Electoral Reforms: Between The Two Strands

Professor Rajvir Sharma 130x160

Free and fair election is the sine qua non of a robust democracy. The term implies that elections should be held in an environment of freedom of choice before the electorate without any fear, pressure or influence of any sort. As the democracy progressed in India, it was noted that the elections were becoming susceptible to manipulation and the administrative machinery as well as the muscle and money available with the political parties shaped the political fate of the contestants at the polls.

I remember the days of the late 1960s to early 1980s when, before the introduction of the EVMs, the polling booths were auctioned for grabbing, loot or destruction by the political musclemen. Electoral violence choked the voice and freedom of many a voters especially of the Dalits and the economically suppressed. Furthermore, the district magistrates and the police were often accused of taking sides in the game plan of the powers that be.

 Even political democracy, not talking about social-economic democracy, seemed to be acquiring the status of mere formality. The entry of competitive politics vis-à-vis the Congress facing challenges from various national and regional political formations further aggravated the politics of booth capturing, fake voting, impersonation, gun shots etc. Apart from politicization of crime, the role of money in influencing the outcome of the election was no less. Distribution of money in kind and cash was a normal scene in the elections from the Panchayat level to the level of the legislative assembly or the Parliament.


As the situation assumed alarming proportion, it attracted the attention of all the well-wishers of democracy including the academics, the political reformers, the civil society, the political parties, more of those who were at a disadvantage in the prevailing electoral politics, the election commission, the judiciary and the parliament. The demand for electoral reforms became louder by the day.

Many committees to examine the issue were set up including the Goswamy committee. The election commission too became serious on the matter and focused on strengthening the soul and character of India’s democratic republic; came out with several suggestions to reduce, if not totally eliminate the role and impact of money and muscle on Indian politics.

Among several reforms, big and small, the judiciary induced mandate for a candidate to declare the number of criminal cases registered against him or her, the number of convictions in those cases, number of cases pending etc, defacement prevention of the public and private properties, strict enforcement of filing the election expenditure returns within the stipulated time frame as per capping on the money to be spent by the candidate, introduction of the system of voting through electronic voting machine(EVM) could be some worth quoting.

The objective was obvious, to reduce the influence of money and muscle on the mind of the voter, the monetary ceiling on electoral spending by the candidates was revised from time to time so as to keep it in step with the escalation of costs of man and material.

The outcome of the reforms was a mixed experience. The declaration of criminal records though enabled the electors to make an informed choice and not elect those with a criminal background. Its cleansing effect, however, is for anybody to assess. Even so, the use of EVMs for the exercise of vote did have a defining impact on elimination of the evils attached with ballot voting. The cases of booth capturing have become history now. That seems the reason why the parties faced with continuous rejection at the polls and still equipped with the strong muscle want the return of the old method so that they could change the electoral verdicts in their favour or their criminal links are allowed to pay dividends. The election commission should not succumb to the unreasonable and undesirable pressure of these elements, in this context, come what may.

However, I am tempted to write this article specifically because recently, a discussion on another suggestion has been taking shape and that is relating to retaining or removing the expenditure ceiling imposed referencing an election to a state assembly or to the parliament. The source of the debate is a recommendation of the law commission to remove this cap. It is the co-existence of two realities that make the debate more complex: one, there is a need to curb the rising salience of money power to block the road to free and fair elections and second, the truth that the ceiling on expenditure is being breached with impunity by all the political players, the colour or the ideology of the parties notwithstanding. So, how to navigate through the two political strands is what is most pertinent.

There are examples galore, despite the cap being in place, where tons and tons of currency notes are detected and seized from the cars and other places or the candidates distributing thousands and thousands of notes to the vulnerable sections of the voters in the name of helping the poor or the distribution of alcohol or saris is a common feature and an open activity for all to see on the D day.  In other words, upper limit on expenditure is more a myth than reality when it comes to implementation. The political class is apt in finding ways to break the arrangement. On the other side, if the ceiling is removed it might open doors for the use of black money for purchase of votes and for colouring the electoral vision of the voters.

So, an argument may flow from the first line of analysis that the recommendation of the law commission should be accepted and the candidates and parties should be left free to spend as per their financial capacity? The political parties other than the BJP have come out against this proposition on the ground that such a step may deny a level playing field to the political participants in the democratic process and the mightier would rule the roast. Though the argument might change with the change of the party in power, it is the idea worth scrutiny having for consideration all the pros and cons.

While there could be no upper limit on political/electoral spending, it is imperative that a close watch on bribing the voter is not lost sight off.  Would the provision of acceptance only by cheque of any amount beyond Rs 2000 be of some help to brush clean the suspicion that parties with huge funding from the corporate world will deny the financially weak and regionally based political parties the opportunity to effectively compete. It is possible only if effective system of checks and balances is enacted and operated. Responsibility for failure to detect electoral offences committed by the contestants will also have to be fixed on every one responsible to conduct free and fair elections.

(The writer is a senior political scientist) 

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