Electoral Reforms: How to Make Elections More Fair and Transparent

Democracy is the cornerstone of modern governance, providing citizens with the power to elect representatives who will govern on their behalf. However, the effectiveness and integrity of a democratic system largely depend on the electoral processes in place. Electoral reforms play a crucial role in fortifying democracy by ensuring fairness, transparency, and inclusivity

By Dr Mohan Kanda
  • Election Commission, like Achilles chasing the Tortoise, struggles against the central government’s reform reluctance, always lagging behind
  • The Electoral Reform Society, an independent campaigning organisation based in the United Kingdom, is the oldest organisation in the world
  • In some nations voting is compulsory. While in the United States, no one is required by law to vote, Australian law requires all citizens to enrol and vote
  • A Speakers’ Corner is an area where free speech, public speaking, debate, and discussion are allowed. The original, and best known, is in Hyde Park, London

“For forms of government, let fools contest; whatever is the best administered is the best”, said Alexander Pope, the English poet and satirist.

Democracy is, generally, regarded as the form that responds most effectively to that prescription. Chosen by the farsighted forefathers of the country’s polity, namely, democracy, in India, has not only survived, but flourished, and bloomed.

To ensure to their citizens, the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Countries need an institutional framework, vested with the requisite authority.

A free and fair election, conducted by an autonomous authority, is a sine qua non for ensuring that the will of the people is reflected in governance. The Election Commission of India (ECI), conducts, and regulates, elections to Parliament, state legislatures, the office of the President of India and the office of the Vice President of India. This is in the exercise of the power, and authority, of superintendence, direction and control, of elections, vested in it by the Constitution of India.

In India, the will of the country’s people has expressed itself, loudly and clearly, over the past 75 years, thanks to the Universal Franchise including votes for women, which people in many countries had to struggle for centuries to enjoy. Regular conduct of elections has helped fortify that expression.
In some nations voting is compulsory. While in the United States, no one is required by law to vote, Australian law requires all citizens to enrol and vote. The Singaporean law punishes voters who fail to vote.

ELECTORAL REFORMS: FROM SESHAN TO THE SUPREME COURT

The Electoral process in India underwent a sea change following the bold and courageous steps taken by administrators such as TN Seshan and JM Lyngdoh, notwithstanding, the need is still felt for increasing the degree of participation by the people and to reduce corruption, to strengthen the fibre of democracy, through more substantial reforms. Elections continue to be marred by frequent malpractices, such as booth capturing, rigging and violent clashes, despite the strict vigil observed by the system of Election Observers, first introduced by Seshan.

Several Committees have made recommendations, on the need for the conduct of elections in an atmosphere of transparency, and honesty, and to provide political parties with legal ways of sourcing funds. While the Wanchoo Committee recommended that the central government should finance election campaigns by political parties, the Dinesh Goswami Committee recommended that the Election Commission (EC), should fix the maximum ceiling on election expenditure. The Supreme Court of India has also ruled that persons convicted of criminal offences be disqualified from contesting elections and that, should they be members of Parliament, or a State Legislature, or a State Legislative Council, lose their membership of that House.

Also of the essence, is the rigorous implementation of the laws, and regulations in place. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for example, around 300 crores of rupees of unaccounted cash, more than 70,000 kgs of drugs and huge amounts of liquor, arms and other materials were seized. No report, however, is available, about candidates being disqualified on that count.

The shouting from the rooftops, by all political parties, and governments at the centre and the states, in favour of electoral reforms, notwithstanding, little progress has actually been registered. Then commitment, to borrow Shakespeare’s expression, to be “more honoured in the breach than the observance”.

