The Gulf Today
New Delhi

India’s democratic system has facilitated multi-party elections at regular intervals and changes of government at the Centre and in the states through the ballot. However, it has its flaws, which are crying for remedy.

The emergence of money and muscle power as elements that can influence the outcome of elections has led to a rise in the number of persons with criminal records in the two houses of parliament and in the state legislatures.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the National Election Watch (NEW), which studied affidavits filed by candidates who have sought elections since 2004, found that about 30 per cent of the members of the Lok Sabha and 17 per cent of the members of the Rajya Sabha had criminal cases pending against them when they filed their nomination papers. Some were charged with heinous crimes like murder, kidnapping and rape.

In an attempt to check the rise of criminal elements in elected bodies, the Supreme Court recently ruled that a member will forfeit his seat immediately if he or she is convicted on a charge that attracts a jail term of two years or more. 

The law provides for such forfeiture but until now the court had, as a rule, suspended the sentence and allowed the convicted member to retain his seat pending a decision on his appeal. 

The government considered amending the law to overcome the effect of the judgement, but gave up the idea after the apex court indicated that it is not inclined to revise its decision in the matter.

In another recent judgement, the Supreme Court ruled that a person in lawful custody cannot contest elections. While its intention was good, the ruling opened the way for a government which is not scrupulous in observing democratic niceties to vitiate the electoral process by throwing opposition leaders in jail on trumped-up charges on the eve of the elections. 

While addressing the Kerala Assembly on the occasion of its 125th anniversary a few days ago (the state came into being only in 1956 but its legislature traces its history to the setting up of an assembly in the princely state of Travancore before Independence), Vice-President Hamid Ansari dwelt on another grave weakness of the country’s democratic system. He pointed out that the first-past-the-post system often results in candidates getting elected with the support of not more than a quarter or one-third of the voters. 

The flawed electoral system, borrowed from the British, casts doubts on the representative capacity of not only individual legislators but also the elected bodies. The fact is that no government in the country’s history enjoyed the support of a majority of the electorate. The massive majority that the Congress won in the first three general elections, fought under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, arguably the most popular of all prime ministers, was secured with vote shares ranging from 44.72 per cent to 47.78 per cent. 

The system allowed the undivided Communist Party of India with a vote share of only 3.79 per cent to win 16 seats and emerge as the largest opposition group in the first Lok Sabha, edging past the Socialist Party which could get only 12 seats with its 10.59 per cent votes. In 1984, a regional party, Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh, became the main opposition in Parliament winning 30 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. 

Electoral systems designed to ensure that the government and individual legislators have the support of a majority of the electorate are now in force in many countries. The most popular one involves a runoff between the two candidates who receive the largest number of votes in the initial ballot. 

While there have been cursory discussions on electoral reform from time to time, political parties in the country have little interest in improving the system as they have developed a vested interest in the present arrangement.

Parties with narrow bases stand to benefit from the first-past-the-post principle. When votes in a constituency get widely splintered in a multi-cornered contest a small but significant caste, religious or class vote bank can help a party to win. 

All national parties have suffered erosion in their geographical base in the past few years and regional parties have come to the fore. The support base of both national and regional parties is narrow and they are, therefore, heavily dependent upon vote banks.
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