Our National Election Commission

By Dr.Rao VBJ. Chelikani

It is time that the Election Commission of India becomes pro-active to promote better democratic practices on the part of our political class.  It is probably one of the very few valiant institutions about which an average voter is not very cynical and whose objectivity, he does not doubt much. It has been, so far, able to protect the citizens’ statutory right to vote freely and fairly. With the introduction of the electronic voting machines with the possibility to visually verify one’s vote, its efficiency has increased enormously, in spite of the enormity of the task. The Commission, in principle, can do more and better within the given scope since it is vested with the power of superintendence, direction, and control of elections under the Constitution. But, as most of the members of the ECI come from the same bureaucracy, by reflex and temperament, they are restraining themselves from being totally independent of the national bureaucracy, barring some exceptions like Mr. Seshan.  The Commissioners should be given the same importance and immunity as the justices of the Supreme Court or the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha or the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

The Electoral Rolls: In order to fulfil its mandate properly, the ECI should take over the responsibility of preparing and maintaining the Electoral Rolls on its own or get it done by a private sector agency which assumes the responsibility for its exactitude. The fact that during all these years, we have been unable to prepare a faultless list of eligible voters and that every revision is leading to some other mistakes betrays the incredibly low levels of efficiency of the personnel in various departments of the Administration. It denotes their low levels of linguistic abilities and computer literacy and wastage of enormous amounts of energies and public money. We have also to take into account the lakhs of man-hours diverted to this task by various high level officers, every year, while not being available to attend to their own official tasks, to the pending files and not meeting the concerned citizens. The political parties cannot be blamed for the present state of affairs, except that they have not been helping to improve the Rolls.

Now, it is technically possible to maintain one single master electronic list of all those who are eligible to vote, based on their national identity (Aadhaar) number. The same list can be re-formated to prepare lists to suit the local wards, teachers or graduate constituencies, age and number of children, etc. A citizen should be able to vote, at his choice by e-mail, from an e-seva centre or a cyber-cafe or from his own smartphone from anywhere. Non-resident Indians also should be made eligible to vote, in the same way, since they have a stake in the country, gauging from the foreign remittances we have been receiving from them. In such conditions, it would be very difficult for the political parties to manipulate the voters and the polling percentage will also increase enormously, especially of the urban voters. As a result, the quality of the candidates elected would be much better.

The ECI should transform itself into an institution tht guides, trains and instructs in all democratic practices concerning elections in all gatherings and institutions. Such a mission statement should be included in the Constitution by an amendment.

In view of such a mission, it should conduct not only the central and state elections but also the local body elections through a single election agency with a full-fledged staff of its own. At present, the state election commissions are, understandably having difficulties to be independent of the pressures of the state governments. The present Chief Electoral Officer in each state, belonging to the same state cadre, is also not able to be very assertive. S/he should be from another state cadre. The CEO should also supervise the selection of the ward committee members and Area Sabha representatives in the municipalities. Extending the scope of action, the CEO should be able to nominate observers to the elections of many more institutions, such as the cooperative societies, political parties, trade unions, professional associations of lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, journalists, students, etc.

iii) Voting Ethics: The urban citizens are neither lazy nor indifferent to public affairs, but they are discouraged with the proceedings as well as the results of the elections. Their taking the trouble to go out and vote does not seem to give them the satisfaction of getting ‘good’ governance. In other words, they do not have respect for the political class. In addition to imposing a strict code of conduct to the candidates, their followers and to the political parties, the ECI should teach them democratic ethics to all those who are in public affairs. The ECI should associate itself with the civil society organisations in order to make the voters aware of these values. Giving or receiving bribes should be made a cognizable offence.

iv). The Option of NOTA: The option for a voter to declare that None of the Above candidates deserves his vote is introduced in India due to the Supreme Court Directive in 2013, as sought by an NGO. When a voter presses this button, it means that he has no confidence in those who presented themselves as candidates. NOTA expresses the voice of the urban middle-class intellectuals; it is their protest, negative and angry vote. It is not a rural vote, nor of the low-income groups who have their own use of certain candidates, unlike the middle classes. In a system where a vote is gradually becoming a consent vote in favour of the party-nominees, it will compel the parties to nominate better candidates.

Since 2014, there have been many instances, where the votes received by the candidates and by some of the parties are less than the votes polled by NOTA.It is time now that such a negative vote and its number should directly affect the results in the future. Already, the State Election Commissions of Maharastra and Haryana have ruled that if all the candidates individually receive lesser votes than NOTA, then not only none of them should be declared as elected, but also all such contesting candidates shall not be eligible to refile the nominations or contest the re-election. The ECI also should apply the same rule. Further, such independent or the party candidate should forfeit or reimburse any financial aid received from the state. He also should be debarred from contesting the next elections from the same constituency. At the national level also applying the same logic, if a political party receives fewer votes than the NOTA votes in total, then, such a party should be de-registered.

v). Modes of Representation: The present system of elections, the First Past the Post (FPTP) reflects well our search for convergence of persons and attitudes. It obliges the citizens and also the candidates to make efforts towards an attitude of reconciliation, inclusion, synthesis, and consensus, instead of differentiation. Out of a population of 100 people, usually, 65% are eligible to vote and out of them, sometimes, less than ten per cent of them might, by a relative majority, decide the winner. S/he would nevertheless become a representative of the interests of all the hundred people. Whereas, in the West European countries, where politics is not an obsession, the politicians are at pains to distinguish themselves from each other in the eyes of the electors. That is why, the professional politicians, who are a vanishing tribe there, want to project or represent their perceptions and views to be reflected in the ministerial posts in order to share power proportionately. The same system of Proportional Representation, if applied in India, would run the risk of further dividing the society in proportions to our diverse castes, tribes, religions, languages, and regions.

vi) The Election Commission of India should claim and obtain judicial powers or separate ad-hoc tribunals to be attached to it, so that it can, during the elections take on the spot decisions. Since most of the official observers, available during the elections are of the rank of a first class magistrate, there would not be a problem to build such ad hoc, judicial teams.