Jagdeep S Chhokar, one of founders of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the former IIM Ahmedabad professor says that even though there are no real positive changes in the country’s democracy, there is hope for the future
Maharashtra and Haryana have shown the way in implementing the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) ballot option for voters in the intended spirit after they issued orders last year, which makes an election in a constituency invalid if NOTA get more votes than each of the candidates, said Jagdeep S Chhokar, one of founders of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR)—the NGO that works in the area of electoral and political reforms.
In fact, the State Election Commission, Haryana, went a step further and inserted provisions in the law to bar the candidates—those who got less votes than NOTA—from contesting the follow-up elections. However, Chhokar said that most people consider NOTA to be a waste of vote. “What should happen is that if NOTA gets more votes than each candidate, then the election should be annulled and a fresh election should be held within a week. Only then will better candidates come forth,” he said.
The ADR is credited with intervening in the case where the Supreme Court ordered the Election Commission of India to provide the NOTA button on electronic voting machines. The organisation was also involved in getting the Supreme Court to bar the sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from holding office on being convicted by a court.
Further, the trend of candidates with criminal antecedents being elected as MPs has not abated despite a bar on convicted candidates, Chhokar said, and added that it was primarily because conviction takes years in the regular judicial process.
Currently, nearly a third of the Lok Sabha members have criminal records against them, and nearly half the constituencies had three or more candidates with criminal records in the past election, which the ADR refers to as ‘red alert constituencies’.
At the same time, it has been argued that criminal charges are sometimes levelled at the behest of the Opposition politicians and can also result from police action against participants taking part in protest marches, for instance. This could present an inflated picture of criminals in Parliament. “We have been telling the political class to amend the Indian Penal Code, and make a list of political charges, then we will not include those. We are reproducing what they say in the affidavits under oath. Let there be a clear distinction made between such charges either by Parliament or the Supreme Court,” Chhokar responded.
On the issue of political funding, Chhokar said that the electoral bonds scheme was “the biggest scandal of the last 70 years.” The ADR has also petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the implementation of the scheme before the elections. The government, while introducing the scheme in the 2017-18 Union Budget, had dubbed it as an instrument to check the flow of unaccounted money in funding political parties.
“The Supreme Court had held that the voters have the right to know the antecedents of the candidates in an election, which was the basis of mandating that all the candidates file affidavits listing criminal cases against them. But the electoral bonds conceal the identity of political donors which violates the voters’ fundamental rights. Secondly, the way it was passed as a money Bill is unconstitutional,” he said.
The scheme started in March 2018 and till January this year, over Rs 1,400 crore worth of bonds have been encashed by the political parties. According to the available data, the BJP received 95% of the electoral bonds in value terms, purchased in March last year. Chhokar added that the scheme has the potential of choking the Opposition parties of funds.
Further, he said that the State Bank of India (SBI) is the only authorised bank to sell these bonds. “They will collect all KYC particulars, but will not share with anybody, so why collect details if the information is to remain hidden. The bonds have changed the mode of collection of money which used to have some retail element earlier. The purchase of high denomination electoral bonds has moved the funding from retail to wholesale,” Chhokar added.
While the former Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, professor said that there were no real positive changes in the country’s democracy, he added that there is hope for the future. He also said that Indian voters were “pre-constrained” in the choice of candidates who were chosen by the political parties. Further, the elected representatives, after becoming lawmakers, had precious little freedom of choice on voting for a Bill as they go by the party whip.
“We undergo motions of conducting elections. I have come to believe that we don’t have real democracy. The reason is that while all the voters say that they elect the government, but it’s actually a political party that designates a candidate, for which the electorates vote. And although we do have independent candidates, the number of independent candidates getting elected has been progressively going down over the years. In the current Parliament, there are only three independent candidates,” he said.
However, he admitted that compared to countries that became independent around the same time, India is the only country that has enjoyed sustained democracy, barring a two-year period during the Emergency (1975-77). “Look at the state of democracy in our neighbouring countries. We stand far ahead. Lastly, the ADR has existed for over 19 years, which, in itself, is testimony to our democracy,” he said.