Put electoral reforms first

Unless we control money play in elections, all the other so-called reforms will not yield desired results

By Author JR Janumpalli   |   Published: 4th Mar 2021   12:03 am Updated: 3rd Mar 2021   11:54 pm

Nowadays every administrative change is called a reform by the government. And the government also says there is a need for reform in every sector of the country. They do not consider an improvement or supplement to the earlier dispensation but want nothing less than reform. A few attempts in some sectors were made in the last seven years in a furious mood of reform, but the results were not as lightning as intended.

The idea that nothing good has happened in the past and there is a need to change everything anew in India sounds a little far-fetched. Change and incremental addition for the good is always needed. Reforms too are needed in some places. But reforming everything does not bode well for the continuity and the smooth forward progress of a nation. This is becoming quite evident with the results of the reforms tried in recent years. Every reform does not act like the 1991 economic reform of the nation.

Hanging on Hinges

In India, one reform we urgently need is in politics and elections. In fact, a rational reform in this field will cure most of the inherent ills of our nation. There is a mushroom growth of political parties. There is a conglomeration of caste, religion and many other commix of social and economic pastiche in those parties. There is a confounding potpourri of left, right and centre ideological mix. And the combinations and divisions of them as per the political expediency. In addition, the loopholes in the parliamentary democracy are assiduously pried deep into and used at will. We have evolved into a new parliamentary democracy where Parliament and Assemblies are becoming dysfunctional. The parliamentary democracy is just hanging on its hinges.

The most pernicious reason, amongst many others, is the role of money in politics and elections. Here, all the political parties are on the same page. They may outwardly shout at each other when the need arises, but they are one and the same behind the scenes on this aspect. No party wants to bring in a reform in politics and elections and the use of humongous amount of money in it. Like the cats do not need to bell the cats. The use of money is increasing exponentially election after election. Our vibrant democratic Parliament and Assemblies are made just formal meeting places to guillotine Bills with a brute majority or for drumming up some other unfair matters.

Ineffective Laws

The anti-defection laws are inadequate, ill-administered and ineffective. Their free pre- and post-poll combinations and buying and selling support in forming new governments have become commonplace. And this is developing into a political fine art. The national parties have become the leading lights in this game. Any ruling party at the Centre gets its coffers filled within no time with anonymous contributions. With that monetary strength, it can play the political horse trade by breaking opposition State governments and stitching new combinations to form new governments in States. That is becoming a free political trade.

The ruling parties have a better chance to get this anonymous money. And its deleterious effect on the administration will always be there. According to the Center for Media Studies, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political parties in India spent around Rs 55,000 crore ($8 billion), $2 billion more than in the 2016 US presidential elections and roughly half of it was spent by the winning BJP. It has become routine for an MP candidate to spend at least Rs 50 crore in many States. In some cases, it even touches Rs 200 crore. Spending crores of rupees on mega rallies, roadshows, mammoth meetings and glitzy publicity is increasing with every election. Distribution of money to voters, middlemen and buying opponents has become an accepted norm.

Money in politics has become the fountainhead for almost all corrupt practices in the Indian society. If we are spending more than the US in our elections, it explains it all. For, the US per capita income is $60,000 and ours is just less than $5,000. This political corruption from the top is cascading down relentlessly, affecting the life of the people at every level. If there is any need for reform, it is on this spending and bad political practices. There is an imperative need to curb this money play in elections and allow parliamentary democracy to function better.

Spending in Elections

For this, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, must be amended radically. Political contributions and spending should be rationalised and made transparent. There should be strict enforcement of the law to monitor the spending in elections. The laws relating to cash guzzling huge meetings, rallies, buying of legislators, unlawful defections and distribution of money to voters and other such developments need to be amended drastically and enforced strictly. In its place, simple and less expensive electioneering must be brought in, commensurate with the socioeconomic conditions of the country.

There can be fewer political parties with some durable policies and pluralistic ideologies, encouraging positive political development. Alliances should be made before elections with a policy or ideological compatibility and they should be adhered to at least till the end of the political term, if not forever. Forging alliances before and after elections on the spur just for the sake of sharing power or breaking governments should not be allowed.

What we need now are some very tough reforms in the realm of elections and their conduct. A government with a big majority like now has to think of such far-reaching reforms to make democracy work better and deliver the goods better for the people. Bringing in contentious, unilateral Bills and Acts which lead to long drawn controversies and attrition will not serve any purpose.

We can say without any compunction that in our elections around 60-70% of voters are paid money for votes by the contesting political parties. It is said about Rs 700 was spent on each voter in the 2019 elections. Unless we control it, all the other so-called reforms will not yield the desired results. It is like the ‘Namami Gange Project’. While allowing industrial effluents at the head to come into the river, cleaning the water down below spending thousands of crores will not make the Ganga clean.

(The author is a freelance journalist)

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