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A Call for Electoral and Legislative Reforms

Nearly a year back Law Commission solicited views from political parties and citizens on reforms needed for our electoral system. As things stand while we can be proud about conducting free and fair elections where nearly a billion citizens participate, there are maladies associated with our electoral systems that not only affect polity, but nation at large. In this article we look at some of the key issues and possible approaches to address them. This discussion is all the more needed as with a few exceptions, majority of political parties did not respond to the request of law commission.

It is important that when a voter exercises his/her franchise he/she should look at himself/herself as a stakeholder rather than as a mere participant. A vote is not to be gifted away nor can it be traded for some pecuniary gain. A vote is also not be exercised by looking at only one criteria in mind such as good nature, identity or ideology. The needs of today’s governance and polity are lot more complex. We need very competent and committed people who are wise enough to make the right trade-offs. It is just a myth that democracy is a barrier to achieve speedy progress. If the votes are cast for right people and they are held to account, democracy can be a force multiplier, surpassing even totalitarian regimes.

One of the issues the way our democracy has evolved is to become more of an oligarchy. A handful of families and leaders pretty much control the political parties and decision making in our country. In countries like Pakistan there is a virtual acceptance of continuation of feudal set-up. India was supposed to be different. Nearly every party ends-up being a party anchored around a family or individual. Many MLAs and MPs continue in assemblies and parliaments for decades, thereby denying opportunities to others and limiting choice to the voters. While experience is important, we are confronted in many cases with lack of leadership pipeline. Either we have to make do with a politician well after his prime or a young inexperienced leader who faces a steep learning curve, both leading to sub-optimal outcomes.

Another issue is the prevalence of money in electoral process. By putting limits on expenses and tracking them I feel we are barking up the wrong tree. It is better to face the reality that an election as well as running political parties costs large sums of money.  While it is idealistic to believe that we can engage in political activity within bounds of an artificial limit, a better approach may be to go for a transparency based approach. It is better to account for all the required expenses and also ensure that they are spent for legitimate purposes. We also should encourage donors to donate openly. A few safeguards may be put such that no single donor disproportionately donates to a party. Also certain activities such as bribing voters in cash and kind can be strictly monitored. Focus should be on differentiating legitimate and illegitimate activities. Also donation should be subject to approval of shareholders of a company. Once details are in the open, public should have only interest to know if the donation leads to a quid-pro-quo that is against public interest. As things stand elections and black money go hand in hand. Covering political parties under RTI has been a significant step forward. This needs to be further reinforced by other supporting mechanisms.

There is also lot of disappointment among people due to continued presence of people with criminal records in politics. Supreme Court took a bold step by barring convicted politicians from contesting last year. Also recently Supreme Court asked trial courts to expedite trials against politicians within a year. However this in itself is not adequate. There needs to be a mechanism to exclude politicians with criminal background, with a degree of scrutiny.

In summary, what are the few concrete changes that can be proposed to reform our polity for the better?

Electoral funding should be made open and transparent.

  • Limits on candidate spending may be counter-productive. We need alternative mechanisms that enable candidates or parties to compete with established parties.
  • We need to invest in tools and technology pertaining to mobile and social technologies which make it far easier for candidates to reach out to their electorate. Instead of communication between parties, elected representatives and people being one-time during elections, it should be sustained. Such communication should happen periodically say at least once or twice a year, where current and prospective candidates and parties share their plans and their accomplishments using Social Media.
  • There should be opportunity for constituents to raise concerns and demands related to Governance through mobile/social platforms. In today’s scenario people get excluded out of governance equation consisting of executive, legislators and businesses/contractors to the extent that lot of funds get utilized for activities that benefit contractors more and people less. Unwanted flyovers and toll roads that charge exorbitant tolls are a case in point.
  • The other approach could be some degree of funding from Government based on size of party membership to conduct party affairs and electoral funding based on percentage of votes a party is able to get. These things should at least get the new parties boot-strapped.
  • In course of time, we also should make use of modern technology to reduce the expense incurred by Government to conduct elections. This could free up funds for other activities. Giving free air-time to political parties may also be looked at.

Constituting a quasi-judicial body to address criminalization of politics

  • We may need to exclude criminals from political process at the stage of charge-sheeting itself. This needs to be balanced to cater to the possibility that charge sheets are motivated and may not stand legal scrutiny. Also differentiation is needed if charge sheet has resulted from a political activity or from a personal criminal act. Giving long rope to politicians in this matter has resulted in an atmosphere of fear in their constituencies.
  • It is also possible that some politicians are influential enough to ensure their names do not figure in a given charge-sheet. However recent judgements have empowered courts to make amends, if additional evidence figures. If a particular politician feels he has not been fairly treated, he can approach the courts to get the charges quashed.
  • It is worthwhile constituting a quasi-judicial body that works closely with the Election Commission to exclude criminal politicians using a fair and transparent process, at least in cases where the crime has no connection with political activity and possibility of political vendetta can be ruled out

There should be bounds on legislative competence.

