Poll reforms — basic issues not tackled

By Inder Jit

(Released on 22 October 1988)

Something is better than nothing. The electoral reforms now favoured by the Congress-I Working Committee, therefore, deserve to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the proposals made by the Vithal Gadgil Committee and those accepted by the ruling party’s High Command fall dismally short of expectations and promises made first by Indira Gandhi and then by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi following his election as Prime Minister in 1985. In his address to the Joint session of Parliament in January 1985, the President, Giani Zail Singh, said: “Governments are committed to a clean public life. They intend to initiate wide-ranging discussions on electoral reforms with political parties”. Subsequently, Mr. Gandhi in his address to the Congress Centenary Session at Bombay observed: “The country needs a politics of service to the poor. The country needs a politics based on ideology and programmes. To bring this about, we must break the nexus between political parties and vested interests. We will change the electoral laws to ensure cleaner elections. We will make political parties accountable for the funds they receive.”
Only two reforms have been enacted since early 1985. First, political harlotry has been banned through the anti-Defection Act. Second, Companies have been permitted again to donate funds to the political parties. A whole host of other reforms continue to cry out for attention and implementation. Even that which is now favored, amounts at best, too little that is new or sensational. Most Opposition parties have been clamouring for many years for reducing the voting age from 21 years to 18 years. In fact, some States ruled by parties other than the Congress-I have already reduced the voting age to 18 years for elections to the local bodies. The Election Commission since the time of Mr. S.L. Shakdher and various Opposition parties subsequently has been advocating the use of electronic voting machines and multi-purpose identity cards. Sadly, nay tragically, two grave maladies afflicting our electoral system have remained untackled by the Gadgil groups — the scourge of money power and misuse of Government machinery. Little attention has been paid either to the use or misuse of the electronic media during the elections.
Mercifully, consideration has been given to the demand for public funding of the elections by almost all the Opposition parties, leading publicmen, jurists and journalists. But the idea has been rejected overlooking the vital fact that the proposal is only a means to an end — breaking the link between money power and the polls — and has to be viewed and put through as part of a package. The lapse on the part of the Gadgil group and the Congress-I Working Committee is surprising and, in fact, inexcusable in the light of the findings of two high power committees.
The Santhanam Committee went deep into the problems of corruption in 1964 and felt that the manner in which funds were raised by political parties constituted a “major source of corruption” in our national life. The Wanchoo Committee, set up in 1971 to make recommendations in respect of direct taxation, set up in 1971 to make recommendations in respect of direct taxation, held that money spent by parties on political and election activity were a principal factor in black money generation. As a measure to curb black money, the Wanchoo Committee went on to recommend not just election grants, but also grant-in-aid for political parties.
Much needed notice of these two reports was taken by three thoughtful seminars conducted by the Rajaji Institute of Public Affairs and Administration in Madras (Financing Elections in India), Bombay (Rooting Out Corruption in the Electoral System) and New Delhi (Electoral Reforms) in 1985 and 1986. These seminars were of the view that various evils, especially those of money power and misuse of Government machinery, could be tackled through an enforceable ceiling on poll expenses, state financing of elections, regulations of political parties, auditing of party accounts, an effective code of conduct, independence of the Election Commission and fair use of AIR and Doordarshan. Importantly, 60 participants at the three seminars included Mr. Morarji Desai, Mr. C. Subramaniam, Mr. Balram Jakhar, Mr. Ashoke Sen, Mr. Ram Niwas Mirdha, Mr. S. Shakdher, Mr. R.V.S. Peri-Shashtri, Mr. J.R.D. Tata, Mr. N.A. Palkhivala, Prof. Madhu Dandvate, Mr. L.K. Advani, Mr. I.K. Gujral, Mr. L.P. Singh, Dr. G.V.K. Rao, Dr. M.S. Adiseshiah, Mr. P.G. Mavalankar, Prof. Buddadev Bhattacharya, Dr. Bashiruddin Ahmed, Dr. Aloo Dastur and Mr. Madhu Mehta.
