February 12, 1998
YEH HAI INDIA
For a start, the EC must reject Gujral's nomination from Jalandhar
Inder Gujral's efforts, if such they are, to become the Lok Sabha MP from
Jalandhar, have been brushed aside by events surrounding more charismatic
politicians. Nevertheless, his candidacy raises some simple questions
about constitutional propriety. At the same time, it is also a clear sign
that any qualitative change in the political system must begin with
reforms in the electoral process itself.
Ever since T N Seshan decided to raise the profile of the Election
Commission, politicians have been mildly wary of falling afoul of
standards prescribed by the bosses there. His successor, Dr M S Gill,
while he lacks the noisy attention-gathering moves which so defined
Seshan, apparently has the tenacity to push through additional
improvements in the electoral process. Certainly, he is displaying more
tact. But more is needed.
So what is so wrong about Gujral's electoral ambitions? For starters, let
us consider this. Laloo Yadav offered a safe seat from Bihar, similar
offers were forthcoming from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the Akalis
offered Jalandhar. Offers from the United Front partners are understandable,
although they are illegal as well, and we'll come to that in just a while.
The Akali-sponsored contest from Jalandhar, though, is worse than illegal,
it is improper and shameful.
Perhaps Gujral does not view public accountability as anything important,
and the obvious quid pro quo underlying his Sher-i-Punjab coat doesn't
weigh too heavily. It is a reflection of his complete powerlessness in
politics that he has to rely on the largesse of his prime minister's
office to raise public support. Writing off huge chunks of federal debt
has never disturbed the consciences of his predecessors, and he is not
about to set a dangerous -- for the likes of him, anyway -- precedent. Only
goes to show that the intellectual facade of India International Centre is
no guardian against impropriety and opportunism.
Now to the illegal bit. Those seeking election to the Lok Sabha are
required to represent the interests of their constituency. This is one
area in which the rise of regional parties reveals much, when one also
considers that regional parties are stronger in the high-literacy states.
So-called leaders of the two national parties seek to be elected from any
constituency they choose without regard to the fact that they are required
to represent those constituencies, and should be reasonably expected to be
resident in them. Whatever one's feelings about Jayalalitha, Hegde, or
Mamata Banerjee, it is indisputable that they can serve their voting
public much better than Sonia Gandhi contesting from Sriperumbudur or
Amethi. Certainly, they are more accountable to the public by being one
It follows naturally that one cannot represent more than one constituency.
The right to electoral franchise is vested on a one-person one-vote basis.
This is why leaders like Rao and Vajpayee, who contested from more than
one constituency, were required to resign all but one of them. The fact
that our leaders routinely seek safe seats from which they can be elected
shows quite clearly that they do not view membership in the Lok Sabha as a
representative appointment. That even supposedly clean politicians like
Gujral and Manmohan Singh should gladly toe this line shows that the lure
of power is big enough to overcome any conscience they profess to have.
It is also a matter of concern that the Election Commission does not see
fit to reject the candidacies of those who are contesting elections from
places where they are not normally resident. When even the former election
commissioner talks about contesting from Maharashtra, though he is not
normally resident there, one can hardly expect Dr Gill, Krishnamurthy and
Lyngdoh to pay attention to such matters. Perhaps they contend that there
are far worse ills in the electoral process; that is not any reason to
overlook the follies of their own past associates. If nothing else, it
raises the question -- is there a conflict of interest when the election
commissioner is assigned to monitor the electoral activities of his own
So where does that leave us? Despite the laws, we routinely
find criminals contesting elections. The EC does not bar
many of them from contesting, and we can only wonder why. Apart from
outright criminals, even supposedly respectable politicians find ways of
subverting the letter of the law, and the Commission does not point out
that their actions clearly disavow at least the spirit of the law. To make
matters worse, the EC usually has its own political nexus systems as well,
as was evident from Krishnamurthy's recent tantrums.
Every dubious position adopted by politicians would become that much harder
if it were subject to evaluation by objective voters. The Akali Dal,
whatever gratitude it may have for Gujral's largesse, is clearly telling
the people of Jalandhar that it does not consider them worthy of having
any choice in deciding their MP. For residents of Jalandhar who support
the Akali-BJP coalition, it is insulting that the leadership arbitrarily
decided that their representative in Parliament should be a member of the
And so it is with others as well. Why did voters in Behrampur and Nandyal
vote for Rao, knowing full well that it was at least 50 per cent likely that if he
won, he would not represent them in Parliament? Ignorance, illiteracy,
poverty, caste and tribal affiliations, language, there are many reasons.
These require attention at a level that is not attained merely by
reforming the electoral process, however.
That should not deter us from making a start. The Election Commission must
firmly establish the notion that it supports not just legality, but
propriety as well. It must discourage politicians seeking to be elected
from more than one constituency, by enforcing residency requirements, as
well as requesting candidates to declare in advance which seat they will
resign should they be elected from two separate places.
These standards need to be extended to the Rajya Sabha as well, since it
is here that the worst violations occur. It is also necessary to ensure
that the prime minister, and preferably the whole Rajya Sabha, should be
popularly elected. For starters, the PM must be a member of the Lok Sabha,
and the Rajya Sabha must not become a back door to government.
The EC appears to lack the will to make these changes.
Seshan, whatever his faults, had one thing going for him. He was
willing to put propriety on the front burner, and raise issues high enough
to draw public attention. Whatever reservations politicians have about the
EC, they are rightly scared of confronting it, for this reveals their true
colours. Gill too should feed off their fear; any service he can render to
the public good can only become real if he chooses this route.
To do all this, the EC must raise the banner of reform in
the electoral process to such a height as to make both a lasting
impression and to serve the nation's interests as never before. Merely
enforcing existing standards in a haphazard manner against the small-fry
will never do. Unless the EC goes after the big-name violators, it will
never fully become the impartial adjudicator that it is deemed to be.
Ultimately, the public's confidence in Gill and Co. depends on their
ability to serve the public interest.
For a start, the EC must reject Gujral's nomination from Jalandhar.