THE DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The ECI appears to be like Achilles, in his famous race with the Tortoise, in Zeno’s paradox. No matter how hard it tries, the central government’s reluctance to move to an era of reforms always seems to be ahead!
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS), an independent campaigning organisation based in the United Kingdom, is the oldest organisation in the world, and engages, vigorously, in political, and electoral, reform.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) seeks to promote and support efficient, and sustainable, electoral processes around the world and works on clarifying, defining and promoting internationally recognised standards in election processes. It has published Codes of Conduct covering election administration, election observation and political parties campaigning in democratic elections, and guidelines for election observation.

India has recently been elected as the Chair of the Association of Asian Election Authorities (AAEA), AAEA comprises Asian Election Monitoring Bodies (EMB)s, and is an Associate Member of the Association of World Election Bodies (A – WEB)., its primary objective being to serve as a forum, in the Asian region, for sharing experiences, and best practices.

The Indian polity is perennially in an election mode, with five to seven Assembly elections happening every year, adversely affecting administrative, and developmental activities, and causing policy paralysis, and governance deficit. The Code of Conduct, of the EC, along with the attendant restrictions, only makes things worse.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for example, around 300 crores of rupees of unaccounted cash, more than 70,000 kgs of drugs and huge amounts of liquor, arms and other materials were seized. No report, however, is available, about candidates being disqualified on that count

The ECI, had, earlier, favoured simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Legislatures. Pranab Mukherjee, formerly the President of India, the Law Commission, headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Ministry of Finance, had all recommended it, as did a subsequent NITI Aayog paper.

THE PARADOXES OF THE FIRST PAST THE POST SYSTEM

Every country has the right to choose how to conduct its elections, UN Member States have, however, agreed to abide by a set of obligations, and commitments, to protect, and promote, the electoral rights of their citizens.

Several methods exist, in different countries, to ensure that the will of the people is reflected in the actions taken by the governments. While India has general elections, the laws in Switzerland, and Russia, also provide for the systems of recall and referendum. The use of a referendum has, however, not gained much popularity, nor has the recall mechanism.

In India, the system of – ‘first past the post’ is followed. In that context an allusion to an experiment known as ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’, which illustrates the principle of quantum mechanics, is useful. In it, a cat appears, simultaneously, both alive and dead, to an outside observer. Somewhat similar is the manner of election of a candidate, in general elections, in India. A candidate can be declared the winner, even after having lost the confidence of the majority of voters. If four persons are contesting an election, for example, and three of them have polled 24% each of the total votes cast, the fourth person, with 28% of the votes polled to his credit, can be declared the winner, even though 72% of the voters have favoured his opponents. Like the cat, in the experiment, being both alive and dead, at the same time, the candidate can, at once, win the election while, simultaneously, losing the confidence of the people!

Elections, in a democratic regime, require an informed electorate. The contesting candidates need to win the support of their voters. Election campaigns are, thus, vital, for ideas, and positions, to be presented to the voters, through the print and electronic media, public events, and written material. Some countries provide space, in the public media, to political parties, for that purpose.

Several methods exist, in different countries, to ensure that the will of the people is reflected in the actions taken by governments. While India has general elections, the laws in Switzerland, and Russia, also provide for the systems of recall and referendum. The use of a referendum has, however, not gained much popularity, nor has the recall mechanism

A Speakers’ Corner is an area where free speech, public speaking, debate, and discussion are allowed. The original, and best known, is in Hyde Park, London. Such areas exist in other countries as well.

ELECTION OBSERVER IN MADHEPURA PARLIAMENT CONSTITUENCY

During my service, I had several interesting experiences in the conduct of elections. It was the year 1997, and I was working as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture in the Government of India. The run-up to the general elections had begun. I was drafted for duty, as an Election Observer, of all places, in Madhepura Parliament Constituency, in northern Bihar, I must confess I made attempts to wriggle out of the situation. But, once it began, the experience turned out to be truly exciting.

In a straight fight were the two stalwarts, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Yadav. Fortunately, I had the assistance of dedicated and sincere officials in my team, which included Brahm Dutt and PK Rastogi from the Indian Administrative Service, and Ravi Mathur from the Indian Revenue Service. We were able to impose a modicum of restraint, and compliance, upon the electoral process. The one event that stands out in my memory is the counting going on, uninterrupted, overnight, apparently an unprecedented experience for that constituency. The result was also declared much earlier than ever before.

