March 09, 2014

Utilise 16th General Elections to Create a Better India

THE schedule for the 16th general elections has been announced. These will be the longest ever general elections planned in the country barring those disrupted and delayed due to exigencies such as prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination or the Kargil war. Spread over five weeks beginning April 7 and ending May 12 – these elections will be held in nine phases, the largest number so far. Though there are some complaints regarding the long schedule from some quarters, but according to the Indian constitution (Articles 324 to 329), it is the Election Commission (EC) alone that is mandated with “The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament …”. It is, hence, the Election Commission’s mandated duty to not merely conduct the elections but do so in a free and fair manner where the fundamental right to exercise the franchise is ensured to all bonafide voters in the country. It is the Election Commission alone that is privy to all information concerning the country’s law and order situation, threats of potential disruption and the availability of forces required to conduct a free and fair election in a peaceful manner in various parts of the country. Therefore, the EC alone can determine the number of phases and the length of time required to effectively carry out this constitutional mandate, crucial to the efficacy of parliamentary democracy in our country. There is, therefore, little that needs to be disputed over these decisions that it has taken in its wisdom. These elections will be the world's largest democratic exercise. Larger than our 15th general elections where, according to the final tally, 8070 candidates of over 300 political parties and independents competed for 543 seats. Their fate was decided by an electorate of nearly 716 million voters of whom 58.4 per cent voted. The administrative set-up was equally mind boggling. 8,28,804 polling stations with 13,68,430 electronic voting machines manned by over 65 lakh personnel in five phases spread over a month with security forces deployed in equally large numbers, a total of nearly 1.1 million, to ensure free and fair elections. For the 16th general elections, the EC has declared that there are more than 814 million voters on the electoral rolls. This is nearly a 100 million more than in the 15th general elections. The estimated number of polling booths across the country would be 9,30,000, over 10,000 more than last time. This is the gigantic exercise that the country is going to enter into. The EC has announced various measures that it shall undertake to ensure free and fair polls. The CEC states that, “We have taken particular care to ensure that people living in vulnerable areas and vulnerable voters are in continuous touch with the election machinery to ensure that they are able to vote uninterrupted by anyone.” Though the CEC has announced that to ensure this, “Adequate number of observers in different categories will be deployed”, this must be implemented scrupulously in order to prevent the large-scale intimidation of voters like it happened in the recent local body elections in the state of West Bengal. Though strictly the local body elections do not fall within the mandate of the EC, this experience should forewarn the EC to be extra vigilant. Further measures need to be taken to ensure that the spread of terror during the campaign period does not prevent voters from not turning up to exercise their fundamental right due to fear. Further, the CEC said that “special emphasis is given to check flow of money during elections”. The increasing use of money power must be given sufficient and special attention. Though the upper limit of electoral expenses has been raised to Rs 70 lakh per candidate/constituency in larger states, this ceiling is more often than not flouted. Further, parties and candidates with lesser monetary means should not be put at a disadvantage, thus, basically negating their exercise of democracy. Already, severe restrictions on wall writing, postering etc have disproportionately affected parties with lesser monetary resources while parties with a larger command of resources take recourse to expensive methods of campaigning through media advertisements, simultaneous laser shows etc. More stringent measures must be undertaken against tendencies like “paid news” doctored opinion polls etc. A level playing field must be provided for all. All armies enter all battles with the intention of winning. So shall it be in this political battle when all political candidates and parties will vie for people’s support. But the final outcome, in the final analysis, will depend upon the people’s army and not on the material or other arsenals deployed by the contending political parties. In these 16th general elections, therefore, it is the people of India who will have to determine its outcome on the basis of who will provide them the much needed relief from the relentlessly growing economic burdens being imposed on them. Who will provide them with a better livelihood and a better future for their children? In other words, who will create a better India and allow all Indians to rise to levels of fully realizing their potential? Clearly, these aspirations can only be met if the country follows an alternative policy trajectory – from that followed by the Congress or the BJP. On the score of economic policies or mega corruption, there is little difference between the Congress and the BJP. Additionally, the RSS/BJP’s hardcore Hindutva agenda revolves around the sharpening of communal polarisation and the spread of communal poison that grievously undermines our social harmony and, therefore, India’s unity and integrity. These are challenges that the Indian people must rise to meet and ensure that the outcome of these elections will result in the country following an alternative policy direction that works towards creating a better India and providing a better quality of life to our people. (March 5, 2013)