The debate on electoral reforms in the Rajya Sabha on March 22 was heartwarming — the civility with which it was conducted the icing on the cake. Members of political parties tend to avoid discussions on electoral reforms, except in private conversations. But the participation in the debate on that day was so enthusiastic that the deputy chairman had to extend the discussion to twice the time that is normally allotted to a short duration discussion — two-and-a half hours to five hours.
The immediate provocation for the debate was BSP supremo Mayawati’s allegation of manipulation of EVMs in the recent UP assembly elections. As expected, issues about EVMs took up a major part of the discussion. While a return to ballot papers was mentioned, most speakers demanded the use of VVPATs (voter-verified paper audit trail) in the forthcoming elections to the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assemblies, and eventually in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
In a judgement in 2013 (Subramanian Swamy versus ECI), the Supreme Court had commended the Election Commission for taking a series of steps to introduce VVPATs, including conducting an all-party meeting in 2011. The meeting had unanimously approved the idea of introducing VVPATs. The EC had then ordered the two EVM companies to start manufacturing the machines and a field test was conducted in 2011 in five climatic zones. Our effort was to introduce these machines in the 2012 UP assembly elections and four other state assembly elections. That couldn’t happen as the field tests revealed snags, which took almost a year to fix.
Holding that the paper trail is an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections”, the Supreme Court directed the Government of India to provide the requisite funds for procuring the VVPAT machines. Appreciating the EC’s efforts, the court approved its plan to roll out VVPATs in phases till 2019.
More than three years after the court’s directive and despite 10 reminders from the EC, the government has not released the requisite funds. So far, the EC has just 52,000 machines (against the nearly 20 lakh that are required in the country) which were deployed in the recent elections. Meanwhile, two contempt of court petitions have been filed against the government and the EC. After the unanimous demand of the members of Rajya Sabha, cutting across party lines, it is hoped that the government will be compelled to release the funds without further delay.
The other major concern across parties was about paid news. Members demanded that it should be made a cognisable criminal offence.
Use of money power in elections was a serious concern as well, with most speakers demanding state funding of elections. They also demanded a ban on corporate donations. Several members demanded a ceiling on expenditure by political parties to bring down the cost of elections. This is essential to ensure a level-playing field for all contestants.
A very significant subject that was discussed on March 22 was the long-prevalent first-past-the-post system in which the “winner takes all”. There is growing concern that the system can lead to majoritarianism. The members wanted this system to be replaced by the proportional representation system which can ensure that every section of the citizenry gets due representation. It was suggested that this will bring down the cost of holding elections and reduce the divisive nature of electoral campaigns.
The prime minister’s proposal for simultaneous elections came in for a lot of attack. It was seen as a surreptitious attempt to bring in the presidential form of government. Some speakers said it is against India’s federal polity, others believed it will go against the basic structure of the constitution. There was unanimity on banning opinion polls. Many members wanted the abolition of the provision that allows a candidate to stand for election in more than one constituency. A few members mentioned reservation for women, voting by NRIs and migrants and the need to make the model code of conduct more liberal. Many members suggested the constitution of a parliamentary committee, with experts from outside parliament, with the mandate of suggesting ways to carry out these reforms. However, nobody was interested in talking about the increasing criminalisation of politics, which is the EC’s — and the nation’s — most important concern.
The law minister’s reply to the debate, as expected, was largely confined to the EVMs. He defended these machines to the hilt. Strangely, however, he did not give any assurance about the release of funds for the VVPAT machines. It’s a pity that the issue may be decided in the contempt petitions pending in the Supreme Court.
It is noteworthy that the EC has mooted all these reforms for over two decades. Several parliamentary committees and at least two reports of the National Law Commission have made sweeping recommendations on these matters. If a committee is set up, it must look at all the reforms proposed by the EC over the years, instead of reinventing the wheel. It should deal with the entire gamut of electoral reforms and not recommend piecemeal solutions.
The EC’s proposals could broadly be divided into three categories. One, reforms to cleanse the electoral system (debarring criminally-tainted politicians from contesting, checking money power, empowering the EC to deregister defunct and dubious parties); two, reforms to make the EC stronger and more independent (appointment of election commissioners through a collegium, their elevation to CEC on the criterion of seniority and their protection from removal only through impeachment as available to the CEC and; three, reforms to make the electoral system more efficient (like the introduction of totaliser machines to prevent disclosure of polling patterns in a polling booth).
The prime minister has been talking of electoral reforms for several months. In articles, media interactions and conversations, I have expressed optimism that the time for electoral reforms may finally have arrived. I have been asked if I really believe that the PM is serious about electoral reforms. I sincerely hope my optimism is not ill-founded. The answer, of course, rests with the prime minister.