On Electoral Reforms
by Shubham Kothari and Revati Vaidya
Mahatma Gandhi described C. Rajagopalachari as the ‘keeper of his conscience’ – a title he earned as someone who forced people to look the other way and explore narratives beyond the ones they had become accustomed too. Once a veteran congressmen, Rajaji turned anti-congress as a result of his disagreement with the electoral process that Congress was shaping in new, independent, democratic India. Rajaji believed that for the system to become more efficient and robust, electoral reforms were a socially required intervention. Only a strong and meaningful opposition could advocate this and challenge the long-standing hegemony of the Congress. Rising to the occasion, he founded the Swatantra Party in 1959. Although this party did not subvert the power of the congress in the elections, what it did manage to do was create a strong intellectual front against it. Even if the Swatantra Party is no longer part of the Indian political paradigm, the reforms proposed by him still reverberate in the political fabric of the nation.
Rajaji vehemently opposed the proposed electoral process of the Congress, considering it to be excessively expensive and skewed in favour of the ruling party, while creating a hostile atmosphere for the entry of an independent grass-root socio-political worker. It is unfortunate that vestiges of this still remain in the the contemporary electoral process and therefore there is no time like the present to revisit the propositions made by the great reformer. Rajaji, in context of the then debate on reducing funding through simultaneous elections, proposed to reduce a candidates’ expenses by putting the onus of majority of the expense on the state itself. Election expenditure is directed largely to the domain of creating voting and candidate related awareness – to put it plainly, marketing. It assists people in accessing voter ID cards, and exercising their right to vote where this ‘right’ is incentivised with money or gifts to vote in favour of the party in question. It is timed generosity, a competition where the one who provides these inducements to the largest population the fastest wins irrespective of the merit he or she may hold . Rajaji proposed, in order to contain this practice of material-incentivised voting, that the state could, through the medium of the election commission, provide voter IDs without candidate involvement and make provisions for mobile polling booths that would go door-to-door in collection of votes. The responsibility and commitment of the candidate to the campaign could also be made more evident through a manifesto for his/her constituency that would be distributed by the state through the election commission and would in turn reduce the exorbitant cost of election campaigning which is currently restricted to a limited power-play and the politics of comparison aided by shaming and vilification of opponents. Such a manifesto, in order to become a means of campaigning, would touch upon local issues in local languages instead of purporting fancy and impractical promises that seek to appease the public without further plan of implementation. If such reforms were to be put into effect, not only would they enhance transparency and demand accountability from every party, but would open up the election process by creating a level playing field for many deserving candidates who are today unable to compete due to a dearth of resources.
Rajaji also proposed two staged polls at every level, where the head of government would be elected first followed by the rest of MPs. This idea of his could be tweaked to include all of the cabinet ministers and the head of government in a separate poll that would take place first, and the rest of the MPs and MLAs in a separate poll which would be conducted post the declaration of results of the first. This would reduce the inter-party aggression and conflict because the cabinet itself would be shared by multiple parties, forcing them to work together leading to greater synergy. This would lead to improved competency of each ministry as each party or candidate would now have to lay down their manifesto for the ministry that would be made public and directly evaluated by the people, making us a truly representative democracy. Such a system would also be assertive in deconstructing cult politics and provide each candidate an individual importance and recognition beyond their affiliated party, while also allowing expert independents the ability to directly participate in elections for the ministry without claiming allegiance to any party. Reforms like this would require constitutional amendments that have been notoriously blamed to undermine the legitimacy and change the structure of the constitution, but in a world that is constantly innovating to become better – more efficient, more intelligent, more aware – where we are at the cusp of a bigger evolution, should we not make space for political innovation that would free us from the obsolete structures that govern us today? As a democracy and as its citizens, it is our right to decide.