Elections! Ten Questions That Need Answers
The Indian General Election of 2014 was a landmark of sorts from the point of expense, war of words, hate speeches, administrative biases, disregard of issues at the altar of personalities, et al. The situation requires a serious look at the electoral system of the country to make representative democracy function better.'
1. Who funds the political parties?
The People’s Representation Act needs a thorough overhaul. Along with the other conditions on poll expenses of political parties, a major requirement that should be imposed on every party is to give evidence-driven statements of who all have funded their election expenses, whether incurred by the parties or their candidates. Full statements, with payments and expenses details, need to be submitted to the Election Commission and cross verified on a weekly basis by competent authorities under the supervision of the Election Commission.
2. Why should not the expenses of political parties be capped?
Currently we have a cap on the expenses of the candidates in an election. For example, it is Rs.70 lacs for a Lok Sabha candidate in most seats and some Rs.50 lacs in smaller border constituencies of India. However, this is an ineffective cap as candidates pass of a substantial amount of the expense of electioneering to the political parties, especially the regional rallies, common posters, banners, literature, advertisements in TV, radio, print or online for the party as a whole. On the ‘common party expenses’, there is strangely no cap in the current law, unlike in most of the European countries! As in some nations, there can be an aggregate cap on the average expenses of a party and its candidates per constituency.
3. Why do you need double identity verifications for voting?
In spite of valid citizenship/ adhar/ voters’ identity card, millions this time could not vote as their names were not in the voters’ list or did not get election-specific voters’ cards. In a nation on 1.2 billion with almost 810 million voters, online voters’ records and one acceptable identity should be enough. This reduces harassment of the voters. Interestingly, people like leading banker Deepak Parekh could not vote in the same booth where he had been voting for years on this issue.
4. Why are not the national parties given a fixed time to present their agenda through national broadcasters? Why is no stringent and quick action taken on cases of paid media, and no action at all against political parties on this?
Earlier, in our younger days, I found fixed time given for the national parties to put forth their agenda if elected before the electorate through the national broadcasters, which is not the case now. And, campaign through the media has become a market commodity, being available to the highest bidder.
Paid media, political advertorials, and rampant unbridled high-cost political advertisements every second minute could be seen in most channels and every day in newspapers this time around. No action worth its salt was taken on the report of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and others on paid media submitted to the Press Council of India. It is heartening to note that some courts have taken cognizance of the use of paid media by candidates, though verdicts delivered and action taken on them needs to be examined. And the paid media phenomenon should not only be candidate specific, but also party specific in today’s electoral context. Not a single candidature has been cancelled on this ground though even first time voters know of this malice.
5. Why is the EC weak in cases of hate speeches?
There have been several cases of hate speeches which point fingers at a section of the electorate on the basis of caste, religion, language or political belief, and even extol violence against them. From Amit Shah, to Azam Khan, to Praveen Togadia, to Giriraj Singh, and even to Narendra Modi( in the North-east): such utterances have met with selective action by the EC and in some cases no action at all. The law needs to be more stringent, competent and unambiguous in such cases.
6. Why waste the resources of the nation by people allowing the same person to contest from more than one seat?
It is but natural and a legal necessity that if a person contesting from more than one seat wins from at least two or more seats, he has to leave all except one.This is a bad precedent, wasteful in terms of resources and popular peace and participation, and hence the law needs to be amended to make a person contest from a maximum of one seat only.
7. Why not make the agenda or manifesto announcement by every political party contesting an election a compulsory act within fifteen days of the announcement of the polls?
In the absence of any law to this effect, political parties have made their manifestoes and promises a matter of convenience to build personality cults and allow a war of words to take precedence. In fact the irrelevance of manifestoes was demonstrated in these parliamentary elections, with a national party announcing its manifesto on the first day of the elections.
8. Why have the laws of the land been applied differently for different parties or candidates taking benefit of ambiguities?
There were enough cases in these polls to show that while a blatant hate speech by a leader has gone unpunished, a candidate somewhere has been booked and even jailed for using two mikes in place of one as permitted. Questions have been asked and cadres harassed on the number of vehicles and routes of rallies etc of some parties and candidates, whereas no questions asked when a city has been paralyzed due to mega buck rallies of a few larger parties. The law regarding campaign and the guidelines issued on this must be unambiguous and should neither turn a blind eye to violations nor be over zealous to deny basic democratic rights of a party or candidate.
9. Why no details of criminal and civil cases and acquiring of movable and immovable property are asked while filing of nomination papers?
While it is appreciable to note that details of cases and property are asked in the nomination forms, there are no ways of acquiring details of the nature of cases (political and non-serious or false versus serious criminal cases), and the ways and means of acquiring the said property (notional versus actual property, differences in property values between two elections contested by the same candidate, etc).
10. What can be done about these opinion polls and long-drawn poll-schedules?
All opinion polls being written about and shown on television should be strictly stopped two days before the first date of polls and only taken up after the end of the entire poll schedule. Further, all polls must carry their methodology, sample size, margin of error and other related details invariably when being aired or written about. And, poll dates with just two to fifty seats could have been avoided and clubbed together. Perhaps a nation with 810 million voters and 543 Lok Sabha seats can easily vote in a maximum of 4 to 5 rounds and all within two to three weeks to cut short uncertainty, lame-duck governance, probability of violence and wastage of resources at all levels.
Other important issues need to be looked into as well: similar looking election symbols and similar sounding names to be avoided in the same ballot/EVM machine. Clearing of election materials and debris out of them should be made compulsory clearance by the parties and candidates or heavily fined.
(Professor Ujjwal.K.Chowdhury is a senior education and media consultant)