As we approach the halfway mark of the seven-phase 2019 elections, it is clear that this is the ugliest campaign in India’s 70-year-old electoral history. As a witness to three general elections and an activist observer or researcher in 12 others, one has never witnessed so much bad blood as this seventeenth general election.
This, of course, has not happened overnight. It has reached this stage because critical issues confronting the electoral system have not been addressed over the years. To ensure fair and free polls, the Election Commission of India (ECI) was given statutory status. In 1962, the idea of a ‘model code’, experimented for the first time in Kerala in 1960, was adopted. In 1979, certain restraints were introduced for the party in power. In 1991, Election Commissioner T N Seshan demonstrated what a proactive and independent ECI could do to ensure independence. There were more than a couple of parliamentary committees set up to propose electoral reforms. But with political parties becoming all-powerful, despite losing much of their sheen, electoral practices have continued to decline.
Take Indonesia. With a history of two decades of elections and 187 million voters, the country had a one-day national poll recently. Whereas in India, a voter has to wait for 43 days to know the winner, despite the EVMs. Never before has the ECI been seen to be as partisan as today and no efforts have been made to ensure that the electoral process regains credibility.
Instruments like the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) have outlived their utility. The irrelevance of ECI’s instruments is evident from a cursory reading of the code. Neither of the eight provisions dealing with the conduct of poll is being observed either by the candidates or the political parties in the fray. The first of the eight is on “general conduct” of polls. This includes a ban on “caste and communal feelings”, “criticism of candidates on the basis of unverified reports”, and “bribing of voters”. “No political party can use pictures of defence and military personnel”, in a poll campaign, is another MCC guideline, which has been thrown out of the window.
In 1979, MCC prohibited government advertisement of their ‘achievements’ and banned announcement of grants and schemes, so that the ruling party does not get an unfair advantage. The government or the ruling party “should not launch any welfare programmes, including ribbon cutting ceremonies”, said the code.
However, what is happening is exactly the opposite and the Supreme Court had to remind the ECI that it is not toothless. An analysis of nominations filed for assemblies and Parliament in the last few elections, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), reveals that the percentage of rich, privileged and those with a criminal background, total to nearly one-third of the elected members. CMS studies on poll expenditure over the last three general elections, bring out three critical points. First, a significant per cent of voters is being paid money across the states, both in rural and urban India. Second, the expenditure being incurred by parties and candidates has been going up in such a way that only millionaires can now contest. Third, the campaigns are focused on lure rather than on issues and concerns. Neither is there evidence that political parties have become accountable or are taking their manifestos seriously.
Despite ECI’s hundreds of “expenditure observers,” the extent of unaccounted money confiscated is on rise with no effect on the overall poll expenditure. Only one Assembly member was ever disqualified in UP, a couple of years ago, for not submitting accounts, as required.
There have been several parliamentary panels on poll funding in the last four decades, but their recommendations have remained only on paper. If anything, recent government measures are aimed at facilitating funding, including from foreign corporates, with no transparency. It is tempting to ask why we have not pursued a different kind of electoral campaign or evaluated the actual requirements of a contesting candidate. There is no reason why a candidate should not reach out to voters, present his or her credentials, address voters’ concerns and propose what he or she will do if elected.
Candidates mainly stress on the negative aspects of their rivals. Increasingly, many of them spend more time on their opponents, than on what they propose to do. Big changes are needed. Candidates can campaign together so that voters can make a better choice more transparently. There must be minimum joint public meetings in every constituency.
It will help bring down poll expenditure substantially. When competing candidates address voters together, they are likely to be more positive and cordial. After all, if two bitter rivals can come together in a poll alliance, why can’t opposing candidates campaign together? Unless political leaders and parties come forward to restore the sanctity of electoral practices, nothing is going to change. And unless that happens, it is difficult to expect good governance, deepen democracy and inclusive development.
It is time to relook the relevance of ECI’s code of conduct. This is not possible without the support, cooperation and participation of the news media. The judiciary needs to be consulted in repositioning the ECI. India needs an electoral shake-up as the republic enters the 75th year.