies. In most cases, election of their chosen candidate is merely an opportunity to have control of state power and resources, to extend patronage selectively to people of their choice, to get pliant local bureaucrats appointed in plum postings, to humiliate and harass the inconvenient employees who would not do their bidding, and increasingly to interfere in crime investigation and prosecution by doctoring evidence, influencing investigation and letting criminals loyal to them go scot free and implicating people opposed to them in criminal cases. In the midst of this, governance is an irrelevant, and often inconvenient ritual without any meaning to those in power and without any positive impact on the people.

At the macro level when we examine a whole state or the country, the electoral verdict does broadly reflect public opinion. More often than not this verdict is a reflection of the people's anger and frustration and is manifested in the rejection vote, or their support to a leader, promise or platform. However, at the local level, caste or sub-caste, crime, money and muscle power have become the determinants of political power. All parties are compelled to put up candidates who can muster these resources in abundance in order to have a realistic chance of success. While political waves are perceived around the time of election or afterwards, at the time of nomination of candidates all parties are uncertain about their success and would naturally try to maximize their chances of success at the polls by choosing those candidates who can somehow manipulate or coerce the voters. As a net result, irrespective of which party wins, the nature of political leadership and quality remain largely the same, and the people end up being losers. This is then followed by another rejection vote in the next election and the vicious cycle keeps repeating. Where the candidate cannot muster money or muscle power, he stands little chance of getting elected irrespective of his party's electoral fortunes. Increasingly in several pockets of the country, people are spared even the bother of having to go to the polling station. Organized booth-capturing and rigging are ensuring victory without people's involvement.


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New Entrants Into Politics

If we examine the new entrants into politics over the past three or four decades in the country, very few with intellect, integrity, commitment to public service and passion for improvement of the situation could enter the political arena and survive. Almost every new entrant has chosen politics exactly for the wrong reasons. A careful analysis shows that heredity and family connections are the commonest cause for entry into politics. This is closely followed by those who have large inherited or acquired wealth and have decided that investment in politics is good business. In recent years, many local muscle men, whose services were earlier sought for extortion or vote-gathering, are now directly entering the fray and gaining political legitimacy. A few persons have entered politics out of personal loyalty to, and close contacts with those in high public office. People with very high visibility on account of great success in mass entertainment like sports or films have also been increasingly drawn into the vortex of politics. Occasionally, accidents of fate are pitch forking certain individuals into elective public office. If we exclude these methods of heredity, money power, muscle power, personal contacts, high visibility, and accidents of fate, there will not be even a handful of persons in this vast country of ours, who have entered politics with deep understanding of public affairs and passion for public good and survived for any length of time over the past four decades. There is no activity more vital and nobler than governance. In the true sense, politics is about promotion of happiness and public good. But if the best men and women that society can boast of are either prevented or repelled or rendered incapable of surviving in the political arena, then that governance is bound to be in shambles. Over the past forty seven years of our republic, the unsuitable constitutional and legal mechanisms that we evolved landed the Indian republic in an extraordinary crisis of governability.

Democracy is the only system, which demands constant selection, nurturing and development of capable leadership. If the best men and women society can offer are repelled by the political process and politics acquires a pejorative connotation, the result is collapse of ethics in public life, and with it public confidence in governance. With the most competent and qualified persons eschewing politics, paralysis of governance is the inevitable consequence. With all decisions geared towards somehow winning elections and retaining power or to amass individual wealth at the cost of the public, the people are swindled. This legal plunder ensures that public goods and services are of appalling quality and wholly insufficient to meet the requirements of a civilized society or growing economy. Public exchequer will soon be depleted and fiscal collapse will be imminent. Sadly, all these ugly features of a dysfunctional democracy are evident in contemporary India.

