This year, the world’s largest democracy will undergo a test of its strength in the Lok Sabha elections. Elections are the strongest feature of any democracy and the most basic requirement of honest representation in a nation, as long as they are free and fair. This is where India falls short. But India’s first election commissioner, Su kumar Sen, noted that this was not an easy task. Given the geographical, political and social circumstances, the electoral process requires constant improvements for which electoral reforms are mandatory to make India successful democracy.
The problems ailing the Indian electoral system are many and diverse. But steady reforms to overcome each of them would pay rich dividends to India’s democracy.
The foremost problem is the lack of honest representation because of poor voter turnout. The major worry is that half the country has no say in the nations policies since only half of the population votes. The primary reason for this is the lack of interest in public affairs. If a substantial part of the population is working to meet their basic needs, it can’t be expected that voting would feature in their priorities.
Some proportion of citizens claim to have lost faith in the political parties and their candidates. Gurudas Gupta, a present member of Parliament points out that about 58% of Lok Sabha members are crorepatis and 76 members have court cases pending against them. Thus, it is no surprise that people doubt the integrity of candidates. Criminalization and the excessive use of money have marred Indian politics. Unfortunately, the possibility of making money, serves as a strong pull for people to join politics. This causes a decrease in the public exchequer and poor development in certain constituencies. But the most negative impact caused is the loss of faith among citizens who want to join politics as a service to the country’s development.
Other issues such as rigging the electoral roll, tampering with voting machines and voting on behalf of someone else’s identity undermine the quality of elections.
The need for electoral reforms is evident. It would not only lead to a greater representation of the number of people but also qualitative improvement in the conduct of this practice. Irrespective of people’s socio-economic inequalities, their worth (politically) in our society will be the same for one day at least. Cleansing the system, increasing transparency would increase people’s faith in this activity that would further inspire people with honest motivation and high credibility to join politics.
The election commission has realized this and over the years brought about significant reforms such as the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) to reduce the human error and tampering. Similarly, there have been instances when the judiciary and the legislature have brought in certain reforms.
In the run-up to the 2014 LokSabha elections, three particular reforms have come into discussion. These are- the addition of the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option, six national parties which have come under the purview of the Right to Information Act and the Representation of People Amendment and Validation) Ordinance which was taken back.
A recent Supreme Court judgement requires the Election Commission to include a NOTA option in the EVM’s and ballot papers since it would lead parties to choose better candidates. This would allow participation of voters who want to be involved in the political process but don't want to vote for any candidate. It would help better classify between voter and non-voter categories. This classification would help come out with more reforms targeted towards the non-voters. Though it is a very positive reform, there is a requirement to further this reform. As L.K. Advani, a senior politician points out, that selecting the NOTA option merely means not choosing a candidate and doesn't apply to the rejection of candidates. This is because a person might select the NOTA even if he is confused between candidates. He recommends that NOTA should mean the rejection of each candidate in order to represent the exact number of voters who are dissatisfied with the quality of candidates. This would encourage parties to improve their candidates. Even without adding this provision, the NOTA is still a progressive reform. It will discourage voters to sit at home and not vote if they are dissatisfied with the candidates.
The NOTA option reform came about without much debate, but the other two reforms have been very controversial.
The SC gave a decision to put six national parties under the purview of the RTI Act since they are largely publicly funded. Till then, the political parties had to inform the government of any donations which were larger the Rs.20,000. It was widely believed that the parties had found ways to dodge this. After this move, the entire accounts of these six parties will be available to the public.
The parties arecontesting this reform by saying that this would reveal certainaspects of their strategy that should remain within the party. Now, a committee has been set-up to give its recommendation on the matter.
The SC carried out the third reform on10th July 2013 as it struck down a section of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, which allowed immediate disqualification of a MP or MLA who has been convicted in a crime.
To counter this, the cabinet passed the Representation of People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance which would protect these convicted MP’s and MLA’s, if they appealed within three months of the conviction and their appeal is admitted by the by the higher court. This ordinance nullified the reform that was made by SC’s judgement.
But soon a controversy gave way to this ordinance being taken back.
These three recent reforms have all been based on a Supreme Court judgement. It needs to be a combined effort by the legislature, judiciary and the election commission to guarantee free and fair elections to further ensure that India becomes a successful democracy.