Why India is in dire need of electoral reform

  • 28 June 2011
  • From the section South Asia
  • comments
Indian voters Image copyright AP
Image caption Faith in politicians has eroded in India

India's democracy is facing serious challenges.

Nearly a third of MPs - 158 of 543, to be precise - in the parliament face criminal charges. Seventy-four of them face serious charges such as murder and abduction. There are more than 500 criminal cases against these lawmakers.

These MPs hail from across the political spectrum.

Twelve of the 205 MPs or 5% of the lawmakers in the ruling Congress Party face criminal charges. The main opposition BJP fares worse with 19 of 116 - or more than 16% - of its MPs facing charges. More than 60% of the MPs belonging to two key regional parties, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party - who profess to serve the poor and the untouchables - face criminal charges.

Then there are allegations of rampant vote-buying by parties, especially in southern India.

The Election Commission seized more than 600 million rupees ($13.3m; £8.3m) in cash in Tamil Nadu in the run-up to the state elections in April. It believes that the money was kept to buy votes.

In an US embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks in March, an American official was quoted as saying that one Tamil Nadu party inserted cash and a voting slip instructing which party to vote for in the morning newspapers - more innovative than handing out money directly to voters. The party concerned denies the charge.

Independent election watchdogs believe that candidates routinely under-report or hide campaign expenses. During the 2009 general elections, nearly all of the 6753 candidates officially declared that they had spent between 45 to 55% of their expenses limit.

After the recent state elections - in three states and one union territory - elected legislators declared that that the average amount of money spent in their campaigns to be only between 39% and 59% of their limits in their official declarations. A total of 76 legislators declared that they did not spend any money on public meetings and processions.

There is something seriously amiss in the state of democracy in India. That is why, most believe, the country urgently needs electoral reforms.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nearly a third of MPs face criminal charges

India's most respected election watchdog Association For Democratic Reforms (ADR) has rolled out a pointed wish-list to clean up India's politics and target corruption. I am sharing some of them:

  • Any person against whom charges have been framed by a court of law or offences punishable for two years or more should not be allowed to contest elections. Candidates charged with serious crimes like murder, rape, kidnapping and extortion should be banned from contesting elections. India's politicians have resisted this saying that opponents regularly file false cases against them.
  • To stop candidates and parties seeking votes on the basis of caste, religion and to stop divisive campaigns, a candidate should be declared a winner only if he or she gets more than 50% plus one vote. When no candidate gets the required number of votes, there should be a run-off between the top two candidates.
  • Voters should have the option of not voting for any of the candidates.
  • A law against use of excessive money in elections by candidates.
  • Despite the clamour for the state funding of elections, it is still not clear how much elections cost in India. Political parties do not come clean on their revenues and expenses, and until there is a clearer picture of how much they spend, it will be difficult to fix an amount. So political parties should give out verifiable accounts, which should be also available for public scrutiny.

The desire for electoral reform is not new.

Since 1990, there have been at least seven hefty comprehensive government-commissioned reports for such reforms.

The Election Commission of India has been saying since 1998 that candidates with pending criminal cases against them should not be allowed to contest.

If there is an overwhelming consensus about these reforms, why have governments sat on it for more than two decades? Ask the politicians.