Electoral Reforms Bill
Passed in Silence

BB Pandey

According to Marxist doctrine, democratic republic is the best or highest form of political superstructure suited to the rule of capital because it is in this form that the content of capitalist social relations be best preserved. However, the economic foundation and political superstructure do not always go hand in hand, there remains a discrepancy between them producing crises when it reaches to the extreme. As a consequence, sometimes the bourgeois democratic political system undergoes a breakdown giving rise to autocratic regime and at other times the process of adjustment is ushered in. The more perfect the form of this political superstructure, the more acute but disguised is the content of economic exploitation and political and other forms of domination of capital.

However, the functioning of a political superstructure does not depend on economic structure alone. Other social structures like caste, religion, ethnicity, cultural level etc. also affect the outcome of political process. In India, adult franchise was initiated in a multi-party system with the foundation of republic but because of the prevailing semi-feudal conditions, particularly in the countryside, good sections of downtrodden dalits and most backward castes are even to this date not allowed to cast their vote by the upper caste power groups. However, this infringement of individual's democratic right never became a matter of concern for the ruling elite because the system had by and large acquired the required legitimacy.

Fissures in the polity began to surface in the second half of 60s with the emergence of two new trends : firstly, the Ayaram-Gayaram phenomenon of defection, which revealed a major drawback in the polity that people's representatives can be purchased by money power after they are elected and in that case people who elected them can do nothing; and secondly, disintegration of old, established political parties and emergence of the new ones. This was associated with the political instability consequent to elections wherein no party got a clear-cut majority. However, it was not until mid-80s when the rise of regional-level parties threatening the scope of all-India parties, that ruling classes agreed on instituting some kind of poll reform.

Rajiv Gandhi openly favoured a two-party or three-party system, but he could not find a solution as to how this multi-party system can be transformed to fit into his scheme. The only thing he could manage was an anti-defection bill passed through the Parliament. By now all are aware of the failure of this bureaucratic device: his own successor Narsimha Rao circumvented it most notoriously not only to enable the first-ever minority Congress government at the centre to survive but also to become a majority.

However, it was only after the VP government came to power that a committee led by Dinesh Goswami was constituted to make recommendation for poll reforms. The Committee noted in its report: "The role of the money and muscle powers at elections deflecting seriously the well-accepted democratic values and ethos and corrupting the process; rapid criminalisation of politics greatly encouraging evils of booth capturing, rigging, violence etc; misuse of official machinery, i.e., official media and ministerial (sic); increasing menace of participation of non-serious candidates; form the core of our electoral problems. Urgent corrective measures are the need of the hour lest the system itself should collapse."

But the system itself, by its nature, is helpless in tackling money power; the malady is inbuilt in the system. This is candidly admitted by TN Seshan: "Even if you pass any number of laws you cannot completely prevent money power being used because one knows that even in other countries of the world where law is very strong, money power is still being used ... Talk of money power still being curbed with existing law is unwise."

And as regards muscle power, no state machinery or legislation could work as effectively as the CPI-ML's campaign against booth capturing in Bihar, the model of which was demonstrated in 1989, just before the formation of Dinesh Goswami Committee. The Committee couldn't arrive at any more effective measures other than the already thought-out technocratic devices, the photo-identity cards and electronic voting machines, the success of which is doubtful in the present state of affairs in the society.

The whole approach towards poll reforms reveals two features: firstly, it is distorted by bureaucratic vision of seeking administrative solution to an essentially political problem; and secondly, it is biased against small parties, disregard of the social dynamics in opposing the emergence and growth of newer political forces. As our society is in transition degeneration of old political forces and emergence of newer forces is bound to take place, and it is these new political formations who effectively represent oppressed social groups. The parliamentary democratic process in a transitional society like India is certainly different from well-entrenched capitalist societies of the West. Therefore, a genuine democratic approach would, in stead of discouraging small political formations, seek to prepare conditions favourable to their growth and thus ensure the maturity of a multi-party system in stead of an imaginary ideal two-party or three-party elitist system. In this spirit, the required portion of valid votes polled to save security deposit should be brought down to one-tenth.

On the other hand, derecognition of a political party should be made more transparent. Often it seems that splinter groups or breakaway factions of once-recognised national parties continue to enjoy the advantage of recognition for years without ever fulfilling the criteria. The criteria for recognition should be more simpler and realistic. The insistence on completion of 5 years of term by a party to be recognised is not suitable. The countability ratio for the purpose of extending recognition should be brought down to 5% instead of the present 8.33%.

Although it is not a place to enunciate a complete framework of such an alternative electoral framework, certain points may be observed. Firstly, it is certainly a welcome step to restrict candidates from contesting from more than two constituencies. This practice is undertaken generally by the leaders of national or state-level recognised parties. In fact, they should be restricted to one seat only, because it puts unnecessary burden on the state exchequer in the form of byelection conducted in case they manage to win from more seats.

In the name of discouraging non-serious candidates, the security deposit has been increased 10 times. It has made filing nomination a costlier affair for new, emerging parties. If you want to filter out non-serious candidates, it can more effectively be achieved by increasing the number of proposers. More than independent candidates, it will affect small parties and thus will turn the election process commercial and elitist.

Ultimately, the measure of state funding was not introduced in the text of the Act, but one must observe here that it is detrimental to the cause of democracy. It would put small and upcoming parties (who will not have access to this fund) at a permanent disadvantage vis-a-vis old and established parties. People contribute donations to political parties, it is a voluntary affair. Now if government itself becomes a pump siphoning off public funds into the coffers of well-entrenched (recognised) parties, it would go against the changing mood of the masses. It may also be a case of cross-subsidization (forfeited deposits of small parties used for funding the election expenditure incurred by big parties). Unfortunately, owing to the bias prevailing in the system there is already a good amount of state funding for big parties in the form of propaganda time given to them by TV and radio, and free electoral rolls. In fact, electoral rolls should be supplied to all at cheaper rates and recognised parties should also be made to pay the same amount.

Based on the recommendations made by Dinesh Goswami Committee the present government convened an all-party meet on 23 July to finalise the electoral reforms bill. The meet skipped the controversial matters and consequently the bill contained only the following major points: delimitation of LS constituencies on the basis of 1991 census; fresh restrictions on non-serious candidates; reduction in the campaign period to a minimum of 14 days; nobody to be allowed to contest from more than two constituencies. However, the thrust of meeting was against the non-serious candidates, some of which even sponsored by the candidates of political parties to use the facilities. The bill included some of the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct as formulated by the Election Commission, violation of which could be prosecuted.

For elimination of non-serious candidates the security deposit has beenenhanced by 10 times. The number of proposers for a candidate has been increased to 10. The candidates' list would be made in such a way that ballotpapers will contain names of candidates in a sequence: first nationallyrecognised political parties, then the parties recognised at state level,then the registered parties, and independents at the tail end. There wouldbe no countermanding of election in case of the death of a candidate. If acandidate put up by a political party died, the party would have the choiceof putting up another candidate. The Election Commission would be empoweredto countermand the election on its own without a report from the returningofficer.

On 26 July, Lok Sabha gave a lukewarm response to the Representation of the People (Second Amendment) Bill, 1996. Only this much was said that a more comprehensive legislation was needed on the subject. Ultimately thebill was coolly passed on 30 July 1996 with CPI(M) meekly withdrawing its amendments. Following this even in newspapers there appeared no substantial comments from any consequential quarters.