In sharp contrast, the Gadgil Committee comprised Mr. Gadgil and four others: Mr. Vishvjit Prithvijit Singh, Mr. Pawan Kumar Bansal, Mrs. Jayanti Natarajan and Mrs. Ambika Soni. Interestingly, Mr. Gadgil and Mrs. Ambika Soni alone have personal experience of the Lok Sabha poll. The other three are junior members of the Rajya Sabha. But this is only one part of the story. The Committee, for instance, concluded its observations on state funding as follows: “It can be said with certainty that the introduction of State funding will only add to the amount of money at present available for elections, and, while increasing the burden on the State, provide no concomitant benefit to its citizens. But in saying so the Committee has conveniently slurred over one vital aspect of this recommendation made by the three seminars and by Mr. Shakdher as Chief Election Commissioner. All were clear that “where the State finances the election, there should be no other source of funds available to the parties.” Simultaneously, they wanted the ceiling on expenses to be enforced rigorously and suggested ways and means of doing so.
Incredibly enough, the Gadgil Committee has not gone into the question of ceilings on election expenses, ceilings which have been reduced to a farce since 1956 when the Representation of People Act was comprehensively amended. Some of the main changes brought about were as follows: The period for maintaining the accounts was limited to the interval between the date of notification and the date of declaration of result. The requirement of declaration on oath before a magistrate in regard to the correctness of the returns was dispensed with. The period of disqualification was reduced from five years to three years. The disqualification incurred was only in respect of membership of Parliament and the State legislature but did not affect the right to vote. These ceilings were reduced to a bigger joke in 1974 through another amendment of the Act. Under this amendment, any expenditure incurred or authorized in connection with the elections of a candidate by a political party or by any other association or body of persons or by an individual (other than the candidate or his elections agent) is not deemed to be expenditure of the candidate!
The Commission has been protesting against these amendments time and again. In 1957 and 1962, it recommended that the legal provisions relating to election expenses should be amended drastically or totally repealed as the 1956 amendment had reduced the entire scheme of ceiling on poll expenses “practically nugatory”. In 1982, the Commission recommended a package of corrective proposals. These provided for inclusion of all election expenses incurred whether before, during or after the election in election expenses; declaration about the correctness of the returns; prohibition of election expenses being incurred by any person (other than the candidate or his election agent) or by club, association, society etc’ increase in the period of disqualification from three years to five years; and power to the Commission to scrutinize the returns — and disqualify. The package also provided for political parties to spend money n a candidate subject to the proviso that such expenditure should be deemed to have been incurred by the candidate. But there has been no response from the Government so far.
Not only that. The Commission has also been urging the Government to incorporate in the Representation of the People Act as corrupt practices the following as envisaged in the agreed Model Code of Conduct evolved in 1968: (1) Ministers shall not combine their official work with the electioneering or Government vehicles for furtherance of the party in power; (ii) public places such as maidans etc. shall not be monopolized by the ruling party for holding election shall meetings; (iii) Rest Houses or Dak Bungalows or other Government accommodation shall be allowed to be used by other parties; (if) Ministers and other authorities shall not sanction grants/payments out of discretionary fund from the time elections are announced; (v) Ministers and other authorities shall not make any promise to the electorate of construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc. which, may have the effect of influencing the voters; (vi) issue of advertisements at the cost of public exchequer regarding achievements shall be scrupulously avoided… but there has been no response from the Government here also.
One could go on and on. In the final analysis, however, there is a lot more to electoral reforms than what the Gadgil group and the Congress Working Committee have attempted to do. Regrettably, the Congress-I seems to be content to favour only such reforms as suit its poll tactics and prospects. Normally, status quo suits a party in power. But the Congress-I High Command would do well not to ignore the lesson of history. No party has a monopoly over power. In fact, not many among the powers that be and the Gadgil group may remember that the late Mr. C.M. Stephen as the leader of the Congress-I Opposition in the Lok Sabha strongly and eloquently pressed for State funding of the poll during the Janata rule! Clearly, there is need for the Government and the Opposition to have a proper dialogue on the subject and jointly bring forward comprehensive poll reforms in the interest of free and fair elections without further delay. There can be no half way house where the larger interests of our democracy and the nation are concerned. —INFA