The Election Commission of India is charged with the responsibility under the constitution from Art 324-329 to oversee and conduct regular elections at the central and state levels. The election commission thus needs to be a strong and independent institution to perform these tasks. The challenges faced by it are:
1] The appointment and removal procedure of election commissioners.
Currently the chief election commissioner (CEC) and the two ECs are appointed solely by the executive without any consultation with other political groups. Though most ECs have been of impeccable integrity till now, there is an urgent need to establish a bipartisan multimembered committee for appointing ECs. e.g. The 2nd ARC (Administrative Reforms Committee) report have suggested a committee composed of Prime Minister, the LoP in Lok Sabha, the Speaker, the Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha along with the Law Minister.
This would lift any remaining doubts about the credibility of those appointed above suspicion. The Supreme Court (SC) in 2017 has directed the government to consider passing a law regarding the same.
In the removal procedure of the election commissioners of India a clear disparity exists between the status of the CEC and other two ECs. The SC has already pointed out in the dispute over the removal of Navin Chawla about the equality in status of the CEC and the two other ECs and has clarified that the CEC is only first among equals. Thus the constitution needs to be amended to clearly reflect about the removal of ECs must be similar to that of the CEC.
2] Election Expenditure.
The 2014 national election in India saw a disclosed expenditure of 8000 crores by all major political parties. Making it the second most expensive election in the world after the United States.
The hugely expensive nature of Indian elections negatively affect the dynamism of Indian democracy raising the entry level barrier for new political entrants to contest and win elections.
The risk of elite capture/corporate capture of the electoral process and the policies of the ruling governments becomes much more likely if there are no limits on corporate funding of political parties.
3] Anonymity in Funding.
Another major issue is the anonymity in the funding of political parties. Over the past decade more than 70% of the funds raised by political parties have been from anonymous sources as pointed out by the ADR (Association of Democratic Reforms). Anonymity negatively affects the functioning of democracy as the electorate’s right to information about the funding of political parties and their candidates gets compromised.
The removal of restrictions on foreign funding of Indian political parties could pose a serious threat to the economic sovereignty of state policy which is likely to come under increasing influence of foreign companies/sources in the future.
4] Electoral bonds
Decreasing the influence of anonymous cash donations and thereby limit the influence of black money in the electoral process.
To protect donors from potential harassment from political parties if they are found favoring or supporting one party over the other.
To improve transparency of the electoral process.
The electoral bonds are anonymous bearer bonds which could be used by a donor to make contributions to a political party and yet retain the confidentiality of the transaction without revealing the identity of the donor. Given, that such bonds can be issued by selected banks, it will reduce the role of cash in funding of political parties.
Concerns have been raised about the bond system being completely outside the purview of the RTI act & IT act. Moreover there is a need for a impact assessment study for a three to five period to arrive at the better analysis of the proposed bond system.
5] Lifting of the restrictions on donations by corporate parties.
The existing limit of 7.5% of profit donations by corporate organizations made during the last three years has been removed.
The lifting of these limits on corporate donations has raised concerns about the corporate capture of electoral process. The Dinesh Goswami Committee has previously recommended the need to continue with limits on corporate donations. Major European democracies and USA also have limits on corporate donations to political parties. Zoya Hasan and others have argued by the lifting of the three year limit and 7.5% limit can lead to the proliferation of shell companies for pushing in black money into the electoral process.
Additionally, the requirement that a corporation ought to have been in existence three years before it could make donations – a system that was meant to stop shell concerns from being created with a view purely to syphoning money into politics – has also been removed.
The retrospective amendments to FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) 2010 introduced in 2016 and 2018 which have altered the definition of foreign donors.
The recently introduced amendments in the wake of the 2014 Delhi HC case on funding by Vedanta Ltd. of Indian political parties from 2004 onwards have led to concerns about the increasing influence of foreign donors.
The recent changes now allow Indian subsidiaries of foreign entities to legally fund political parties in India and not be treated as foreign companies with respect to the FCRA act 2010.
The positive steps taken must be complemented with a necessary and an urgent review of the proposed changes in the light of concerns raised by experts in civil society to ensure more transparency in the electoral process.
What other steps can be taken to limit the role of money power?
1] Limit on election expenditure on individual candidates. Such a limit exists, but it must be strictly enforced.
2] Indrajeet Gupta and Dinesh Goswami committee have recommended for state funding for candidates. Is should of ‘kind’ type.
3] SC has asked to keep strict watch on declared sources of income and declared assets. Any mismatch between the two must be speedily investigated by IT agencies.
Criminalization of Politics
1] Muscle power in elections.
2] Law breakers may become law makers. This will weaken political will to fight corruption.
3] It will also lead to politicization of crime.
4] It will lower the morale of bureaucracy & hamper governance.
Way forward & Steps Taken
1] Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) PIL in 1999.
The PIL led to 2003 SC judgement, which mandated declaring criminal background, educational background, asset/liability of candidates and of family members, and sources of income of candidates.
