P V Indiresan

Clearing the air with poll reforms

P. V. Indiresan | Updated on April 05, 2011

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Sceptics fear that State-funding will make no dent on political corruption with even small parties commanding hundreds of crores of black money.

It is an ill-wind that blows no one any good.

For over a year now, the Government has been slammed by scandal after scandal. However, these scandals have had one positive result: They have spawned the idea of election reform. Apparently, there is a move to introduce State-funding of elections. Sceptics fear that State-funding will make no dent on political corruption with even small parties commanding hundreds of crores of black money.

Nevertheless, we do need reforms in our election system. The basic issue (which is likely to be glossed over) is why politics has become as expensive as it has. The system of “high command” that afflicts every party, a high command that decides the party's choice of candidate in each and every election, is the basic cause for expensive politics.

It is also a fact that, unlike in Singapore, our legislators are not paid well; without financial support from the high command, legislators (and failed candidates too) will be quite poor. The high command needs loyal followers, who in turn need to be patronised. The loyalty expected is not to the ideals (assuming there are any) of the party but to those who own the high command. Because, virtually every party in the country is family-owned, the expected loyalty is to the family and nothing else. To keep followers happy, the family needs lots and lots of money.

It is also true that voters are bribed. A senior editor in Chennai has the story of one of his correspondents who got four Rs 500 notes (one each for the four voters in the family) with the morning newspaper, together with a note about the party.

Money talks all the way

When one family member did not vote, he got a call insisting they vote. Hence, it is not merely money, but its management that requires considerable sophistication and organisation. Money is needed to pay functionaries, to bribe voters and even to check that the bribes are effective.

State funding will not be a substitute for this system. However, it can — and should — ensure all parties have intra-party democracy.

In Western countries, for instance, the leader of the party does not decide who will contest which seat; that is the responsibility of the local constituency party.

These independently elected candidates then choose their leader. In India, the leader chooses the candidates who, naturally, have no option but support the leader. At best they can shift to another, but similar leader, of a rival party.

Two-way reform

Hence, India needs at least two reforms: One, election candidates are selected by members of the constituency and not by the high command; two, elected representatives (even their runners-up) are paid well. Then, who should make the selection at the constituency level — party members or the entire electorate? Both systems are in vogue in the US. Having primary elections open to all citizens makes them a very expensive affair.

That may shift corruption from the high command to local constituencies, but may not eliminate it or even reduce it significantly.

On the other hand, if primary elections are confined to party members, who will verify that membership or resolve disputes? Will that not add to the load of the already overworked judicial system?

I had suggested in an earlier article that if the Government bears the election cost for each candidate then, in all fairness, taxpayers should be consulted; they should have a voice in selecting candidates. My suggestion was (a) only taxpayers should vote in primary elections — for as many candidates as they like; (b) a small, say 5 per cent, of the total votes cast should be the eligibility criterion for a candidate to enter the fray; and (c) votes polled by all members of a party should be clubbed together under the one who gets the highest vote.

In this way, the eligibility of primary voters will not be in dispute; taxpayers will have a say in who gets their money.

Limiting numbers

Five per cent as qualifying criterion will limit the number of eligible candidates to a maximum of 20, but, in practice, no more than four or five are likely to qualify. That is a small enough number for the State to support. Should that be in cash or in kind? That is yet another issue for debate.

There is also the question of recognised parties, of which there are thousands. Unless their number is limited to no more than three or four, the Election Commission will have an unviable task.

The Commission did make one such attempt and only two parties qualified at the national level — the Congress and the BJP.

A relaxed criterion has raised the figure to over half a dozen. We require a more liberal (but not too liberal) criterion for identifying parties; hopefully, such a solution can be found.

Then, election reforms will make a difference only when (a) the current system of “high command” is abolished, (b) candidates are selected locally, (c) there is a reasonable criterion for identifying parties, and (d) winners and runners-up are paid well for helping constituents.

That will set up a post-electoral competition, which does not exist now. The power of the high command to discipline its members should also be defined.

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Response may be sent to indiresan@gmail.com)

This is 300th in the Vision 2020 series. The previous article appeared on March 21.

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Published on April 04, 2011
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