Urgent need for electoral reforms in India : Yashwardhan Joshi

The Election Commission does get bogged down by piles of complaints

It’s all credit to the Election Commission that hundreds of millions of voters are able to exercise their franchise peacefully and in a free and fair manner time and again. This time too, the elections to the Lok Sabha have gone on smoothly.

Yet, the poll body has currently come under severe criticism from all quarters that it has become imperative for it to introspect and reform itself to ensure people’s continued faith in the great unholder of Indian democracy. This elections have seen unprecedented complaints of alleged violation of the model code of conduct, in view of the use of social media to lodge protests.

The Election Commission does get bogged down by piles of complaints, but there are certain complaints that need to be looked into on a war-footing and dispose of fast otherwise the whole exercise of conducting free and fair elections falls flat. In certain cases, the EC has taken 3-5 weeks to look into the complaints and take action.

In fact, there were eight complaints against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for violation of the election rules, but it took the EC more than a month to dispose of those complaints. Taking so much time to deal with complaints serves little purpose because once election is over the damage is already done, opposition parties opine. To ensure level-playing field to all candidates and parties, the EC has to wear the badge of impartiality on its sleeves. It has also to ensure that unaccounted money is not used in the funding of elections.

This election season, the seizure of unaccounted cash, liquor, drugs and precious metals had crossed Rs 3,166 crore as on April 25, with four phases yet to be held. This is more than twice the total seizure value of Rs 1,200 crore during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In this context, the finance ministry’s electoral bond scheme has come under severe criticism.

According to political observers, the scheme has afforded a way to fund political parties without disclosing the donor’s identity. Electoral bonds are nothing but mere gift vouchers. Anyone can buy them from the State Bank of India during specific 10-day periods during the year, and within that time they have to go and hand over the vouchers to political parties, which can encash them for money. The bonds are completely anonymous, and do not carry the name of the donor, nor are they taxed. Many say the anonymity provision under the scheme is antagonistic to transparency — the bonds merely enable an “on-the-books” secretive transfer.

Of the Rs 2,722 crore donated through the scheme in the past 15 months, roughly 95 per cent has gone to the ruling BJP, statistics reveal. Under Section 29B of the Representation of the People Act, political parties are free to accept donations from any person, except from a foreign source. This provision, many say, needs to be amended to outlaw funding by corporates as well.

Officially, India has limits on election spending: Rs 50 lakh-70 lakh for a Lok Sabha candidate, and Rs 20 lakh-28 lakh for an assembly candidate, depending on the State. However, the reality is something quite different. Various research have revealed that the reported expenditure of candidates “only represent a minuscule fraction of their real expenses—frequently less than 1/30th or 1/50th of the overall amount.”

The Centre for Media Studies has estimated that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will cost Rs 50,000 crore. This is just an estimate because the vast majority of it is unaccounted cash, not flowing through the formal system and not officially reported by the parties.

In fiscal 2017-18, the BJP’s income was a little above Rs 1,000 crore of which more than 53 per cent came from unknown sources. According to Election Commission’s rules, there are limits on candidate’s expenditure, but not on political parties. Though the parties are supposed to tell the poll body how much they spend and also where they get their money from, yet they have refused to comply with the provision. Unless these rules changed, it would be difficult to crack down on accounted money in elections.

To make the election exercise hassle free, the EC also needs to look into the glitches in the electronic voting machines which have increased in the recent past.

The polling in Delhi last Sunday was marred by instances of EVM glitches and missing names. So was the case in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and other places as well.

Be it an individual or an institution, it has to learn from its mistakes and continuously evolve to be relevant.

Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.

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