KERALA: Reform Election Laws to Curb Political Corruption

Bipin Chandran

ALL the proposals to bring state assembly elections in alignment with the Lok Sabha election reveal a disregard for the federal principle and the rights of the states, said Pinarayi Vijayan, Polit Bureau member of CPI(M) and Kerala chief minister, while inaugurating the day-long seminar on election reforms. The conference organised by the AKG Padana Gaveshana Kendram, was presided over by Kodiyeri Balakrishnan CPI(M) Kerala state secretary. Polit Bureau member S Ramachandran Pillai delivered the key note address. The conference was also addressed by A Vijayaraghavan, Party Central Committee member and Thiruvananthapuram district committee secretary Anavoor Nagappan.

To hold the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections together would require tampering with the constitutional scheme of accountability of the government to the legislature. Article 75 (3) states that the collective responsibility of the council of ministers is to the house of the people.  Similarly, Article 164 (1) concerning the council of ministers states that it is collectively responsible to the legislative assembly of the state.  Vijayan also called upon the people to squarely reject the proposal to organise elections to state assemblies and the parliament simultaneously.

“India is a vast country with myriad diversities and only a federal set-up can sustain political democracy. Having elections in states at different times is one aspect of the federal system,” Vijayan said adding that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is, therefore, totally opposed to any artificial attempt to bring about simultaneous elections which can only be done by trampling upon the existing constitutional scheme of parliamentary democracy.

The issue of electoral reforms assumes great urgency, particularly in the light of the impending general elections and several assembly elections.   For quite some time, particularly with RSS/BJP in power and with the full might of top Indian corporates rallying behind Modi’s prime ministership, the influence of funds available to political parties, especially at the time of elections, is making a huge impact, said S Ramachandran Pillai while delivering the key note address.  The funds available to BJP are massive; and it is creating a totally non-level playing field for electoral battles.  Communist Party of India (Marxist) stands for partial State funding of elections as recommended by Indrajit Gupta Committee. 

“What is assuming major significance is the issue of corruption and corporate control; the political party-corporates nexus that is driving political processes is ultimately undermining democracy.  There is a need to fix the upper limit for the election related expenses that parties can undertake,” SRP said.

He pointed out that with the loopholes in regulation, astronomical amounts are being spent, particularly by the BJP. Besides, the actual spending and contributions will not even be available for comparison once the new electoral bonds come into operation.  The new amendments allow foreign funding, and unlimited and anonymous funding.

Through electoral bonds, donations of corporates to political parties are completely concealed from public scrutiny.  The Income Tax Act and Representation of the People Act also stand amended; thereby, the political parties need not declare their source of the donations through electoral bonds.  So, instead of ensuring transparency in political funding, through this amendment, a route is provided for large-scale donations through electoral bonds which will be kept anonymous and secret.  This is tantamount to legalising political corruption. All corporate contributions to political parties and candidates must be totally banned.  If at all, corporates can contribute money to a fund supervised by the Election Commission of India which can provide public funding for parties during elections.

Earlier, in the union budget, an amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was made through the Finance Bill.  That was meant to treat contributions by Indian subsidiaries of foreign companies as Indian source of funds.  Now, as per the latest measure, multinational companies can contribute funds to political parties through electoral bonds and all such contributions are kept out of public scrutiny.  This will have serious impact on the democratic polity and sovereignty of the country. 

These latest amendments will increase the role of money power in favour of parties and candidates who favour pro-corporate policies. These amendments will strengthen the control of the corporates not only in economy but also in the politics of the country.  This will have disastrous consequences to the democratic polity of the country.

We should aggressively build up a platform for rolling back these changes and introduce major State funding to be regulated transparently by the ECI.  The Party has filed a petition in the Supreme Court on the changes; but what is needed is a public opinion building exercise.  

Money power is disturbing the level-playing field and vitiating the whole process of free and fair elections which is the essential feature of a democratic polity.  It is an undeniable fact that financial superiority translates into electoral advantage and so parties and candidates who have better financial resources have a greater chance of winning elections.  There is widespread prevalence of black money, bribery and quid-pro-quo corruption and this helps candidates fund their campaign.  An analysis of the assets of candidates of 2014 Lok Sabha election reveal that 27 per cent (2,208 candidates) of all the candidates were “Crorepati candidates” and the percentage of “Crorepati candidates” increased from 16 per cent in 2009 elections. 

The Law Commission of India Report on Electoral Reforms noted another impact of the unregulated or under regulated election financing: “Unregulated, or under-regulated, election financing leads to two types of capture: the first involves cases where the industry/private entities use money to ensure less stringent regulation, and the money used to finance elections eventually leads to favourable policies.  The second involves cases of “deeper capture”, where through their disproportionate and self-serving influence; corporations capture not just regulators, but also the views of ordinary citizens and what they think of as “public interest”.