The commitment of Indian policy, to the principle that the spirit of democracy is best sustained by regular, free and fair elections, also extends to local self–government bodies, such as Panchayati Raj Institutions and Urban Local Bodies

Soon after reporting to the government of Andhra Pradesh, after my training, I joined as an Assistant Collector (under training) in Krishna district. An interesting part of that was working independently as a Block Development Officer. Elections to Gram Panchayats and (what were then known as) Panchayat Samities, were held during that period.

MY ROLE AS A RETURNING OFFICER

The commitment of the Indian polity, to the principle that the spirit of democracy is best sustained by regular, free and fair elections, also extends to local self–government bodies, such as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). In view of the sharply varying experience, not only over time, but also across states, in the matter of ensuring the proper functioning of local self-government institutions, the Government of India (GOI), in 1992, piloted legislation, in Parliament, to bring in the 73rd, and the 74th, amendments to the Constitution of India. While the 73rd Amendment empowered the state governments to take necessary steps to formalise the functioning of the PRIs and help them operate as units of self-governance, the 74th amendment had a similar objective, in respect of the ULBs.
The amendments also provided for the establishment of independent State Election Commissions, at the state level, for, the conduct of, elections to the local self-government bodies, also providing for reservation of seats, not only for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes but also for women.
It was a truly eye-opening experience, especially for a greenhorn such as I was. For the first time, I enjoyed the experience of playing an important role, in an orderly, and methodical, election process, that was typical of the state, including the dispatch of polling personnel and material, systematic and orderly conduct of the poll, return of personnel and retrieval of material, storage of the ballot boxes, and counting.

Finally, elections to the Gram Panchayats had been completed, and the day of election, to the office of the President of the Panchayat Samiti, had arrived. I, as the Returning Officer, was awaiting the arrival of the candidates.

Until then, I had only heard of the method of ‘camps’, commonly used by contestants, on such occasions. Nearly 40, out of the 50, Gram Panchayat Sarpanches had, earlier, been whisked away, by the contesting candidates, to a faraway tourist resort, somewhere in the north-western part of India. They were treated to the utmost luxuries and kept there until the date of the election. I remember standing, gaping open-mouthed, as a convoy of cars arrived at the office and the Sarpanches alighted to participate in the election. And, at the end of the day, I was left with a sum of Rs.15,000 (a small fortune in those days), to take home with me, and spend a sleepless night, with my wife and sister-in-law in attendance, equally nervous and apprehensive!

Another incident, of the same genre, dates back to 1972 when I was Sub Collector at Ongole in the Prakasam district, of Andhra Pradesh. General elections were being held, I was the Returning Officer (RO) for the Parchur Assembly constituency.

Politics has struck roots in labour unions, student unions, and professional bodies such as the Indian Medical Association, the Bar Council of India, the Institution of Engineers, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and also international organisations

It was a fiercely fought election marred by violent incidents. A ruling (Congress-I) party candidate and an independent candidate, were locked in a close contest. At the time of the counting, the Congress (I) contestant was hospitalised in Guntur town, following injuries sustained in a clash. When the counting concluded, he trailed by 250 votes, out of a total of about 50,000 and requested for a recount as provided in the electoral law. My immediate impulse was to agree to concede the request. But the situation called for a dispassionate review of the procedure and arrangements followed: The number of tables we had arranged was more than that required by the election manual, as was the number of counting assistants and supervisors. Agents of both parties were present at every counting table in the hall, as required. The Assistant Returning Officers, and I, had done a good deal more than the prescribed percentage of checking and followed the prescribed procedure punctiliously.

