Inclusive democracy: a call of SC halted by an arrogant political class
When it comes to making Indian elections more democratic and inclusive, the country’s political class takes a backseat. Notwithstanding the opposition to Ordinance on MP/MLA conviction by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and BJP, the two parties have never proactively perused electoral reforms.
In the last nine year, the UPA government led by the Congress did not push even a single electoral reform. In fact, they blocked every recommendation made by different Chief Election Commissioners and tried to create a bogey on reforms in the name of conducting consultation on electoral reforms.
The Law Ministry under Veerappa Moily took over a year to conduct regional consultation but the final national consultation never took place. Moily bid could be described as one decent effort to push electoral reforms. Since his departure from the Law ministry, the government has kept the most important reform agenda – that gives right to voters – on a backburner.
In the last four decades, the government had created an eye-wash by constituting committees on electoral reforms. Former Prime Minister V P Singh set up a committee under the then Law Minister Dinesh Goswami. The committee made 107 recommendations but a large proportion of them remained unimplemented, recalled Jagdeep Chhokar of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in one of his lectures.
A few years later NN Vohra committee was constituted “to take stock of all available information about the activities of crime syndicates/mafia organizations linked with government functionaries and political personalities”. None of the members of committee – Director, Intelligence Bureau, and Director, Central Bureau of Investigation — were forthcoming with information forcing Vohra to dictate the final report, which went into a deep freeze.
Then came the Indrajit Gupta Committee followed by the 170th report of the Law Commission in 1999. This was followed by the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, headed by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India, set up former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2000.
In 2008, the second Administrative Reforms Commission set up by the UPA-1 also made several recommendations to cleanse the electoral system. In between these government committees, the Election Commission had proposed 13 major reforms to cleanse the system where around one-third of the elected representatives have a criminal case pending against them.
No major recommendation was accepted irrespective of the party heading the government.
With the political class missing the bandwagon, the Supreme Court stepped in and effected major electoral reforms. The biggest reform came in May 2002 when the court made declaring of criminal record and assets mandatory for every candidate contesting Parliament or state assembly elections.
The second major lot of electoral reforms came in 2013. First when the court asked the Election Commission to regulate manifestos of the political parties in a bid to restrain them from offering freebies. Like always, most parties including Congress and BJP opposed the move saying it curtailed their freedom of expression.
Then the Apex Court wanted that those in custody should not be allowed to contest and imposed disqualification of MPs and MLAs soon after conviction. The first aspect was nullified through amendment to the Representation of People’s Act approved by the Parliament in the monsoon session.
Second was heading the same way till the BJP suggested that the bill should be referred to a standing government. Government got smart and decided to come out with an Ordinance.
Everything was fine till the BJP decided to score some brownie points and opposed the Ordinance. Some young turks in the Congress smelt political rat and opposed the Ordinance through social media. Next day, Gandhi woke up from the slumber and declared his opposition at a presser.
The question arising from these events is why there was no opposition when the bill was approved by the Cabinet and introduced in the Parliament. There were no murmurs when the Congress core committee gave the government go ahead to promulgate the Ordinance.
It is clear that BJP and the Congress were hand in glove to shelve the Supreme Court’s laudatory order on criminalisation of politics. But, elections in five states this winter pushed BJP for a U-turn and the Congress belatedly followed.
The common minimum programme of the political class to snub every electoral reform would continue as they don’t want people to get more assertive. India’s political class does not like anyone dictating terms to them including the courts and they believe in their inherent right to rule Indians.
Things may change in the coming elections as parties are set to receive a blot from the blue from India’s progressive voters.