The first-the-post system, which has continued since our first election, is proving to be increasingly outmoded in reflecting popular opinion with increasing disjuncture between popular votes polled by political parties and the number of seats they secure in legislatures.

Partial Proportional Representation has emerged as an urgent question with the genesis of our political/electoral system and the new reality for the basis of representation.  In the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, there can be discrepancy in vote share and seat share.  The other defect of the FPTP is that in some constituencies, the winning candidate wins with only 20 or 30 per cent of the total votes polled.  There are also instances where parties enjoying significant vote share fail to get the proportionate share of seats and parties with lesser vote share get more seats. No party has ever won more than half of the seats in parliament with a vote share of just 31 per cent as in the case of the 2014 Lok Sabha election.  The Congress secured 19.3 per cent of votes and 44 seats.  While in 2009, the BJP secured 18.5 per cent of the votes, but won 116 seats. In Uttar Pradesh, BSP got 20 per cent of votes but did not win a single seat. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK and its allies garnered 27 per cent of votes but got no seats.  In Odisha, the Congress got 26 per cent of votes but no seats, while the BJP got 22 per cent votes and won one seat.  In West Bengal, the Left Front got nearly 30 per cent votes but won only two seats. 

Proportional representation system will ensure that the election results are as proportional as possible between vote share and seats won. In order to find solution to the shortcomings and weaknesses in the present FPTP system, the electoral system in India should change to a hybrid pattern combining both FPTP system and proportional representation system.

One of the Law Commission recommendations suggest that while the existing 543 seats of the Lok Sabha continue to be filled through direct elections, the number of seats in the Lok Sabha be increased by additional 25 per cent or 136 seats which are filled by proportional representation following the list system.  A similar expansion should take place in the state assemblies as well. This can be tried in the first phase; subsequently the share of seats in the proportional representation system can be expanded.

The question of accountability and transparency in the functioning of political parties is greatly agitating the public mind. This issue cannot be addressed through voluntary actions; but needs to be regulated by appropriate statutory provisions.

Accountability and transparency of political parties on matters of funding is of paramount importance to cleanse the political system and restore the confidence of the people. In this context, the assets of the candidate/spouse and dependent children also need to be provided in the public domain. 

Introducing internal democracy and transparency within the political parties is also important to promote financial accountability, reduce corruption and improve democratic functioning and electoral accountability of the country as a whole, SRP said. But there should not be any intervention from any authorities in the functioning or ideology of the parties.  The relevant recommendations made by the Law Commission can be tried as broad guidelines.

In order to avail exemption from income tax, political parties should fulfill the following conditions: (1) Party should keep and maintain books of accounts and other documents (2) Name, address and PAN of persons who contributed more than Rs 20,000 (3) Accounts of political parties should be audited by a Chartered Accountant (4) Furnish details of the contributions above Rs 20,000 to Election Commission (5) Submit the return and statement of accounts to the Income Tax department  before the stipulated date every year. A copy of this statement must be forwarded to the Election Commission of India.

The Election Commission can deregister a political party only if its registration was obtained by fraud; or if a party amends its internal constitution and notifies the Election Commission that it can no longer abide by the Indian Constitution.  There is also no power for the Election Commission of India to deregister a party if it continues to avail tax benefit under Section 13 A of the Income Tax Act without contesting elections.  Hence the Representation of the People Act needs to be amended to empower the ECI to deregister a political party which does not contest elections for ten years.

While there is no doubt that the Election Commission of India, being an independent Constitutional authority, is best suited to act as the regulator, this role would be impossible to discharge without sufficient and appropriate statutory empowerment, he said.

But, at the same the independence and autonomy of the ECI will have to be tempered with the need for its accountability. There is a great concern over the recent conduct and erosion of non-partisan credibility of the Election Commission of India.  This has become so pronounced that even some of the former Chief Election Commissioners have openly expressed their concern.

The independence and autonomy of the Election Commission is a key to strengthen its role as an independent constitutional body. But, without checks and balances, that could lead to imbalance. Therefore, accountability to the larger electorate, the people of this country is a necessary prerequisite.

Elucidating the stand of CPI(M) on reforming EC, SRP also said, for this, institutional changes are required. The first issue is the appointment of commissioners. Apart from the executive, the legislature and the judiciary must be involved in the selection process in a manner that the executive does not have sweeping powers. Secondly, since these commissioners are generally former bureaucrats, these appointments are being seen as a post retirement benefit, they are amenable to influence of the incumbent executive. Thirdly, the independence of the ECI over officials is limited to the stipulated period of elections and they are not insulated from post poll reprisal. This question also needs to be addressed. Besides, there should be cool off years for these officials before they take up other positions.

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