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Saturday, August 7, 2004

Last month, the Election Commission (EC) sent a ‘roadmap’ of proposals to the Prime Minister, aimed at cleaning up the stains of corruption and criminalization from the electoral process.  Apparently, the EC hopes to bring at least some proposals into practice, before the Maharashtra elections are held later this year.  These efforts could prove to be the first steps towards cleaner, better and more genuine politics.

And these days, the near-daily news on arrest warrants and bails for prominent politicians, some of them even Ministers in the Union Cabinet, is keeping alive the debate on criminals and politics. Phrases like ‘tainted ministers’ have now entered our staple vocabulary.

One issue is on the mind of every concerned voter: do murderers, scamsters and mafia dons have the right to contest elections under the cover of ‘innocent-until-proved-guilty’?  The law that we now have in place is so absurd that the murderers of Rajiv Gandhi could have contested elections (if they chose to) between 1991, when they assassinated the former PM and 1998, when they were convicted.  Let me remind you that the right to stand in elections is not a fundamental right given to all citizens.  It is only a legal one.  Holding a public office is nobody’s birthright.  Furthermore, if there is a clash between the people’s right to have good representation and an individual’s right to represent the people, then the society’s right should have precedence.

Aiming to filter out the corrupt and the criminal, the EC’s reforms-roadmap proposes the barring of all persons against whom courts have framed chargesheets, at least six months prior to the announcement of election dates.  It is important to note that unlike the filing of a case against a person, chargesheeting by a court presumes the application of judicial mind.  Even then, the EC proposals are rather too strict.  Why so? Because, our policing and the prosecuting agencies are routinely subjected to intense political pressures - it is not too difficult to harass a genuine candidate with false cases.  As a matter of fact, in India, a majority of accused who are charge-sheeted in criminal cases are, later, actually acquitted by the courts.

But we have a way out:  in 2002, the then Union Government drafted a Bill providing for the disqualification of only those persons facing extremely grave charges such as waging war against India (section 121 of IPC), murder (section 302), abduction (sections 364 and 364A), rape (section 376), dacoity (sections 395 and 396) and dealing in narcotics. But this bill failed to get passed, for want of political consensus.  The Parliament needs to act on this measure right away.  Then we can purge our politics of at least some of the most undesirable elements.

Among its nearly two-dozen proposals, the EC’s has also mentioned the concept of ‘none of the above’ option for the voters along with the list of candidates in the ballot.  Apparently, the EC wants to explore the possibility of some kind of a re-poll, if a large majority among the voters in a constituency opt for none of the candidates standing in an election.  When the same idea was proposed by the EC just before the April-May general elections, our lawmakers rejected it, citing the possibility of undermining of the legitimacy of the elected candidates.  However, the ‘none of the above’ voting concept has some validity.  Especially because it offers us citizens the potential to exert ‘moral persuasion and pressure’ on the parties to nominate better candidates.

As some of you might have correctly noted, these “band-aid” solutions do not address the deeper, systemic diseases afflicting our electoral, political and governance processes.  As of today, the ‘winnability’ is defined as a candidate’s ability to secure a plurality of votes, even if by employing caste and group clout or money and muscle power.  As long as our elections rest on this definition, any epidermal changes to the rules would, at best, result in only marginal improvement in the quality of candidates nominated and elected.  That is precisely why, our lawmakers must also work towards providing a robust justice delivery mechanism and eliminating political interference over the investigating and prosecuting arms of the government.  Otherwise, our highly perverted electoral system keeps promoting hardened criminals, money launderers, caste leaders and modern feudal lords into legislative and executive positions of influence, election after general election.

India certainly deserves better.  What India needs are fundamental electoral and political reforms that can cut right through the thicket of symptomatic problems and reach out to the heart of the systemic problems.  We need these changes immediately and urgently.  Fortunately, the political developments in the recent months have been remarkably able to focus everyone’s attention on the need for such core improvements.  The Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy is right:  this is a historic opportunity.  Let us make full use of it.

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