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Saturday, April 26, 2003

On April 8, the Rajya Sabha approved the Bill which seeks to remove the residential requirement for election to the Upper House from a state, and provides for open ballot, so that party leaderships can ensure election of their nominee. Predictably, this legislation (Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2001) has raised several questions about representation and attracting talent into legislatures.

Critics argue that this Bill violates our federal character. Rajya Sabha is the Council of States, and permitting non-residents to represent a state in the Upper House denies the state legitimate representation. However, major parties including BJP and Congress support this Bill. They argue that parties need talented and respected people in Parliament and government. Election to Lok Sabha is often not dependant on the merit or  competence of a candidate. The party's support base in the state, local caste and other factors, and the candidate's money power play a significant, and very often a decisive, role. With domiciliary requirements, desirable candidates are forced to go through the farcical process of registering themselves as voters in a state where they do not reside, and resort to undignified subterfuge. Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Karan Singh, Venkaiah Naidu and many other major public figures had to be elected in this manner. Therefore, supporters of the Bill contend, it is better to do away with the residential requirement. The fear of parties nominating all members representing a state from outside is largely hypothetical. Political realities and local sentiments being what they are, parties will nominate only a few senior functionaries for election from another state, and such a flexibility is needed to strengthen legislature and council of ministers.

Regarding open ballot, critics argue that it violates a fundamental democratic principle. But supporters argue that secret ballot in Rajya Sabha election has only led to selling of votes to the highest bidder, and party discipline is breaking down. For over two decades, money has been changing hands in Rajya Sabha elections. Sometimes parties are paying their own MLAs to vote for the official party nominees! In a South Indian state, it is widely believed that a businessman spent over Rs 40 crores in two elections, once unsuccessfully, to be elected to Rajya Sabha! In several states, secrecy of ballot has been violated by ingenious methods in order to combat vote-buying. For instance, each MLA is given a unique order of preference (which serves as a code for the MLA) while voting for the party candidates. If six candidates of the party contest, there could be 720 such unique permutations! If the MLA assigned a permutation strays, such defiance can be detected by the absence of any ballot containing the unique order (code) allotted to him! Given these realities, the argument goes, it is better to give up secrecy.

All these argument favouring and opposing the Bill do not address the real crisis affecting our legislatures. The problem is elsewhere, and neither status quo nor the proposed changes will solve it. Our elections have become big business. Only those willing to, and capable of, spending vast and unaccounted sums illegitimately have a realistic chance of being elected to Lok Sabha or State Assemblies in most cases. Highly competent and respected citizens are repelled by this process, and turn their backs to politics. And in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system we have adopted, a party or candidate with significant, but scattered support base has no chance of being elected. Only concentrated support base ensures representation. Such a system perpetuates feudal fiefdoms and oligopoly of a few castes and money power. It is high time we considered proportional representation (PR) as a method of election to overcome these distortions. Even Britain, the mother of FPTP system, has switched over to PR in regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and for elections to European Parliament. What is more, our constitution does not bar PR. In 1952 and 1957, we had constituencies with 2 or 3 members to accommodate reservations. Article 329 provides for allocation of members to territorial constituencies. All we need is multi-member constituencies with several members, and election of party candidates on proportionality principle, or in the order of votes obtained.

As long as competent and public-spirited candidates cannot be elected to the Lower House by fair means, the demand for Rajya Sabha nominations will continue to grow. The present Bill will only enhance the bargaining position of the party leaderships, and jack up the price for a party nomination! Removal of residential requirement and voting secrecy is  a short-term, knee-jerk response to a complex crisis. Party leaderships will become more powerful and less accountable by these amendments.  We need to switch over to PR with reasonable threshold norms for party representation and democratic choice of party nominees, in order to facilitate election of decent candidates to the Lower House with their honour and dignity intact.

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