2] Under Section 8(3) under RPI act, any individual if convicted for a crime with punishment of 2 years or more would be disqualified for 6 years.
3] Section 8(4) – Sitting MLAs/MPs would not be subjected to immediate disqualification if convicted for more than 2 years. [SC struck it down in 2014 as it violated Art 14 (Equality before law). It was found arbitrary and unconstitutional.]
4] Fast track courts should be there. 185/545 have serious criminal cases against them in current Lok Sabha.
5] 2017 PIL was filed to make fast track courts which will handle all serious cases against sitting MLA’s and MPs. Such initiatives must be put in place so that judicial delays do not hamper the aim of tackling criminalization of politics.
6] SC has asked to establish fast track courts across the country.
7] SC has asked that all candidates desirous of fighting state or central elections must submit details of their criminal records to their political party and party must display it on their website.
Paid News / Fake News.
Press council of India has defined that any news coverage by media organizations (print media) during the electoral period which has been paid for in cash or kind by vested groups is termed as paid news.
Paid news is not a electoral malpractice under RPI act. However, EC and Law Commission have declared that it must be declared as electoral offence. Any such candidate trying to publish paid news must be punished for a term of two years.
Paid news represents a malpractice which tries to unduly manipulate voter behaviour and thus negatively affects the integrity of the electoral process. Both Press Council of India (PCI) and Election Commission of India (ECI) have highlighted the need to curb this menace. Moreover more than two hundred instances of paid news have been flagged in the past decade by election commission.
Currently the ECI in collaboration with PCI appoints District Media Observers (DMO) to flag instances of paid news. Moreover news media organizations during the election period are expected to carry a clear declaration that none of the content has been paid for.
Both the ECI and Law Commission reports have argued for the need to declare it as an electoral malpractice under section 8 of RPI Act 1951 with a jail term of 2 years and the need to strictly enforce this law.
Fake news often widely circulated through social media often involves a deliberate misreporting of facts and there is a need to urgently tackle this issue as well. The ECI is appointing Social Media Observers (SMO) in collaboration with Facebook for keeping a watch and launch prompt actions to prevent such news items from having a wide reach.
Opinion Poll | Exit Poll
Opinion polls are pre-election surveys and exit polls are post-election surveys which aim to elicit the views of the electorate during or after the election period. In 1997 and eventually in 2004 the ECI after consultation with all political parties imposed a ban on post-election surveys as many of these were accused of being biased and done with the intention of favoring or dis-favoring certain political groups.
However in 2004 as the ECI sought to expand the coverage of the ban to include opinion polls as well, a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) was filed in Supreme Court (SC) by media organizations including The Hindu who argued that such a blanket ban violates the freedom of press protected under Art 19.
Currently the election commission of India, in collaboration with the press council has issued advisory that all media houses while publishing results of opinion polls must also publish a note on methodology which gives details about the number of respondents, the questionnaire administered, the demographic composition and the representativeness of the sample surveyed. This would allow the reader to make an informed opinion about the relevance and trustworthiness of such surveys.
Many European countries (16) impose restrictions on publication of opinion polls in the immediate pre-election period ranging from a period of 2 days to a month before elections. In case such restrictions are to be imposed in India, a consensus with all stakeholders including the press must be arrived at first.
Booth capture as a problem existed with ballot system.
They are quick. Absence of any communication device i.e. frequency receiver or transmitter, cannot be connected to any network like Bluetooth, RFs, WIFI, Internet etc. Chips are one time programmable.
Names of candidates are arranged in alphabetical manner and not on party basis.
Their introduction have affected frauds like booth capturing, rigging, ballot stuffing etc.
Returning to ballot paper is regressive proposal.
Constructive criticism is welcome, but uninformed criticism, will reduce faith of people in electoral process.
Legalization of MCC
Model Code of Conduct (MCC) was introduced in 1967 after consensus among all political parties to provide level playing field to all political parties. Absence of this gives advantage to ruling party.
1] MCC kicks in as soon as dates for elections are announced.
2] No new schemes can be announced.
3] No transfers / new appointments.
4] Any transfer required will be done by ECI if it feels that it will hamper election.
5] No hate speech.
6] No personal attacks on other leaders.
7] MCC does not have legal sanctions, but ECI has power to de-register political parties. But it never happens in court since ECI’s such power does not have legal backing. MCC must be given legal backing.
8] There is another view that violation of MCC and its execution by ECI will influence voter behavior. And it will act as deterrent for political parties. Since ECI enjoys confidence among masses. i.e. Its sanction is moral. Making it legal will results in litigation which will end in delays.
9] There is also argument to give contempt powers to ECI. But even judiciary use it sparingly and giving it to other organ is turning the clock backward.
It negates voice of electorate. They are not sure if leader will continue.
Un-necessary extra expenditure for ECI.
3] Anonymity in Funding (correction) – political party or office bearer thereof can not received foreign funding