Accountability by recall

Accountability by recall
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First Published: Tue, Jul 22 2008. 10 12 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Jul 22 2008. 10 12 PM IST
A very important event in the evolution of democracy in India took place on 15 June, which holds special significance in view of the behaviour of several of our “honourable” MPs in the run-up to the vote of trust in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
The event was the recall of presidents of three nagar palikas, or municipal corporations, in Chhattisgarh through voting under the Chhattisgarh Nagar Palika Act.
This Act, adopted by Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, provides that “Every Mayor of a Corporation shall forthwith be deemed to have vacated his office if he is recalled through a secret ballot by a majority of more than half of the total number of voters of the corporation area casting the vote…” The proposal for recall has to be moved by “not less than three-fourth of the total number of the elected Councillors.” It cannot be initiated “within a period of two years from the date on which such Mayor is elected and enters office,” and “if half of the period of tenure of the Mayor elected in a by-election has not expired.” The Act further provides that the process for recall of a mayor can be initiated “once in his whole term”.
Starting with the Soviet Union under Lenin in 1917, the right to recall has been adopted by several countries but its actual use has been rather infrequent. The last well-known instance was when then governor of California Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, to be replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Most commentators have rejected the right to recall based on three arguments. The first is that while recall may be relevant and possibly useful at what are called the lower levels of democracy such as municipalities and panchayats, it wouldn’t work at the so-called higher levels of democracy, such as state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. Its basis is that “lower” level elections are fought on “local” issues which are more easily understandable by the voters whereas the “higher” level elections are fought on larger issues to which voters are not able to relate. This logic is utterly misplaced.
Since the same people vote to elect MLAs and MPs, presumably on the basis of their understanding of the so-called larger issues, they can vote equally knowledgeably for the recall of MLAs and MPs.
The second argument is based on experience of other countries—that only 18 states of the US permit recall of state-level officials whereas 36 states permit recall of local-level officials; recall is applicable only to mayors in Germany and not to any state-level officials; and criteria for recall of state-level officials are very difficult to fulfil so that attempts to recall state governors in the US have succeeded very infrequently. These facts do not prove, in any way, that the provision of recall is useless.
If only 18 states of the US have found it fit to provide for recall of state-level officials, it is the collective judgement of the citizens of those particular states. Similarly, the German example does not prove either that the provision for recall is inherently useless or that it will not work in India. And, if efforts at recalling governors in the US have not been successful more often, it highlights the importance of designing the provision properly, and may well be proof that appropriate design can prevent the provision being misused or used frivolously.
The third argument is that such a provision will make elections more frequent, making the process much more complicated, thus increasing the cost of democracy. This is an outrageous argument.
Should India, or any country for that matter, be looking for the least expensive form of governance? And will more frequent elections improve or reduce the efficacy of our democracy? Is it better to have incompetent, inefficient and dishonest legislators, once elected by hook or by crook, continue to bleed the state exchequer for the fixed term, thus throwing good money after bad, or is it better to remove them and that, too, by a commonly agreed and transparently implemented process and elect new, hopefully better ones, in their place? And, should India, with its size and complexity, be looking for simple ways to run its democracy, or is the ambitious exercise of running a democracy in a country of India’s size and diversity inherently an expensive one that we have consciously chosen to adopt?
A provision for recall is necessary because, as of now, our elected representative at all levels seem to be under the impression that they have immunity from all laws of the country and the main objective of a large majority of them seems to be to recover the expenses of the previous election and to collect funds for the next election, in the process saving some for their families and the party to which they at present be long — even if that involves “auctioning” their votes for a motion of confidence in the highest forum of democracy in the country.
An almost clinching argument in favour of the right to recall is the unflinching and consistent advocacy by Somnath Chatterjee, who has drawn fire for sticking to a constitutional stance as Speaker. In a lecture on 13 June in Thiruvananthapuram, Chatterjee said: “I have been emphasizing the need for introducing the system of ‘Recall’ to deal with those members of the legislative bodies in our country who function in a manner unbecoming of an elected representative of the people.” Having been a member of Parliament for 33 years and distinguished himself as Speaker of the Lok Sabha at a critical juncture, we should trust his view, and if he says that a system of recall is needed, it seems reasonable that the nation discuss this proposal seriously, at the very least.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former director of IIM Ahmedabad, and one of the founding members of the Association for Democratic Reforms ( Comment at
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First Published: Tue, Jul 22 2008. 10 12 PM IST