May 25, 2014

Poll Reforms: Need of the Day

THE president of India has appointed Narendra Modi as the country’s 14th prime minister on the strength of his election as the leader of the BJP parliamentary group following the BJP’s electoral victory. The acceptance of the people’s verdict always comes with the expectations that the government that follows will pursue a set of policies and programmes that will provide the people with a better quality of life. On this score, we may have to wait for some more time for the government to be sworn in and for the announcement of its priorities concerning the policies and programmes it shall pursue. Needless to add, it is only after this that we can substantively react on the issues of concern for the people. In these columns last week, we had anticipated that the ‘pay back time’ for those who financed this election campaign begins with the formation of the new government. This, in itself, would dictate a set of policies whereby further burdens on the people will necessarily have to be imposed in order to recover these monies. This will directly belie the hopes that the people have nurtured and their expectations. Further, there are grave apprehensions that the secular democratic foundations of our republic may come under a severe stress and strain. This is buttressed by the fact that amongst the MPs that gave BJP an unambiguous majority in the Lok Sabha, there is not a single one from the Muslim minorities. In this context, we pledge to redouble our resolve to defend and further strengthen secularism, democracy and the achievements, however halting and limited, already achieved by the Indian republic in the field of social progress. Such resoluteness on the part of the CPI(M) was reflected in the campaign on the need for alternative policy direction in the country that can provide immediate relief to the people from the growing burdens being imposed upon them and to extend social benefits that will improve the quality of life. Such an alternative policy direction is also aimed at further strengthening the secular democratic foundations of our republic. This struggle shall now continue both inside the parliament and outside. Experience of these elections, however, throw up certain important questions that need to be seriously addressed in order to further improve and fine tune our system of parliamentary democracy. First, in the history of independent India’s parliamentary democracy, this is the first time that a government will be formed by a party winning a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha on the basis of the lowest vote share it received. The BJP has won 282 seats on the basis of a 31 percent vote share amongst those who cast their votes in these elections. The lowest vote share based government so far has been way back in 1967 when the Congress party won 283 seats on the basis of a 40.8 percent vote share. Democracy is often perceived as the ‘rule of the majority.’ In many mature democracies in the world, only those candidates are eligible to be elected who secure more than 50 percent of the polled vote in an election where more than 50 percent of the electorate has cast its vote. Believe it or not, India has never had a single party central government which has polled more than 50 percent of the votes cast. Even with 69 percent of those who voted voting against it, the BJP has won a comfortable majority! Such an anomaly arises due to the ‘first-past-the-post’ system where a candidate polling the highest number of votes is declared elected. Many mature democracies follow a system of proportional representation, i.e., the number of MPs of that party are determined by the percentage of votes that party receives. People here vote for political parties and not individuals based on the policies and programmes of these parties. Every party submits a priority list to the election authorities prior to the elections. Depending on its vote share, the number of MPs is selected from this list. This has an inbuilt mechanism whereby any government that is formed post-elections will necessarily have the support of more than 50 percent of those who have voted. It has been calculated by a national English daily that in the just concluded general elections, according to the percentage of votes polled, under a proportional representation system, the BJP should have won 169 seats instead of 282, the Congress 105 instead of 44, CPI(M) 18 instead of 9, BSP 23 instead of 0, AIADMK 13 instead of 37, TMC 21 instead of 34 and so on (The Hindu, May 20, 2014). In Indian conditions, however, a total proportional representation system may not be the ideal solution. Given the vast socio-cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of India – unmatched in any other country in the world – it is only natural that people belonging to various minorities regions would want their representative to be present in the parliament. In these conditions, the best would be the adoption of a partial proportional representation system where both individual candidates and a party list can be accommodated. For instance, two Lok Sabha constituencies, as they exist today, can be combined into one with every voter having two votes – one for a specific candidate and another for a political party – which the candidate chooses on the basis of its policies and programme. While individuals may be elected on the basis of the highest vote above 50 percent of the vote polled, a political party will have its number of MPs determined by its vote share nationally. This number will be filled up in accordance with the pre-submitted priority list. Additionally, the minimum threshold of vote share to enter the parliament may be stipulated, say, two percent. Parties that poll less than this will not get any representation in the parliament on the basis of a party list, but it may have its members elected individually. This can address the problems of ‘coalition compulsions’ and eliminate the dangers of ‘blackmail’ by parties having a very small representation in parliament. The CPI(M) has all along been advocating a system of partial proportional representation whose modalities can be worked out on the basis of a consensus amongst political parties. Secondly, as noted last week, the display of money power in these elections has been unprecedented. Some weeks ago, in these columns, we had noted that even according to a conservative estimate ‘Campaign Modi’ in the media was at a cost of over a whopping Rs 10,000 crore. Additionally, money was liberally poured out to entice voters and used for many unethical purposes. Reports show that thousands of rupees were paid directly to voters in return for their votes. The Election Commission has, in fact, seized an unprecedented amount of cash, apart from liquor and other enticements during these elections. Such money power found reflection in the results. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, of the 541 winners, 442 are crorepatis in the 16th Lok Sabha – significantly more than the 300 crorepatis in the 15th Lok Sabha. These 442 MPs this time have a combined asset value (as declared in the voluntary affidavits) of over Rs 6,500 crores. The BJP leads this club with 237 MPs. The Congress has 35. The use of such money power distorts the democratic choices of the people. People are enticed to vote not in accordance with their preference for candidates based on policies, programmes etc, but in return for monetary payments. This needs to be curbed in order to improve the health of our democracy. Such a curb can only happen if the existing rule of unregulated and limitless expenditures by political parties is drastically changed. Today, there is a limit on the expenditures incurred by individual candidates, but no limit on party expenditures. The CPI(M) has always demanded that a limit be fixed on the parties’ expenditure as well. Due to the lack of this, thousands of crores of rupees are spent by political parties to finance the crisscrossing of the country by their leaders by using private jet planes and helicopters. Such money power severely undermines a level playing field for all political parties to legitimately canvass for people’s support. Smaller parties and, especially independents, with command over lesser resources are invariably marginalised in such elections. This distorts the democratic choices before the people leading to the undermining of parliamentary democracy. A major source of such finances is the limitless funding of some political parties by the corporates. This situation can only be corrected by outrightly banning corporate donations to political parties. Instead, the corporates must contribute for strengthening our democracy. Such funds should flow to a designated governmental authority like the Election Commission which, in turn, can use these funds for a programme of state funding of elections as currently done in many western democracies. The time has come to consider a comprehensive package of electoral reforms. In such a package, both these issues must find a prominent place. This is absolutely imperative to correct the distortions that are gravely distorting our democratic processes. Serious efforts must be made to ensure that such reforms are implemented. In the aftermath of these elections, newer challenges are bound to emerge, impacting upon the future of our country and our people. The struggles for safeguarding and further strengthening the secular democratic foundations of our country from all efforts that will seek to sharpen communal polarisation and, at the same time, against all measures attacking the quality of life of our people must be strengthened. The strength of these struggles will determine the shape of the future for our people and the country.