Bringing electoral ethics back

Tags: Op-ed
Bringing electoral ethics back
DOUBLE TROUBLE: BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi (C) waves during an election rally in Ghaziabad on April 3. Modi is contesting from Vadodara in Gujarat and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in this year’s general election
The first general election in independent India were stretched over a period of five months, from October 1951 to February 1952. But that was the time of ballot papers and ballot boxes being transported by rail and bullock carts, even on donkey backs and as head loads. It must have been an incredible exercise then which still remains a Herculean task.

This year’s elections will be conducted in nine phases over April and May. In recent times, we can take pride in the fact that we conduct our elections very efficiently and credibly. But that’s all we can feel proud about. The illiterate manner in which we cast our votes and the dexterity with which political parties rig and manipulate the results without contravening laws, is shameful. False promises are made shamelessly, caste formulae are blatantly exploited effectively pre-empting results, criminals are fielded so that their criminality intimidates voters and deals are made after election results if they are not deceived. Like much of our public life, even in electoral practices, we suffer from a deficit of honesty and ethics.

I was at a seminar for young college students and was troubled when one of the speakers said that we should all have our own ethics and live by them. I can accept the fact that we must all live within our abilities to be ethical, but ethics are common and unalterable, just as in honesty, there must be no versions of ethics. The tamasha that the general election have become has been even more so this time around, with so many ‘influences’, ‘ambitions’ and ‘spoilers’, the confusion and subterfuge has been compounded and in partnership, have made a mockery of the election process. The election commission (EC) must be commended for how fairly and justly they conduct the process of electioneering with the limited powers at their disposal, but they don’t have sufficient teeth to punish and punish severely; or to put the fear of god in candidates and political parties. The EC must have the power to instantly disqualify candidates for serious infringements and a system. As in football, there should be a yellow card as a warning and an accumulation of yellow cards inviting disqualification and, of course, a red card for major infringement of directives. Political parties and candidates must fear the EC as much as god during the course of elections. Election officers found guilty of ignoring infringements and going easy on parties and candidates must also be subjected to instant punishment.

There should be a system of auditing political parties on the promises they make to the electorate during elections and how much do they implement if they come to power. These should, like the CAG report about practices of government and result of its policies, be a political audit of political parties’ promises and implementation, which must be made public by a body constituted by the EC or even better still by an act of Parliament. In a way, it would act as a lokpal for ethical politics. Don’t dismiss it as being too idealistic; if we are going to bring back ethics and honesty in public life, some drastic measures become inevitable.

Ideally, there should be a law which says that parties that fight elections against each other must not be allowed to form post electoral alliances since these would be unethical, at least for the pendency of the term of the elected body they fought the elections for. It’s fine to say that there are no permanent enemies in politics, but opportunistic one-night stands must also be discouraged. If adultery is frowned upon, it should be discouraged in politics too.

Candidates fighting from multiple constituencies must not be allowed. It unnecessarily burdens the exchequer to hold by-elections later on. If candidates are allowed to stand from multiple constituencies, it must be made difficult for them. A candidate standing from multiple constituencies must declare at the time of filing nominations which constituency they will discard in case they win from multiple constituencies. This way, voters will not vote with half knowledge. When a candidate fighting from multiple constituencies wins from more than one constituencies and discards one, there should not be a re-election. Since we follow the rule of first across the winning line, the same principal must be adhered to and the losing candidate — the number two in the contest — must be declared the winner.

In South Africa, voters vote for a party, the party puts up a list of, I think two or three candidates in order of preference for the party in that constituency and if the party wins, the first on the list occupies the seat in the legislature. In case that candidate is disqualified, resigns or dies during the term, the second on the party’s list takes her or his place. We should follow the same principle too, but till then, let’s implement the second in race policy, so that it will discourage parties from putting up candidates from multiple constituencies too.

Let’s make a change to get ethics and honesty back into our elections.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

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