Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | Landmark electoral reforms in Maharashtra

The SEC of Maharashtra has moved the needle by giving NOTA much needed teeth. It is up to the national ECI and other SECs to follow suit

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the historic 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution of India. These amendments gave constitutional status to village, city and district level local self-governments. Yet, the fulfilment of the dream of true panchayati raj remains distant.

The devolution of the three “F"s—funds, functions and functionaries—from state capitals and secretariats to local municipal and village councils is a highly unfinished business. Either the representatives and officers at the state level are unwilling to relinquish power and resources to municipalities and panchayats, or they don’t have the confidence in the capacity of the third tier. To this day, the citizens cannot even hire or supervise the school teachers in their local government schools.

The law (arising from the amendments) also requires setting up of the state election commissions (SECs), which have power and status on par with the central Election Commission of India (ECI), a fact also reiterated by the Supreme Court. The ECI, however, looms much larger in the public’s consciousness, because it is in charge of electing members of Parliament and state legislatures, where most power resides. The true spirit of the two amendments would be served only when there is genuine decentralization of power down to the third tier.

The SEC conducts elections to local bodies like village panchayats, zilla parishads, municipal councils and corporations. In Maharashtra, in a five-year period, it has to conduct almost 29,000 elections, and get around 250,000 elected people’s representatives. The SEC’s job is messier than the ECI’s because local elections are close contests and winning margins can be very slim.

Unlike the ECI, the SEC is also entrusted with drawing boundaries of wards, which has to be done every 10 years. This is a tricky and thankless job, since politicians and elected officials are very possessive of their “ward" and electors. The ECI does not have to redraw boundaries of constituencies unlike the SEC. The SEC also has to ensure the code of conduct for each of the 29,000 elections (in Maharashtra). But imagine the complexity of imposing the code in one village where an election is imminent, and not in the adjacent village where no election is scheduled.

The SEC of Maharashtra has blazed a trail in a series of electoral reforms in the last few years. It is the first one to go fully digital in the filing of nomination papers and affidavits of all candidates. This has eliminated most errors and enabled instant dissemination of information to the voters. It is the first SEC in the country to cancel registration of more than 250 political parties for failure to submit audited accounts in time. It is also the first one to disqualify an elected representative for failure to comply with expense disclosure rules.

Most importantly, it took a giant step recently by giving teeth to the idea of the NOTA (none of the above) button. If NOTA is the winner in any election in Maharashtra, there will be a mandatory re-poll. The Supreme Court mandated the NOTA option in all elections two years ago. If voters do not like any option on the ballot, they can express their displeasure by pressing NOTA. Why not simply abstain, and stay at home, you may ask. That’s because it risks someone else voting in your name by masquerading.

So far nationally, in the last two years, about 15 million voters have chosen NOTA. In some cases, the NOTA votes were higher than the winning margin between the winner and the runner up. But NOTA still did not have teeth, because even if it got a majority of votes, the winner would be the candidate with the second highest votes. The idea of NOTA is to put pressure on political parties to put up better candidates. There have been instances when almost all candidates in a constituency have had pending criminal cases. What does a voter do? NOTA is a potent weapon in the hands of the voter.

Recently, the Supreme Court too, while dismissing a petition that asked to disqualify criminal candidates, prescribed that such tainted candidates be given prominent publicity. For instance, in the list pasted outside the polling booth, the names can be in bold red letters (or at least with a red dot beside the name). Many voters decide at the last moment, and the display of this red list before entering the booth might have an effect on their vote. The governor of Maharashtra, speaking at an international conference in Mumbai to commemorate 25 years of the amendments, opined that parties should not give tickets to candidates with a criminal record. In order to reduce criminality in legislatures, the apex court had asked for special fast track courts to be set up to dispose of all pending criminal cases against legislators in a year’s time. The law to disqualify anyone with a pending criminal case, especially if charged with heinous crimes like murder, rape or assault, can only be passed by Parliament. But in the interim, the SEC of Maharashtra has moved the needle by giving NOTA much needed teeth. It is up to the national ECI and other SECs to follow suit.

The journey of electoral reforms is a long one. The traditional duo of the challenge of money and muscle power has now been joined by a third “M", i.e. media power. By this is meant the unhealthy influence of paid news and fake news, magnified by social media. The power of the ECI and SEC seems hopelessly inadequate to battle this tsunami of challenges. Even so, India’s democracy has progressed and is more robust. Ultimately, there is no substitute for an educated, enlightened and vigilant voter.

Ajit Ranade is an economist and senior fellow, Takshashila Institution.

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