Ajit Ranade

More than six years ago on July 5, 2004, the Chief Election Commissioner wrote to the Prime Minister seeking his urgent attention to matters of grave concern to the Commission. The fourteenth Lok Sabha had just been voted in after a historic election which saw the NDA being replaced by the UPA.

The CEC had asked the PM and his government to undertake legislative changes that would make elections cleaner and more meaningful. His 26 page letter had 15 specific proposals on new electoral reforms, and seven proposals which were pending.

Some of the important proposals were allowing voters to caste a negative vote (“none of the above or NOTA”), disallowing candidates from standing from more than one constituency, compulsory auditing of accounts of political parties and prohibiting surrogate advertising and opinion polls. But the most important reform was to disallow criminals from standing for elections.

That is, if someone is charged with criminal offenses like murder, rape and extortion, he should not be allowed to stand. Technically since court cases drag on for years, and can keep getting recycled into appeals in higher courts, no accused ever gets “convicted”.

So we have the spectacle of candidates who are in prison (undergoing a trial), who cannot vote, but can stand for elections.

Well six years have passed, but the government (which got voted back in 2009) has not found the time to do anything about electoral reforms.

In the meantime the role of money power in politics is out of control. Most MP’s and MLA’s declare wealth in crores of rupees. But they refuse to disclose the sources of their income. Between 20 to 30 percent of all elected legislators have criminal charges.

Any attempt to disclose the details of income and expenditure of political parties is stonewalled. All the political parties enjoy income tax exemption, but do not want to disclose details of where they get the money or how they spend it. Parties think they are not subject to RTI.

Due to the various scams that surfaced in the past few months, attention has turned to political funding and electoral reforms. Some people have also advocated that elections should be funded by the government, as if that would stop all the black money flowing into elections.

The CEC has said that parties are being floated simply to do money laundering. Even panchayat and municipal elections have become big money game, since more funds flow through local legislators and their discretionary power has increased. Even the voters now expect to be paid to vote, and stories of distribution of cash and liquor before elections are routine.

There are also stories about not only voters, but newspapers and television coverage also has to be “paid for”. And yet, funnily, the official expenditure reports filed by the candidates with the EC show that they none of them exceed the limit of spending as per the law.

It is clear that several reforms are needed to improve the quality of elections as well as the working of political parties. The Law Commission in its report of 1999 had given details of what these reforms entail.

The letter of the CEC to the PM in 2004 was in the same spirit. Various citizens’ groups, activists and even parties themselves have anguished for many years about the state of democracy, and what needs to be done.

This year the government, specifically the Law Ministry under the Minister Veerappa Moily has initiated a multi-city consultation on electoral reforms culminating in a national meeting on April 2 and 3.

There are seven rounds, and the third meeting is in Mumbai on Sunday January 16. This consultation will be a “marathon” session, and if you want the “NOTA” button in the next election, you must attend.

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