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Compulsions of First-past-the-post system

In addition to the electoral irregularities, use of unaccounted money power and criminalisation of politics, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in a plural society added to the decline in political culture. On the one hand the largest party is likely to obtain disproportionate presence in legislature, with consequent mariginalisation of large segments of public opinion. In a plural society such a majoritarianism has evidently led to ghettoization of numerically important groups like minorities and dalits.

On the other hand, in the FPTP system, there is desperation to somehow win the election in a constituency by all means fair or foul, as each seat becomes critical in the legislative numbers game to form government or acquire influence in the Westminster model. The ugly practices adopted by a party at the constituency level becomes somehow acceptable in this quest for electoral success. Once a candidate obtains party nomination, he and his caste or group often make it an issue of personal prestige to be elected in the winner-take-all electoral and power game. As election in each constituency runs on similar lines, the parties and candidates are not inhibited by the fear that their illegitimate efforts to win a few constituencies might undermine the larger objective of enhancing the voting share in a whole state or the nation.

Another feature of the FPTP system is that reform of the polity becomes more and more difficult. Genuinely reformist groups with significant but limited resources and influence have no realistic chance of success in the FPTP system and they tend to wither away. In a system in which winning the seat by attracting the largest number of votes is all-important, honest individuals or reformist parties fighting against the electoral malpractices and corruption have very little chance of success. This tends to perpetuate the status quo, and people will have to live with the unhappy choices among parties, which are more like Tweedledom and Tweedledee. Political process becomes increasingly incestuous, and even as power alternates between parties, the nature of the power game and the quality of governance remain unaltered. The political system has thus become fossilized over the years and is self-perpetuating. Fresh breeze of electoral reforms, is vital to rejuvenate the political process and to inject institutional self-correcting mechanisms to revitalize our democracy.

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Role of Political parties

In India, traditionally parties have been seen as pocket boroughs of those at the helm. Often there are entry barriers to members. Communist parties have always had a somewhat strict membership admission procedure, which is generally uniform in its application. The mainstream parties which are mass-based and have no rigid membership norms, however, have been erecting barriers of entry to all persons who are potential threats to the current leadership. While ordinary, faceless members are admitted as connon-fodder with ease, the potentially influential members are not always welcomed with open arms. Similarly, even the faintest criticism of party bosses on any issue is taken as an act of indiscipline, often leading to suspension or expulsion. Again, when leadership changes in the party, the same member who was earlier punished for rebellion is welcomed back with alacrity. There are countless instances of such disgraceful autocracy in all major political parties in India.

The political parties, which exhibit such authoritarian tendencies in protecting the privileges of those in power and nipping in the bud any potential threat to individual dominance have not shown the slightest sense of shame or remorse in assiduously cultivating and recruiting known criminals, corrupt persons and charlatans and rogues. Such shady elements are courted and welcomed, while decent and dignified citizens are shunned and often rejected. No major mainstream party has any published membership rolls. Spurious membership and disputes arising out of it are only too well known to all of us in respect of major political parties. As a net result, parties have often become a collection of greedy, corrupt and unscrupulous persons, who are willing to use any method, however ugly, immoral, violent or brutal, to perpetuate their hold on state power. By virtue of entry barriers and expulsion powers in the hands of party bosses, no real rejuvenation of parties with injection of fresh blood is possible. All idealistic, talented youngsters are often repelled by the parties, and undesirable elements find a haven in them.

