The New Indian Express
T Muruganandham

The need for reforms was strongly felt in the last quarter of the 1960s, as the 1967 Lok Sabha elections witnessed a noticeable decline in standards.

Elections are of paramount significance in a democratic governance system. Ever since the first Lok Sabha elections were held in 1952, the country has seen many electoral reforms, and many organisations and political parties continue to advocate more reforms to make the electoral system robust.

The need for reforms was strongly felt in the last quarter of the 1960s, as the 1967 Lok Sabha elections witnessed a noticeable decline in standards. One of the important milestones was the 61st amendment to the Constitution which lowered the voting age from 21 years to 18 and came into effect in 1989.

Moving the Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act to lower the voting age in the Lok Sabha, then Law Minister B Shankaranand said it would integrate the youth of the country into the political process. Youth in the age group of 18 to 21 years are politically conscious and take a keen interest in national and world affairs, he said and added that by lowering the voting age, 47 lakh more young voters would be added to the electoral rolls. However, for the past 10 years, there have been demands from various quarters that the voting age should be further reduced to 16.

The Anti-Defection Law is another important juncture in the electoral history of India. It was also enacted during the tenure of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. Under it, MPs and MLAs can be disqualified for switching parties.

However, this legislation allows a group of MPs/MLAs to join another political party. According to the original legislation, defection by one-third of the elected members of a political party is considered a merger. Now, at least two-thirds of the members of a party must support a merger as per the 91st Constitutional Amendment Act, of 2003.

Another key reform was the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for polling, and thereby eliminated several drawbacks of ballot boxes. The EVM was conceived in 1977 and was first used in 50 polling stations in the Paravur Assembly constituency in Kerala on May 19, 1982. The law was amended for use of EVMs in December 1988, and in 1998, a consensus was reached on its use in elections.

Gradually, the use of EVMs was expanded to Assembly elections in various states and from the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, EVMs have been used in all parliamentary constituencies. To improve transparency and verifiability in the poll process, the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was introduced in 2013. In the same year, a separate option - None of the Above (NOTA) - was provided in EVMs to allow voters say they don’t like any of the candidates. However, political parties have been demanding to revert to the ballot paper system, raising suspicions about EVMs.

To level the playing field for all parties, the Law Commission made wide-ranging reforms to check expenditure by candidates such as imposing limits and requiring disclosure of expenses. The electoral bond scheme, which was recently junked by the Supreme Court, was introduced in 2018 to ensure enhanced accountability to defeat the growing menace of black money and promote transparency in donations received by political parties. However, the move ended up as counter-productive and parties say it was one of the biggest ever scams.

Banning opinion polls from the day of election notification, the appointment of IAS officers from other states to conduct elections, banning government advertisements six months before elections, relieving all political appointees from their positions during elections and bestowing powers to the ECI to disqualify candidates if money distribution is confirmed both before and after elections, and doing away with the first-past-the-post electoral system and adopting a proportional representation system are among the electoral reforms sought by various organisations.

When asked about the electoral reforms yet to be implemented, veteran journalist Tharasu Shyam said, “In today’s political atmosphere we need public-funded elections to control money power and to provide a level playing field for all parties. The campaign period should be further restricted. Banning road shows and street campaigns is necessary for electoral reforms.”

“Seven days of campaigning and canvassing votes through media will reduce the electoral budget and nuisance caused to the public. Usage of mass media and social media should be made mandatory,” he added.

P Joseph Victor Raj, state coordinator of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), said they have been successful in bringing many reforms in the past. “The information by the candidates in their affidavits on criminal charges, assets etc. should be verified by an independent central authority in a time-bound manner. Provision should be made for strong action on finding serious anomalies. Disclosing party finances, funding sources and transparent functioning of parties will enhance public trust and confidence in the political system.”

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