The ethical question, to answer, was not whether the result was accurate, but whether it had emerged from strict compliance with the procedure laid down and the precautions prescribed. My duty, as the RO, was to organise counting, not to count the votes! Feeling that all that was stipulated had been carried out, I rejected the request for a recount, through a speaking order.

The Congress (I) candidate challenged the result in the High Court, and, after a hearing, a recount was ordered by the Court. The result was the same and as a matter of fact, by a greater margin. The position I had taken had stood vindicated.

In 1990, I was posted as Secretary (Planning), of the government of Andhra Pradesh and concurrently, Secretary, ex-officio, to the Chief Minister. One morning, Ghulam Ahmed, the legendary captain of the Indian cricket team, in the 1950s, who had just retired as a Joint Secretary to the government of Andhra Pradesh, walked into my office. Wearing his characteristically charming smile, he invited me to run for Vice President of the Hyderabad Cricket Association. I tried to dodge the issue, but Ghulam Sahib was insistent. Unable to refuse to oblige a great hero of my childhood, and a gentleman in the most classical sense of the Hyderabadi tehzeeb, I acquiesced. I happened to mention the fact to Chief Minister Janardana Reddy, whose only cryptic comment was, “I only hope you will win”!

ANDHRA PRADESH’S ELECTORAL ROLLS ISSUE

Another episode occurred in 2003. I was posted as the Chief Secretary to the government of Andhra Pradesh state. Following an attack on him by extremists, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu had decided to recommend, to the Governor of the state, dissolution of the State Assembly, and request the Election Commission (EC) to hold elections ahead of the due date.

In a democratic election, lists of persons eligible to vote, electoral rolls or ‘voters lists’, are prepared much before the election and given to everyone. It is the responsibility, of the central and the state governments concerned, to ensure that the names of all eligible voters appear therein. The EC, headed, at that time by JM Lyngdoh, who was to be honoured with the Magsaysay award later, therefore, decided to turn down the request, pointing out that the elections could not be held until the intensive revision of electoral rolls, in progress at that time, was completed satisfactorily.

There followed a period of about seven months, with a caretaker government in place. The awkward responsibility, of running the state government, was, for all practical purposes, thrust upon my reluctant shoulders. Without there being, in place, a duly elected government that represented the will of the people, it was extremely difficult for a permanent administration to function effectively. However, by the grace of God, and with the active, and unstinted, cooperation of my colleagues in administration, as well as support from the caretaker cabinet, I somehow managed to wade through those testing times, more or less unscathed. In an effort to expedite matters, I visited the office of the Chief Election Commissioner in New Delhi and made a personal request to Lyngdoh to expedite the conduct of elections. We employed a warm, and friendly, relationship (beginning from our earlier Agriculture Ministry days). While Lyngdoh appreciated the embarrassment I was facing, he stuck to his position, refusing to budge.

An additional source of embarrassment, at that time, was the practice of Chandrababu Naidu, to present daily ‘progress reports’, to the people of the State. The expenditure, naturally, had to be borne by the exchequer. Though there was nothing illegal, or improper, about it, it did give room, to the opposition Congress (I) party, to criticise the wastage of public funds, to improve the image of the government, especially in view of the impending elections. What was worse, the criticism also extended to me. Rajasekhar Reddy was at the forefront of the campaign.

As things stood thus, came the sudden, and unexpected, announcement, that Parliament elections were to be held, ahead of schedule. Following that announcement, the state government, understandably, felt that the holding of simultaneous elections to Parliament and the State Assembly was a good idea. The proposal was approved in a meeting of the state cabinet. I made a formal request, to that effect, to the EC.

Rajasekhara Reddy criticised my action in print and electronic media. Feeling that I should set the record straight, I called him up and explained that administratively, and financially, simultaneous elections were desirable. Had he been in my position, I told him, he would, certainly, have acted similarly, adding that I was bound by the decision of the state cabinet, which, incidentally, suited the convenience of the administration, of which I was the head.