As a perceptive political observer commented some years ago, in Indian political parties, 'the man who wears the crown is the king'. Leadership is often acquired through undemocratic means and retained by the power of patronage, nomination and expulsion, rather than the support of members. This paved way for oligarchies and unaccountable and unelected coteries dominating and manipulating the political process. Party leadership, however illegitimate the ascent to it may be, gives total control of the party apparatus and resources. Through total monopoly over candidates' choice, the leadership's access to, and control over, levers of state power is complete and unchallenged. Given the fact that most parties are dominated by only one leader, and not even a small group, 'monarchy' is the correct description of party leadership. Once in office, the power of leadership is absolute, and control of resources is awesome. Any potential dissidence or principled opposition is instantly snuffed out. Suspension, expulsion, instant removal from office, denial of party tickets, all these and more weapons are fully available to leadership if there is any whiff of opposition. If the party is in power, state machinery is used for party ends, and more often to perpetuate absolute control over the party and state, with cynical disregard to propriety and public good. All positions in the regional and local units are nominated by the party leader. Every party functionary owes his or her position to the grace and good will of the 'High Command'. Myths and images are assiduously propagated to perpetuate personal power. No other party functionary or leader is allowed to share the limelight. The moment a local or rival national leader is gaining in popularity, he is immediately cut to size, removed from office, and if necessary expelled from the party to deny him a political base, and force him into political wilderness.

Membership rolls are not available, and when prepared are often spurious. Elections are not held, and if held are rigged. Musclemen often take over party meeting and conferences at various levels, and fisticuffs and violence are quite common. All parties, without exception, nominate candidates for public office through the dictates of the leadership or high command. All funds are collected clandestinely and spent at will to further augment personal power. State level 'leaders' are nominated by the 'high command'. When a party is elected to office in any State, the legislature party leader, who will be Chief Minister, is nominated by the central leadership, and formally anointed in a farcical 'election ' . Often sealed covers are sent indicating the name of the person chosen as Chief Minister by the party leadership. There are instances in which persons who did not command the support of even a handful of legislators became Chief Ministers. Even candidates for public office in local government elections and cooperatives are decided by the party's central leadership. When the party obtains a majority in a local election, again the zilla parishad chairman or other functionaries are decided by the party bosses far removed from the scene. In short, political party functioning has become totally autocratic, oligarchic, unaccountable and undemocratic. The whole political process and all democratic institutions are systematically subverted. Party leaders have become medieval potentates, with the sole intent of survival in power, and bequeathing their office to their family members or chosen successors.

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Public scrutiny and regulation

It does not require any great analysis or insight to understand that undemocratic political parties cannot nurture, sustain or strengthen a democratic society. The most critical need is to reform parties and make them open, democratic and accountable. Basic democratic principles of member control, elected representatives from lower tier electing leadership at higher levels, open membership rolls, fair and free elections, no power to central party over regional and local units, easy and effective challenge to incumbents, no recourse to expulsion or removal of potential rivals, and no nominated office holders at any level, should be integral to the functioning of any political party. The question then is, can the political parties be left to manage their own affairs democratically? Past experience shows that it is futile to expect parties to become democratic on their own. Through long years of neglect, democratic processes have become fragile. The coteries, individuals and families controlling parties are so firmly entrenched, that there is no realistic hope of members being allowed to organize themselves and challenge the leadership and procedures. It will be somewhat na´ve to except the party leaders themselves initiating the process of party reform, which will undermine their own unaccountable, and often illegitimate personal power. Nor is there hope that democratic elections for public offices will automatically force reform on parties. As the choices offered to the public are between Tweedledom and Tweedledee, no matter which party wins, the picture remains unchanged and immutable.

We as a people have an abiding and legitimate interest in the affairs of parties. As we have seen, parties are by no means private clubs looking after their personal interest. They are the engines of democracy and instruments of governance in society. They seek and acquire power over us, and in reality have effective, and unbreakable monopoly over power. The power of the party cartels cannot be checked by forming new parties. Experience everywhere shows that the hope of new parties emerging and spawning a new culture rejuvenating the political process is a pipe dream. The emergence of a successful new political party itself is a rare phenomenon in modern world. The emergence Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh was one such rare example. A combination of unusual circumstances - a strong-willed, extremely popular leader who became an idol to millions as a successful film star, absence of a viable political alternative to the dominant ruling party, people's disgust with misgovernance and corruption, and a strong anti-establishment sentiment have brought about a major political change in 1983 in Andhra Pradesh. However, as events have shown, the same new party has become a replica of Congress, and has conformed to the iron law of Indian politics - 'all mainstream, centrist parties imitate Congress and become its clones'. This fate is seen in varying degrees in many parties. The Janata of 1977, which took birth from the anger of people, and its various progeny; BJP, which claimed indigenous cultural roots and promised a brave new world, and yet lost is sheen in office within a few months; the regional parties like the two Dravidian parties, whose origin was based on cultural regionalism; the Shiv Sena, which rose out of urban middle class frustration; the many other religious, tribal, caste, and regional ethnic parties with bases all over India _ all these have proved to be no different from Congress in organizational ethos and internal functioning. Of the three truly ideology-driven parties, Swatantra party and Socialists disappeared, and Communists continue their policy of splendid isolation and democratic centralism, unmindful of the tectonic shifts in global and Indian politics.