  • We have repeatedly seen when legislators have to legislate about themselves their conduct is seldom above board. One of the recent instances is, indecent hurry to overcome Supreme Court verdict to exclude convicted legislators from electoral process.
  • While legislators display enormous enthusiasm and alacrity to carve out all sorts of quotas when it comes to general public, they have been dragging their feet on women’s reservation bill. Similar aspects like requirement of sanctions from Governors to prosecute politicians even when they do not hold an official position do not seem fair at all. It took lot of theatrics to make way for Lokpal legislation and it still seems to be having teething troubles.
  • All this begs the question, who should legislate when legislators themselves have a vested interest.

There should be term limitations on membership to legislative bodies.

  • It also may be worth looking at if there is a need to impose term limitations on memberships to legislative bodies to encourage churn in the political landscape. The term limitation means constituents get exposed to new candidates even when they choose to vote for a given party. This also builds leadership pipeline which otherwise would mean a few familiar faces dominating the political discourse.
  • Generally a maximum limit of 3 terms to a given legislative body should be healthy for our democracy. This will also dismantle any patronage systems within constituencies, parties and government. This should reduce the average age of our legislators while retaining adequate space for experience. This also hopefully should encourage participation of people from all walks of life. This may indirectly discourage dynasties.

Need for focused roles and structural reforms

  • We also have an issue that the same people are expected to contribute as elected representatives taking care of aspirations of constituents; take care of party organization as well as handle their executive responsibilities as ministers. While many are able to juggle these responsibilities and cast positive influence over all the three spheres, it is a matter of time that their constituents are neglected, their executive responsibilities become merely ceremonial and they lose contact with their party workers.
  • A more systematic approach would be to get young and energetic people to start their careers directly representing people (lower house) and then let them graduate to represent their state (upper house). It also may be a better approach to discourage people from simultaneously holding party positions while in Executive or Legislature.

Need for Better Governance Architecture

  • It should be acceptable that many of those who handle specialist ministries like defence and finance are from upper house, many of whom probably had earlier stint in lower house. Executive should also accommodate those with strong public service credentials and deep expertise through upper house.
  • The head of government is expected to be from lower house and set of ministers from lower house can have ministerial responsibilities that cater to development of specific regions/groups of states or hold ministries that require them to be constantly in touch with people.
  • Overall the talent spread should lead to stronger parties, stronger legislatures and stronger government that are well-connected with people on the ground. In general macro-economic, strategic and long-term focus should be balanced with micro-economic, tactical and near-term focus.

Defining a role for civil society

  • While legislators are responsible for formulating legislation, we have seen in the last decade quite a lot of push for progressive legislation has come from civil society. Even though legislation like RTI take after freedom of information act in the USA, it would not have been a reality but for the sustained pressure from civic society. The same goes for Lok Pal legislation.
  • We propose that civil society should be a fifth pillar of democracy that continuously nudges legislature to speedily come up with progressive legislation that is in public interest. One of the unfortunate facts is that legislature hardly loses sleep when critical legislation are kept pending for years. A role for civil society is extremely important in such a case.
  • A formal mechanism is needed to involve civil society that is in harmony with constitutionally defined roles for legislature, executive and the overall set-up of governance.

Strengthening inner-party democracy

  • Another dimension we need to look at is strengthening inner-party democracy. Our electoral landscape is crowded by celebrities who walk into a political party and within a few days march out with an election ticket. Unfortunately there are quite a few situations where they may not be equipped to do a good job.
  • Maybe a membership in a given party at least for last six months should be made mandatory, except in cases where a newly joining politician is unjustly expelled from his erstwhile party. This will also put onus on politicians to earn goodwill of their constituents to the extent that they can even contest and win as independents if need be.

Meaningful Conduct of Legislatures with dignity and decorum

  • One last point that needs urgent course-correction is the conduct of legislators in the legislature. The legislative conduct rules should be changed such that agenda is jointly formed by all political parties, with well-defined time-slots for different parties.
  • We have to move from a confrontational approach to that of co-operation, where all parties collectively conduct the house with the guidance of speaker.
  • Strong penalty should be there who violate the decorum.
  • We also should encourage bi-partisanship while supporting legislation on merits and encourage discussion across party lines.
  • The party whip should be restricted only to motions like no-confidence, financial bills and may be few very critical legislation.