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Three issues that may lead to cleaner polls

July 11, 2013 12:45 IST

Mahesh Vijapurkar is hopeful that two Supreme Court directives and Gopinath Munde's confession that he spent Rs 8 crore to get elected to the Lok Sabha may lead to a possibility that the processes administered by the Election Commission may get cleaner, even if only over time.

For those citizens vexed with the electoral practices in the country, three things of note have surfaced, which point to the possibility that the processes administered by the Election Commission may get cleaner, even if only over time. Two of them have emerged from the Supreme Court itself but the other one, from a politician.

One, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde’s confessing to spending Rs 8 crore in 2009 to get elected to the Lok Sabha; two, the SC directing that EC frame guidelines on manifestoes to curb freebies which ‘strike at the root of free and fair’ elections; and three, an order that MPs and MLAs will be disqualified moment they are convicted.

The disqualification of a convicted elected representative, even at a lower court, without allowing them to be law-makers while waiting for appeals to be disposed of, puts us and them on par; fair indeed, for, even if wrongly convicted in a lower court we cannot hope to get a job while the criminal politicians had continued to make laws.

The freebies on which the judiciary has frowned points to how the future of a state’s, or even a country’s economy could be jeopardised by giveaways which have less to do with welfare and more with merely getting elected at the state’s cost. Competitive freebies only ensure recklessness.

Such freebies have enormous negative impact. For instance, post-nationalisation, Indira Gandhi’s political minions told the poor during elections that bank loans at a differential rate of interest were “non-returnable”. The banks were bled; the poor were not guided in its use; cutbacks were taken from cobblers. Election manifestoes encourage wastefulness. That is how it all started, setting in motion a vicious grip of crime and money on politics.

That these three developments happened in quick order is perhaps even coincidental but their bunching in time provides an opportunity to think out the responses. While of course, the order on disqualification of the convicted criminal politician does not require, from my point of view, any discussion. Any argument against it would be quibbling by vested interests. 

That the Election Commission has reasonably enforced so far a model code of conduct from the moment the election dates are announced to ensure that the political parties in power do not misuse their position to lure voters is one thing, however. How it manages to keep expensive, populist promises out of manifestoes is going to be tougher.

Parties are unlikely to fall in line with any EC view, whatever they are. The EC, which has forwarded the SC order to political parties “for their information and firming up of views”, has its task cut out especially because the court did not think it was a corrupt practice or an electoral offence. So how does one craft a useful code?

The manner, in which Munde’s disclosure -- not in the least made even in half-jest -- has been greeted by the political class, is the most unfortunate. It is seen as his problem for he has invited the notice of the Election Commission which promptly slapped an order on him to explain it. It became a political issue for a while for political spokespersons of other parties to mock him.

Suddenly, however, the same spin masters went silent because they realised that all of them were living in glass houses though only a few murmured about the impossibility of winning an election without huge outlays. Such outlays have actually curbed the enthusiasm of the honest, well-meaning citizen to even consider entering even the municipal electoral frays. But such expenses, to be frank, are unwarranted.

No politician, or a political party, is known to have petitioned the EC with an argument backed with facts about the unreasonableness of the expenditure limits. They have not badgered it with how a compact constituency like South Mumbai cannot be treated on par with the vast expanses of Kutch or Barmer. It is as if they knew that proactively, the EC cannot curb their spending.

Since the Rs 40 lakh -- up from 25 lakh -- was only a pittance compared to what they actually spent, it was taken in stride but the crux is that most of the huge expenditures were not legitimate but illegal purposes like buying of votes. As it matters little if an enhanced limit of Rs 40 lakh, or whatever peanuts, an opportunity to generate a public debate has been wasted.

Let me quote parts from Jayaprakash Narayan, president of Lok Satta party’s letter to the EC, post-Munde:

1. “Across India, the major parties and their candidates are offering voters direct and material inducements in the form of cash, liquor, etc. The Centre for Media Studies (CMS)’s survey in Andhra Pradesh (in 2012) showed that the major parties are offering money to 60% of the voters. Given this, voters are taking money from all the major candidates and voting for whoever they want.”

2. “Electoral expenditure may not guarantee victory but non-expenditure guarantees defeat. Huge investment in elections has thus become an entry fee to have a realistic chance of success. The rich man’s money is chasing the poor man’s vote and whoever gets elected then controls the levers of the state and earns multiple returns from office. Corruption, abuse of office and authority are the inevitable outcomes of such an electoral system.”

3. “Reforms must be focused on making rational and ethical politics sustainable by breaking the curse of the money power and constituency-based marginal vote; they should once again make it possible for men and women of commitment, calibre and broad public support to get elected. Only then could the present electoral politics of vote-buying and inducements be replaced by sensible and practical politics. A suitably designed electoral system that is broadly acceptable, easily achievable and has the minimal risk of unintended negative consequences is needed.

4. “While the ECI has no powers to reform the electoral system, it certainly can catalyse a serious and fruitful debate towards the above objective among political parties, government, media and the civil society. We therefore urge you to focus on systemic reforms that would serve as an effective and permanent solution.”

The point is, while the EC decided to convene meeting of political parties on freebies and manifestoes, why has it limited itelf only to issuing a show cause notice to Munde? Why is missing the large issues? Is it because the SC has not issued a directive? By the way, Jayaprakash Narayan is the only one who has spoken up on this.

Mahesh Vijapurkar