By Sambit Dash
Parliament has been one of the cornerstones of Indian democracy. Through various trials and tribulations it has emerged as a wall which can be punched and spit at, but not be razed. The elections to the Lok Sabha – the house with more muscle, relevance and members – are affairs that have been, more often than not, immaculately managed by the Election Commission of India (ECI). This is no easy feat given that the Indian electorate is the largest in the world. The ECI has also implemented major reforms such as the lowering of the voting age in 1989, the implementation of electronic voting machines, the appointments of booth officers, and the digitization of electoral rolls. Though the pace of reforms has been slow, the ECI has proved to be above petty politics and has received backing from the Supreme Court of India. However many issues still plague the conduct of elections such as the criminalisation of politics, corruption, a lack of transparent funding, archaic laws, and the covert use of muscle and power.
One of the major issues is the criminalisation of politics; 34% of MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha face criminal charges, up from 30% in the 15th. The ECI, in their annual recommendations, have proposed that any person who is accused of an offence punishable with imprisonment for five years or more should be disqualified from contesting elections even during the pendency of the trial, provided that the charges have been framed against him by a competent court. This recommendation has been stonewalled, primarily by the contention that innocent representatives would be unjustly affected by politically motivated charges. However, some headway has been made by the Supreme Court in addressing the criminalisation of politics in Lily Thomas vs. Union of India where it held that a successful conviction would automatically disqualify a candidate or elected representative.
The funding of political parties is another critical area that needs attention, particularly the disclosure of the sources of campaign funds. Currently, India’s richest MP ( and a whopping 82% of MPs have assets worth more than one crore. Wealthy candidates are not a problem per se, but if their wealth can be illicitly used to gain advantages during elections it encourages the wrong kind of candidates. Unfortunately, this does indeed occur as the standards of disclosure during elections are poor. Political parties consequently tend to prefer candidates who can easily contribute towards unreported expenses during elections.
While the Representation of People Act, 1951 requires that candidates report all their individual expenses, political parties as a whole are only required to disclose to tax officials individual contributions above Rs. 20,000. Political parties however, cannot receive any contributions from government companies or any foreign source. The Act initially allowed corporate donations but they were banned in 1968 only to later be permitted by an amendment of the Companies Act in 1985. The amendment permitted corporate donations with riders like full disclosure and a cap of 5% of the average net profit over the last five years of the company. In 1979, new tax exemptions were created in order to increase the level of disclosure of political parties but they were ultimately unsuccessful in improving transparency.
In the last four decades, various committees have proposed tackling these issues through state funding. In 1972, a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Amendments to Election Laws had suggested that the state should bear the expense of funding candidates. In 1978, the Tarkunde Committee also suggested the same but in part. The Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990) suggested that the state should fund elections by providing campaign material, travel expenses, airtime in the media, etc. rather than money. The Law Commission Report of 1999 also proposed partial state funding. However, political parties have not reached any consensus on these proposals as smaller parties believe state funding will be advantageous to bigger parties.
An alternate route to achieving transparency is to bring political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). However, despite attempts to do so this has not been functionally achieved. In June, 2013, the Central Information Commission declared that six national parties qualified as ‘public authorities’ under the RTI Act and would thus have to comply with its provisions. None of the parties challenged the decision in any forum, yet they have still failed to reply to any queries, or appear before the CIC. This is not surprising given that major parties like the BJP and Congress ‘officially’ spent only Rs 714 Cr and Rs 516 Cr respectively in all elections in 2014.
Apart from removing criminals from politics and revising how election campaigns are funded, many other reforms are still needed. These include disallowing a person from contesting from two seats (as Prime Minister Modi did in the latest elections); increasing the security deposits of candidates; regulating advertisements (both surrogate as well as government-sponsored) and exit/opinion polls in the media; maintaining and auditing the accounts of political parties; and finally, revising the composition of the ECI.
Political parties will themselves not be the harbinger of these reforms as maintaining the status quo is in their interests. It is thus the duty of civil society and advocacy groups to mount pressure on the government of the day to implement these reforms. Electoral reforms are one of the few measures which can address multiple ills in India. Elections are the glacier from which the stream of democracy flows; reforming how they are conducted will be a shot in the arm for Indian democracy.
Sambit Dash is an alumnus of Takshashila’s public policy course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy.