Five reforms which are absolutely necessary to make our electoral system work efficiently


The achievements of our electoral democracy have been many. However, just like any other system, it too requires reform to face the various challenges thrown up in front of it. Read this article to know about five such reforms.

India, by now, can be called a mature democracy. After all, we started this journey way back in 1952. But even after all these years, electoral democracy in India is not without its demerits. Some of these demerits are purely legal. However, in most cases, the defects can only be removed only if the people are aware enough to demand reform. In this context, several suggestions for reforms have been put forward at various times. This article tries to understand some of these proposed reforms.

State funding of elections

Perhaps the biggest problem that Indian electoral democracy faces is that of providing a level playing field to all parties, whether big or small. Bigger parties, with their pool of financial resources, invariably have an unfair advantage over smaller parties. Surely, in a true democracy, this cannot be the case.

The suggestion of state funding of elections has been put forward in this context. The demand is actually quite old. Even a committee under Indrajit Gupta was formed to investigate the demand. In its report, the committee mentioned that there is 'full justification' of state funding of elections '…on grounds of public interest.' However, considering the financial situation of the country, financial support was to be provided only to state and national parties. Also, the support was to be provided in kind, and not in cash. Consecutive governments have slept on the report without taking any step to implement any of its recommendations.

State funding of elections is a costly affair. Also, several steps need to be taken before this reform is initiated. For example, the Law Commission in 1999 said that before implementing state funding of elections, the political parties must become more transparent. They should be open to auditing through independent agencies so as to prevent supplementary funding from other sources. But the potential benefits are expected to be great as well. Smaller parties with meagre financial resources will be able to successfully contest elections. The politician-businessman nexus will also take a hit.

More intra-party democracy

Even though India is the largest democracy in the world, the Indian political parties themselves do not have any democracy within themselves. This may seem contradictory but look at the major parties in India. The Congress, since 1969, has become more or less a family-run club. I am not saying that the Congress leaders were not talented enough. But if there would have been greater intra-party democracy, maybe even better leaders may have come up. Even the BJP which seeks to denounce Congress' lack of intra-party democracy is not clean from the charge. Since its inception in 1980, the post of President of the party has been invariably decided by consensus, rather than freely contested elections.

What is even more appalling is the control exercised by the top party bosses over the state-level units. Take the selection of the Chief Minister as an example. Before 1969, in case of the Congress, the state level units proposed the name of the CM and the central leadership rarely disagreed. With Indira exercising complete control over party affairs post-1969, Congress gradually shed its democratic character. Other parties quietly followed in its footsteps. Nowadays, even the selection of electoral candidates is done by the party bosses.

To solve this, efforts have to be taken by the parties themselves. For starters, the selection of election candidates can be democratized. Let the grassroots party workers decide who should be the party candidate from their constituency, through a secret ballot. Let the central leadership stay away from the selection of the CM candidate. The selection of the candidate for Prime Minister can be similarly democratized. Obviously, it would be very helpful if independent overseers can superintend these intra-party elections. This might end up reducing the influence of money and muscle power to a great extent.

Bring in Proportional Representation

Do you know that in India, the number of seats won by parties in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies is not proportional to the percentage of votes secured by them? This happens because of the system of voting in the country, known as the plurality system or the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. Under this system, a candidate does not need to secure the majority of the votes in the constituency. He or she only needs to secure more votes than the other candidates from that constituency. Due to this, in almost every major constituency in India, the MPs and MLAs do not even represent the mandate of the majority of the constituency.

At the national level, the voting system produces even more skewed outcomes. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress secured almost 75% Lok Sabha seats in 1984 without securing even half of the votes. The trend has continued. The FPTP system was needed in the initial few years after independence to provide the much-needed stability during those tumultuous times. This is because the larger parties are offered an additional advantage, resulting in clear majorities. However, the FPTP has now outlived its utility. We have seen numerous coalition governments despite this system. On the other hand, parties which do not enjoy the support of even half of the population are dictating policies for the whole nation. This is unfair in the extreme and it must change.

As a replacement for the FPTP, we have the option of bringing in the Proportional Representation (PR) system. There are numerous variants of PR, but in each of these, parties secure seats in proportion to their vote share. To prevent unstable governments in a country as large as India, a special adjustment is required. The 170th Report of the Law Commission provides that. It proposes that the number of Lok Sabha seats be increased by 25%. The earlier seats will continue to have the FPTP system, but the new seats will have a PR system. This might help in reducing the chances of instability while producing more representative governments.

Abolish caste-based appeals

This is a defect of the Indian society at large which has now entered the political arena as well. We have caste-based political parties, like the Bahujan Samaj Party for the Dalits and the Samajwadi Party for the middle castes (i.e. the OBCs). In almost every election and in most constituencies, caste is very much the hottest topic among the voters. Some might argue that it has helped in the empowerment of the erstwhile 'lower' castes. But beneath a thin veneer, the truth is quite different. The capturing of power by some so-called 'lower'-caste leaders does not mean the development of these depressed castes as a whole. In fact, the influence of caste in politics has, in fact, played an extremely negative role by constantly reminding us of our caste identities. In the selection of candidates for a particular constituency (the reserved constituencies are not the subject here), the caste of the electorate is always considered. Even in awarding ministerial positions, rather than looking at the capability of a particular individual to handle the post, it is his or her caste or region that seems to play the decisive role. Obviously, no law in the world can help us end this if we are not willing to change ourselves.

Vote for the candidate, not the party

My last point relates to a factor that is often reiterated, but very rarely implemented. While choosing who should represent our constituency in the parliament, we instinctively, almost as a reflex action, look at the major parties, either Congress or BJP or DMK or AIADMK etc. I won't talk about the other regions. In my own home constituency of Guwahati, this time around, both BJP and Congress have fielded candidates who, at best, can be described as 'lightweight'. Standing up against them as an independent candidate is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court who has run a decade-long campaign for the rights of indigenous people.

Yet, who will win this election in this constituency? Almost everyone is talking in terms of BJP and Congress and almost no one in terms of the merits of the individual candidates. Voters need to be aware of the need to elect quality representatives, who can present the case of their constituency effectively in front of the government, someone who is a good enough orator to participate in the parliamentary debates and someone who is honest enough to put the MPLAD money into proper use. Looking at the party affiliation is counter-productive if we want development of our constituency.

Conclusion

What have been our achievements as an electoral democracy? We have received some really talented leaders out of this very system – Nehru, Vajpayee, Parrikar, Manik Sarkar etc. Yet, reform and change are essential for any system to cope with changing times. Can reform be initiated through legislation? Maybe, it can happen. But expecting politicians to enact laws that would limit their own power is foolish. And looking back at this article, only the reform relating to the FPTP system can be brought about completely through legislation. The rest of the reforms will have to be the culmination of progressive voter awareness.


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