8th Aug 2012

Veto vote over electoral reforms
Loopholes in the election process, the most fundamental aspect of our democracy, needs to be plugged. Unfortunately, those who can solve the problem seem to have little reason to do so

Jagdeep Chokkar / The Goan ,NEW DELHI

Electoral reforms have been a topic of discussion for several years now. The provocation for this particular piece is the 52nd report of the parliamentary standing committee on law and justice, in whose jurisdiction the election commission of India (ECI) falls. The report, presented to the Rajya Sabha and laid on the table of the Lok Sabha on May 21, is actually on demand for grants for 2012-13 but it makes some interesting observations, under the heading “Model Code of Conduct”.

The first interesting observation is: “The Committee recommends that the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on Electoral Reforms which submitted its report in May 1990 on the subject matter may be taken into consideration” (Para 3.16). The reference is to what is popularly known as the Goswami Committee Report on Electoral Reforms. In the intervening 22 years since then, several other eminent groups have applied their minds to the issue of electoral reforms, some of the prominent ones being the following: The Vohra Committee Report of 1993, the Indrajit Gupta Committee Report on State Funding of Elections of 1998, the Law Commission of India Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws in 1999, the Report of the National Commission to review the Working of the Constitution submitted in 2001, Electoral Reforms proposed by the Election Commission of India in 2004, and the latest, the report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission submitted in 2008.

In addition, the law ministry conducted seven regional consultations on electoral reforms in 2011, in association with the ECI. But it is baffling that the standing committee should refer only to a report that is 22 years old, ignoring everything that has happened since.

The latest episode in this continuing saga is the letter that the then, and outgoing, chief election commissioner, SY Quraishi, wrote to the prime minister on April 13, before demitting office on June 10. Some excerpts from the letter, accessed by filing an RTI application, given below exemplify the frustration of those trying to improve the electoral system in the country:

“Hence allow me Sir, to place before you the Commission’s deep disappointment over the fact that a necessary legislation in this regard is yet to be materialised.”

“However, the quality of our elections often gets questioned on account of certain weaknesses in our electoral process.

Commission’s reform proposals have always aimed at addressing this predicament. Though certain minor reforms have been adopted by Government and Parliament, the substantial ones have been actually left out allowing the allegations that politicians are not keen about the reforms because of their vested interest.”

Rightly observing, in Para 3.17, “that Model Code of Conduct is a voluntary agreement between the parties for regulating the conduct of political parties and its members etc. during the process of elections to Assemblies and Parliament,” the standing committee describes its legal status as “a grey area”.

Then the committee suggests an examination of “the scope of Article 324”, before concluding, “Remedial legal steps are required to be taken in this regard.”

Reading between the lines, it appears that this is yet another attempt at “clipping the wings” of the ECI by the political establishment. The political establishment appears to be extremely defensive about the electoral system and refuses to see infirmities.

One of the most important reasons why the MCC has been so effective over the last 20 years is the swiftness of the actions taken by the ECI. Making the MCC part of the Representation of People Act will straightaway remove the capability of the ECI to take swift action. This is a straightforward case of the political establishment using the most drastic Parkinson’s Law: Delay is the deadliest form of denial.

Even more insidious is the suggestion for examining “the scope of Article 324”. Article 324, as will be recalled, is the most critical one for the conduct of elections as it vests the plenary power of “superintendence, direction and control of elections in (the) Election Commission”.

Putting the legal straightjacket on the MCC and any change in Article 324 will remove even the semblance of freedom and fairness from the election process, making it a plaything for political parties which have not covered themselves with glory in their collective behaviour towards elections in terms of choice of candidates etc. in the last decade or so.

It is therefore necessary to resist this attempt to emasculate the entire electoral process, and to save the MCC