THE INFLUENCE OF POLITICS ON STUDENT ELECTION

The desire to lead, and the passion to serve, are not confined only to the arena of elections to public office. Politics have struck roots in labour unions, student unions, and professional bodies such as the Indian Medical Association, the Bar Council of India, the Institution of Engineers, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and also international organisations.

In most bodies, the conduct of elections, in addition to the laying down of, and ensuring compliance with, the codes of conduct of the members, is handled by the management of the body concerned. It is in respect of the student unions, however, that a good deal of thought has gone into the matter of regulating the election procedures.

The recommendations made by Lyngdoh Committee covered many areas, including insulation of the electoral process, from the entry of political parties, and criminals, ensuring regular conduct of elections, on an annual basis, fixing age limits for contesting candidates and prescribing codes of conduct, apart from laying down guidelines covering the appointment of administrators and observers

This phenomenon, of political parties entering into the fray in student elections, especially in institutions of higher education such as universities, has been causing growing concern. No doubt, a degree of competitive spirit, and a good grounding in handling administrative responsibilities and answering to the demands of accountability in elected offices are desirable. But the pernicious evil, of politics of the public arena permeating the ambience of educational institutions, is, indeed, regrettable.

THE LYNGDOH COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

Many national political parties, including the Congress (I), the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), have made dangerous inroads into the affairs of students unions. As a result, bodies such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the National Students Union of India, the Radical Students Union and the Students Federation of India have become forces to reckon with. So acute was the concern, about the issue, that the Supreme Court of India had to step in, and appoint a Committee, headed by Lyngdoh, to make necessary recommendations.

The recommendations made by that Committee covered many areas, including insulation, of the electoral process, from the entry of political parties, and criminals, ensuring regular conduct of elections, on an annual basis, fixing age limits for contesting candidates and prescribing codes of conduct, apart from laying down guidelines covering the appointment of administrators and observers.

VVPAT stands for Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, an independent paper record of an EVM, which records voting data and counters on a paper slip to verify the correct recording of voting by an EVM. Voters can also verify their votes before casting ballots, thus eliminating chances of electoral fraud and rigging

UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES

I had another interesting experience, when I served as the leader of the team of Election Observers, deputed by the EC, for the elections to the Rajya Sabha, from the Assam Legislative Assembly. Dr Manmohan Singh, then the Finance Minister of India, was one of the contestants. The election was held in the office of the Secretary of the Legislature at Guwahati. The preparatory work, the election proper, and the winding up operations had passed off smoothly.

Dr Manmohan Singh was present at the time of the declaration of the result. I treasure the moment when he, always the epitome of grace and impeccable good manners, walked across to me, shook my hands and said, “I am grateful to you for the orderly and efficient conduct of the entire process”
Strangely enough, elections to the post of office bearers in private clubs, such as the prestigious Nizam Club in Hyderabad, and the well-known Gymkhana Club in New Delhi attract the interest of very highly placed persons. Political leaders, eminent professionals, including lawyers and doctors, and senior civil servants, not merely contest, but also campaign vigorously. Among those who enlisted my support, in their campaigns, were the former Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha, and Governor of Sikkim, Sudarshan Agarwal, when he ran for the post of President of the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi and my batchmate in service AM Moheb, when he contested the election for the Presidentship of Nizam Club Hyderabad.

In 1997, while I was working as the District Collector of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh state, elections were once being held for the post of the Secretary to the Officers’ Club, of which I was the President, ex officio. Many district officials were in the fray, including a member of the judiciary. As the campaign progressed, and the date of the poll was around the corner,’ I found tempers running high, unseemly allegations being made and personal attacks being resorted to. I was constrained to intervene and restore a modicum of decency and decorum, even, at one point, going to the extent of threatening to resign from my post. Thankfully, the contestants were pacified, and unanimity was secured, without a contest having to be resorted to.

THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING EVMS

An Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), is an instrument which enables a voter to exercise franchise without using a ballot paper. The introduction of EVMs is an important measure taken by ECI to improve the level of secrecy and accuracy in the voting and the counting of votes. Being standalone machines, not connected to any network, and having no interface, EVMs it is claimed, are practically immune from hacking. VVPAT stands for Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, an independent paper record of an EVM, which records vote data and counters in a paper slip to verify the correct recording of voting by an EVM. Voters can also verify their votes before casting ballots, thus eliminating chances of electoral fraud and rigging.

In many recent elections, opposition parties attributed the defeat of their candidates to the faulty functioning of EVMs. Following the directions of the Supreme Court, and also to address the grievance of the political parties, ECI developed EVMs with a VVPAT system and tried it on a pilot basis. They are now used in all assembly and Parliament elections in India. Although ECI claims that EVMs are, fully tamper-proof, Netindia, a private company, claimed that they are susceptible to manipulation. ECI, however, has categorically stated that such misleading allegations are based on hypothetical theories and imagination and do not take into consideration the multiple layers of security enforced by it on the storage and safety of EVMs and VVPATs.

EVALUATING THE NEED FOR POLITICAL SYMBOLS

In India, political parties are identified, on ballot papers, by their name, and a pictorial symbol. Symbols, allocated by the ECI, help a large percentage of illiterate voters to identify the party they want to vote for. A symbol, assigned to a party designated as a national party, cannot be used by other parties in the country. The Supreme Court has, in fact, endorsed the need for symbols, saying that although voters in India are conscious of their political duty, many of them are illiterate. They need to quickly understand who their candidate is and vote secretly. At times bizarre requests are made to the EC. As an example. In 2013, for example, the opposition Congress in Madhya Pradesh asked the ECI to ‘hide’ lotus ponds in Maha Kaushal, Malwa and Bundelkhand regions, so that voters are not unfairly drawn to the BJP symbol! The BJP, in its turn, asked the Congress workers whether they would cover their hands as the ‘hand’ is the symbol of their party!

At the time of the country’s first general election, nearly seventy percent of the population could not even read the candidates’ names. Understandably, the need for a symbol was keenly felt then. But symbols still exist, despite a significant increase in literacy. Now these symbols have become a brand of consumer goods, and political parties have become very sensitive about them. Because of this, and political ego, each faction spends a good deal of time, money and energy to get the original symbol allotted to it, and fights tooth and nail for it, in the event of a split in the party. The Congress has won elections, despite changing the symbol twice. The BJP, which has abandoned the Panati (small earthen oil lamp) symbol and has adopted the lotus, is today the ruling party at the national level.

In 2013 the opposition Congress, in Madhya Pradesh, asked the ECI to ‘hide’ lotus ponds in Maha Kaushal, Malwa and Bundelkhand regions so that voters are not unfairly drawn to the BJP symbol! The BJP, in its turn, asked the Congress workers whether they would cover their hands as the ‘hand’ is the symbol of their party!

The parties will, therefore, be well advised, to spend a little amount of money, and energy, in popularising, and promoting their new symbols. It is also time all political parties thought about how much longer the practice of symbols should be persisted, seeing how seventy-five years have passed since independence, with literacy rates having gone up significantly, and social, and traditional, media having spread their reach to every nook and corner of the country.

Before we end this piece, here is a story about a former mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, USA. While campaigning for his re-election, he visited a popular bar and paid for a woman’s drink. The woman thanked him and asked why a stranger should have bought her a beer. “I am running for mayor”, the candidate explained, “and I want your vote”.

“You got it”, the woman said, grabbing and accepting the proffered glass, and continued, “Anyone’s better than the jerk who’s in there now!

Mohan Kanda

Dr Mohan Kanda is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. In his long and distinguished career, he served in various capacities at the State as well as at the Centre including Chief Secretary of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India. He has authored several books including ‘Ethics in Governance - Resolution of Dilemmas - with case studies’

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