Electoral reforms in India

 The recent Karnataka crisis (and the earlier one in Jharkhand) has brought to the fore the crying need for drastic reforms in the Indian electoral process. The founding fathers would have been shocked and aghast at the vulnerability of elected governments (both at the centre and in the states) to manipulation through money-bags and horse-trading. One of the potent reasons for “justified” corruption amongst the elected representatives of the people is the “risk” that they carry in being pulled down, without warning.

@offstumped, the famous Indian blogger and someone I respect tremendously, recently suggested a way out for directly electing a PM / CM, through a non-voting extra seat to be created in each legislature, which I completely endorse (Karnataka Crisis – Time to address fragmented legislatures). Taking that idea forward, I am proposing the following additional changes in our electoral process, to provide more stable governance in the country. 

  1. Fix the tenures of each legislature (LS, as well as the Assemblies) with no snap / mid-term polls being allowed
  2. Provide for direct election of the PM / CMs, as suggested by @offstumped
  3. Club all Assembly elections with the LS elections (like Orissa has wisely done – to reduce overall cost of elections). All local body elections should be held simultaneously, around 2/3 years after the LS / Assembly elections, for mid-term feedback on how the governments are doing (as conducting all three levels of elections simultaneously would be a logistical nightmare). However, implement the concept of directly elected mayors in all Municipalities, in the same format as suggested by @offstumped.
  4. For any candidate to be declared a winner, one must get more than 50% of the votes in that constituency. If not, there will be a run-off between the top two vote-getters, to decide the winner. No candidate can represent a constituency, without having got more than 50% of the valid votes cast.
  5. Only the following parties should be allowed to stand for LS elections:
    1. National parties (as per existing norms of the Election Commission)
    2. Regional (state) parties, only for states in which the party has been able to demonstrate a vote-share of at least 20% in the previous assembly election
    3. Independents, who cannot align themselves with any registered party and to fight on a randomly allocated symbol
  6. For assembly elections, either a national party, a state party (with at least 20% vote-share in the previous assembly elections), or a ‘prospective’ state party, with a demonstrated state-wide vote-share of 20% in the previous local body elections (all corporations, panchayats, put together)
  7. Only the following individuals should be allowed to contest an LS election:
    1. A person who has contested an LS / Assembly election in the past (irrespective of winning or losing, but not having lost the deposit), and
    2. A person who has been a member of the party for at least six months (to ensure that last minute party-hoppers can’t contest), for fighting an election as a party representative
  8. Similarly, for an Assembly election, the person should have either contested a LS, Assembly or a local body election in the past
  9. For each party nominee (national and designated state parties only) from a constituency (only for LS and Assembly elections), a party voting collegium should be formed and declared to the National / State Election Commission (EC) in advance. The collegium would consist of all existing members of the party, based in that constituency (on electoral rolls), who have been the official candidates of that party anytime in the past, for any level of election. This collegium will elect the person who will be the official candidate of the party for that constituency, with at least 3 members standing for consideration. Election to be conducted 3 months before LS / assembly elections are due, and to be conducted under observation of National / State EC. The cost of conducting these elections has to be borne by the national / state party. This will eliminate the dissidence that happens in every party, when people do not get the “ticket”.
  10. Establish a central/state government-funded permanent office for the MP / MLA of a constituency, which would be made available for use to the elected MP / MLA, during their elected tenure.
  11. Each candidate has to set up a central campaign office for communication and interaction with the media and the public at large, during a campaign period.
  12. Each candidate has to open a campaign bank account in a nationalized bank, to officially collect campaign donations and incur expenses, an attested statement of which would have to be attached with the elections expenses report to the EC, and these would be treated as public documents. Each candidate to also open a website, which would allow for online campaign donations, as well as make provisions for accepting campaign donations (cash / cheques) in the campaign office. A fund-collection plan to be submitted in advance, with the papers that one files during nomination. A designated CA to be attached to each campaign, to audit and then submit a separate report to the election commission on the veracity of the income and expenditure statement of the campaign account. If any deficiencies are found, the election would be declared null-and-void, and the CA would lose ability to practice for 10 years. Any public rallies or functions held in a constituency have to be mandatorily funded by the campaign account of the party candidate in that constituency (to avoid disguised campaign expenditure). The party can officially contribute to the campaign account of a candidate, if required, to fund a public rally in that constituency.
