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February 12, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

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 of them.

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 former associate?

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 Opposition party!

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.

Ashwin Mahesh

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