From this bird's eye view of Indian political parties, it is clear that we, as a people, have stakes in their functioning and future. The moment they seek power over us, and control over state apparatus, they forfeit their claim to immunity from public scrutiny and state regulation based on reasonable restraints. This is particularly true in a climate in which they have proved to be utterly irresponsible, unaccountable and autocratic, perpetuating individual control over levers of power and political organization, entirely for personal aggrandizement, pelf and privilege. Therefore, in a deep sense, the crisis in political parties is a national crisis, and has to be resolved by a national effort. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that there should be internal democracy in parties, regulated by law, and monitored and supervised by statutory authorities. Every party, by law, should be obligated to practice internal democracy in all respects. The details of functioning can be left to the party's own constitution, but it should conform to the broad principles of democracy stated clearly in law. The actual practice of internal democracy should be verifiable by an external agency, say the Election Commission. Mandatory publication of membership rolls of political parties at local level, election of leadership at every level by secret ballot supervised by the Election Commission, a comprehensive prohibition on nominations of office bearers or expulsion of rivals, a well-established system to challenge the leadership of incumbents at every level, and justiciability of these internal democratic processes through special tribunals - all these measures could form the basis of any meaningful reform and regulation of political parties. Extreme care and caution should, however, be exercised to ensure that a party's democratic choices of leadership or its espousal of policies are not in any way directly or indirectly influenced by law or external monitoring agencies. The party leaders and its policies should be judged only by the public, in the market place of ideas and in elections.

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Systemic inertia

As a net result of these distortions, elections have lost their real meaning as far as the people are concerned. It is often tempting to blame the illiterate and poor citizens for this plight of our democracy. But in reality it is the democratic vigor and enthusiastic participation of the countless poor and illiterate voters, which has sustained our democracy so far. However, most people have realized with experience that the outcome of elections is of little consequence to their lives in the long run. If, by a miracle, all winners in an election lose, and all their immediate rivals are elected instead, there will still be no real improvement in the quality of governance. This stark realization compels people to make rational shot-term choices and often succumb to the pulls and pressures of money, liquor, caste, religion, group or other sectarian loyalties, when not motivated by anger and rejection.

People also have come to realize that their vote has no sanctity after the election. Even if a candidate gets elected on a platform, there is no guarantee that their representative will not defect to a party with an entirely different agenda and ideology and betray the people's verdict purely for personal gain. Public office is seen as private property and in handling it the trust reposed by voters is of little consequence. Personal honour and commitment to a cause are at a premium in a system which rewards defections and does little to penalize political malfeasance.

Obviously, this situation calls for urgent and practical electoral reforms along with fundamental governance reforms to enhance people's empowerment and participation. These electoral reforms should address the following concerns:

1. Criminalisation of politics.
2. Abuse of unaccounted money power.
3. Electoral irregularities of flawed electoral rolls, personation, false-voting, rigging and booth capturing.
4. Autocratic, unaccountable political parties.
5. Electoral reforms in local governments
6. Elections to Rajya Sabha
7. The curse of defections for personal gain
8. The deficiencies of FPTP system.


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