  13. The above process is incomplete, until we address the issue of campaign finances. We should scrap the MPLADS scheme and create a pool of around 2,000 crores (50% for national, 30% for state and 20% for local elections). This amount should be distributed amongst all national and state parties (only), on the basis of the votes garnered by them in the previous elections. This will force parties to create as widely encompassing a social agenda as possible, to maximise their vote-share, and hence get access to better funding.
  14. The EC has to independently and directly commission an agency to conduct surveys every year, and release an annual approval rating for each MP. If the approval rating for the MP, falls below 30%, at any point in time, the MP would have to resign and fresh elections would have to be conducted in that constituency, in which the recalled MP would also be able to participate.
  15. A similar system of quarterly approval ratings has to be set up for the PM. If a PM gets less than 30% approval ratings for two consecutive quarters, then there would be a mandatory “vote of confidence” triggered in the Lok Sabha, for the politicians to decide whether they want to risk further public alienation by continuing with the current incumbent.
  16. A directly elected PM cannot be removed from office, except by a 2/3rd majority in the Lok Sabha through an impeachment motion only. A government falling due to failing to pass a “money” bill has to be discontinued.
  17. No party can have the national flag, or its derivative as its party flag.
  18. No party can have an animal as its election symbol.
  19. No party can have a religious, state, linguistic or cast identifier in its name, therefore words that denote a language, region, state, caste or religion would have to be dropped, as these are divisive in nature.
  20. Inner party democracy in every national / state party has to be mandated and enforced. This would imply:
    1. Actual elections to be conducted for party posts with at least 3 members putting their names up for consideration (i.e. no nominations or “consensus” based elections), for national and state party presidents’ posts
    2. No person can have more than one post in a party or a government position (i.e. no party president and CM post can be held simultaneously)
    3. No person can have more than 3 terms at any position in the party (the duration of the term can be decided by the party, but cannot be more than three years)
  21. On defections, we need the following:
    1. No MP/MLA can change his / her party affiliation, and continue as an MP/MLA, as it is a violation of the people’s mandate that was given.
    2. An MP/MLA can change allegiance, but in the process has to resign from the assembly and the party, and seek a fresh mandate from the people, with a new allegiance.
    3. There should be no difference between a single MP/MLA changing affiliation and a large number of MPs/MLAs doing so. The process has to be the same!
    4. An MP/MLA does not have the right to change affiliations, as he/she is merely representing the people who have elected him, based on declared allegiance.
  22. Lastly, we need to have National / State Debates Commissions (can be done by Election Commission also). The commissions would facilitate structured and nationally televised debates amongst all declared PM / CM candidates, so that voters can make informed choices. This will also force parties to go into an election with declared candidates and not foist leaders who do not have the mandate of the people. From a practicality perspective, there should be three debates for the PM candidates and only one for the CM candidates.

I cannot claim original ownership over all the ideas captured above, although some of them are from my own thinking. There is a dire need to openly debate the kind of electoral reforms that this country needs, obviously going much beyond the ideas given hereinabove. I believe that the only way these reforms can happen is if the citizens of India compel the two main natural parties of governance, the Congress and the BJP that these reforms are important to us and they cannot take our support for granted, if these are not implemented.

For too long, Indian politicos have had a free-run at the expense of the Indian electorate. They have made the cynical concept of “Aaya Ram – Gaya Ram” into an art form. It is time to hit back and say that we have had enough! They must get the message that if they want to continue to get the fruits and power granted by Indian democracy, they need to learn to live and play by some rules!

Can we make a people’s movement out of this?

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