With a clear majority government at the centre for the first time in decades and a new political party that professes to change the way politics has been practised in the country over the last 35-40 years, it seems a propitious time to make significant changes to the electoral system. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
With a clear majority government at the centre for the first time in decades and a new political party that professes to change the way politics has been practised in the country over the last 35-40 years, it seems a propitious time to make significant changes to the electoral system. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Revisiting India’s electoral reforms

The Law Commission has done its job. It is now for the political establishment to act on its election rhetoric

The Law Commission of India submitted its 255th report titled Electoral Reforms to the ministry of law on 12 March. The 261-page report, prepared in response to a request by the government of the day in January 2013 “to consider the issue of ‘electoral reforms’ in its entirety and suggest comprehensive measures for changes in the law", makes some very significant, and laudable, recommendations.

This report needs to be read with the 244th report of the Law Commission titled Electoral Disqualifications, submitted on 24 February 2014, in response to a Supreme Court order passed on 15 December 2013, as the two reports together provide a comprehensive assessment of the entire electoral system and how to make it more relevant and responsive. The 244th report dealt with two specific issues: de-criminalization of politics and disqualification for filing false affidavits.

Now, to some highlights of the 255th report.

The first substantive chapter, after Background to the Report, is titled Election Finance Reform. The fact that this is not only the first chapter, but also the longest (64 pages, the second-longest being 29 pages) can be taken as an indirect indication that this is the most critical issue that the nation confronts today.

The commission has been realistic in describing the current situation in a sub-section titled Understanding the reality of election financing today, which says, “There is clearly under reporting of election expenditure and opacity of political contribution. Part of the explanation lies in the lacunae in the law, and part in black money and poor enforcement." It makes extensive and detailed recommendations, maintaining that “Disclosure is at the heart of public supervision of political finance and requires strict implementation of the provisions of the RPA, the IT Act, the Company Act, and the ECI transparency guidelines."

RPA is short for the Representation of the People Act, the I-T Act is a reference to the Income-tax Act and ECI stands for the Election Commission of India.

The second-longest chapter is titled Paid News and Political Advertising. The report details several “instances (which) highlight the ways in which paid news and disguised political advertisements are growing deep into the process of democratic elections in India. The amount of money being spent on these practices has risen at exponential levels… The unethical practices of paid news and disguised political advertising have reached the alarming level not just in a few cases of national media, but also in the regional media". Recommendations concerning paid news are in three parts: defining the two phenomena, paid news and political advertising; consequences for those who indulge in these; and the institutional framework for dealing with these two evils.

Another major issue that the report highlights and details is in the second substantive chapter titled Regulation of political parties and inner party democracy. The opening sentence of the recommendations in this regard reads, “Introducing internal democracy and transparency within political parties is important to promote financial and electoral accountability, reduce corruption, and improve democratic functioning of the country as a whole."

In this matter the current, the 20th, Law Commission seems to have followed the direction taken by its predecessor, the 15th Law Commission, which had submitted the first comprehensive report on electoral reforms titled Reform of the Electoral Laws in 1999. This was the 170th report of the Law Commission. On the issue of regulation of political parties and inner party democracy, the 170th report had said: “With a view to introduce and ensure internal democracy in the functioning of political parties, to make their working transparent and open and to ensure that the political parties become effective instruments of achieving the constitutional goals set out in the Preamble and Parts III and IV of the Constitution of India, it is necessary to regulate by law their formation and functioning" (Para 3.1.2).

To carry this out, the 170th report had prepared a proposed amendment to RPA. Agreeing with these views and taking them forward, the new, 255th, report has proposed a similar, but new Part IV-C for RPA, which is titled Regulation of Political Parties. The report actually gives the text of this new part of RPA.

Without going into other recommendations, it is worth exploring if any of the significant recommendations of the report will be implemented. The experience with the earlier, 170th, report does not give reason for enthusiasm. Another significant fact hidden in the first, introductory, chapter of the report is that out of the 157 responses that the Law Commission received to its first Consultation Paper, only two were from political parties including one from the Welfare Party of India. The second consultation did not do much better. It received responses from two national parties and three registered state parties, two of which were the Zoram Nationalist Party and the People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh.

If this can be taken as an indicator of the interest of political parties in electoral reforms, the situation does not look very optimistic. But the political scenario in the country has undergone significant change in recent years. There is a clear majority government at the Centre for the first time in decades. A new political party seems to be in the process of emerging which professes to change the way politics has been practised in the country over the last 35-40 years. This has the potential of making it a propitious time to make significant changes to the electoral system.

The Law Commission has done its job and done it well. It is now for the political establishment to act on its election rhetoric.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, dean and director in-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a founding member of Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch.

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