India needs poll reforms

LUCKNOW — If substance really matters more than style, and surely that it does, there can be little doubt that the 63-year old former top bureaucrat and now the formidable Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi is a man of much substance.

By Anand Sagar

Published: Fri 24 Feb 2012, 11:14 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:58 AM

And to his credit, as he minutely overlooks the mammoth task of managing India’s complex electoral process, which has the distinction of being the world’s largest such activity involving a liberal democracy, Quraishi prefers to pursue a policy of quiet persuasion rather than exert raw pressure to ensure that Indian elections remain both free and fair… How else, he asks rhetorically, will we ever get the government we really deserve?

But, Quraishi, who spoke to Khaleej Times for nearly an hour from his residence in New Delhi on Saturday, is willing to admit: “Of course, we do have several pressing concerns which need to be both recognised and addressed by the federal government firmly and on a priority basis.”

Unusually, for a man in his position, he is also willing to admit that “elections in India have unfortunately become the fountainhead of much corruption…given the brazen induction of criminals or those with criminal antecedents into the political system and the rampant use of money power by those who are in the fray.”

And, in his view, which is now increasingly being backed by very many in many spheres, these are the two most crucial issues which have to be tackled immediately “if we want to continue to retain the legitimacy and credibility of our country’s electoral process.” But, he asserts, for this to happen “what is required is the political will and a certain minimum level of consensus amongst the various national and regional political parties to ensure that both these evils are combated and curbed effectively.”

Also, what is equally imperative, Quraishi told the KT, is that the government agrees to a raft of electoral reforms as has been suggested repeatedly by the Election Commission over the years. However, he says, “I am now both optimistic and hopeful that these would be initiated during the parliament’s budget session beginning next month.”

His optimism is also well anchored in the fact that, “following some of my initiatives, especially those regarding my emphasis on widespread voters’ education, India is now witnessing a ‘participation revolution’ and that augurs well for the future of Indian democracy.

Not surprisingly, he feels, given the evaporating ‘indifference’ of the Indian electorate, “the best is yet to come… for then, the will of the people will really be reflected in the governments we elect. And what is more, they will then be still more accountable to the people who elect them to power. That is the very essence of all good democracies.”

Excerpts from the interview:

KHALEEJ TIMES: Is there really the political will to push through the kind of electoral reforms that you suggest are so necessary to ensure that elected governments become more responsive and accountable to those who vote them into power?

S Y Quraishi: I do presume that there is. And, incidentally, we have been given a categorical assurance by the Law Minister that the union government will take up our shortlist of 22 key electoral reforms during the parliament’s budget session next month.

Which of these suggestions in your opinion need to be taken up and tackled on an absolutely priority basis?

Firstly, decriminalisation of politics, which is actually a long-pending issue, which requires an Act of Parliament and which faces the strongest opposition from various political parties. But it is a safeguard which has to be put in place to keep out those facing charges of having committed heinous crimes like murder, rape, dacoity, kidnapping etc. But, yes, I agree that there is some logic to the opposition to this demand — as it may lead to some false, frivolous, and politically motivated litigation. But that can easily be sorted out and codified to ensure that the innocent do not suffer from being able to exercise their fundamental rights. Also, we are suggesting that such cases should be filed at least six months before the polls and charges framed by a court of law accordingly. Secondly, where political funding is concerned all payments to and expenditures by a political party should only be by cheque, be properly audited by an EC-approved chartered accountant, and duly uploaded every year on the party’s website to ensure full financial transparency. Obviously, both these proposals have caused some unease in political circles.

Given this “unease” what then is the solution?

You see what we have been witnessing for the past few years is what I would call a competitive criminalisation of politics as well as competitive use of money power. Both these trends need to be combated and curbed effectively. And, for once, even the political parties are beginning to realise this. How best it can be contained is the question and we are determined to do just that the best we can.

Do you really think that given this political scenario in India…that the people really get the government they deserve?

Well, my answer has to be a bit of a yes and a no. Yes, because the governments that do come to power are elected governments. But then the anomaly, often, is that because of a low electorate turnout some undesirable elements do get voted into power by low margins and distort the mandate. The solution is greater voters’ education—an area in which I have taken a number of initiatives which are now beginning to show some striking positive results. And by that I mean we are already witnessing a ‘participation revolution’ — even in the ongoing, seven-phase, state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh where you are right now.

Is compulsory voting desirable? And what about giving the voters the right to recall and/or the right to reject as is the case in some other leading democracies?

Compulsory voting to me is somewhat a contradiction in terms — you cannot exercise force in a democracy. Regarding the right to recall…absolutely no. Continuing elections will lead to election fatigue and, in turn, destabilise the country. But the voters’ right to reject a particular/or all candidates is an interesting idea and it may actually be possible to implement it in some form.

Has the rather recent country-wide Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign helped in any way in restoring some faith in electoral politics?

As I have said, I agree that elections in India have become the fountainhead of much corruption in our polity and public life. The best way to counter it is to introduce electoral reforms, increase inner-party democracy and financial transparency, rationalise the ceiling on poll expenditure in consultation with political parties, and further facilitate the voting process to ensure a larger electorate turnout.

What about your suggestions regarding strengthening the Election Commission? Some specifics?

Since 1993 the EC has become a multiple-member Commission and although the Chief Election Commissioner cannot arbitrarily be removed by the government, the same constitutional protection should be extended to other EC members. Also, the EC’s funding should be provided from the consolidated fund of India rather than be voted upon and passed in parliament. If not, some adventurous government might be tempted to exploit this situation to its advantage.

Is the Westminster model of democracy the most suitable for India or should an attempt be made to explore some viable alternatives?

It is…despite all its shortcomings. Our democracy in action has been called the world’s “golden standard” by none other than the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not surprisingly, the EC has been consulted by several countries with democratic aspirations in the Middle East like Egypt and Tunisia, a large number of African nations, and various SAARC members. Therein lies the hallmark and the indisputable core strength of Indian democracy.

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