The 2021 is ending with the Government giving a new twist to our electoral process. The Government should be thanked. For, going by the Bill, poll campaign need not remain a “battle ground” and “money guzzler”. This new move has also potential to cut short the poll duration to a week instead of a three-month long affair. And now the government need not take in 2022 another legislation for simultaneous poll for assembly and Lok Sabha!
Bill passed with hardly any debate
Amid yet another uproar, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passed on December 20 and 21 a bill proposing amendments to the electoral law of 1950. Despite contentious context, the bill was passed in both the Houses by voice vote with hardly any debate. Not only most parties opposed the proposal of linking Aadhar and voter ID that the Bill primarily aims at, 14 civil society organisations, including ADR,NKSS, National Alliances, promptly opposed and described the proposal as “for mass disenfranchisement.” And, an opportunity of sending the Bill to a select Committee was rejected.
A couple of days before the Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha, in an unprecedented way the Chief Election Commissioner and the two Election Commissioners participated in a virtual meeting organised by the Prime Minister’s office for a briefing as if summoned by the Law Ministry. The ECI, constitutionally independent body, is expected to be transparent and hold elections in a “free and fair way”. ECI always held any such consultations by inviting all registered political parties at a place like Vigyan Bhawan or at its own Suchana Bhawan. Against the context of the kind of allegations against ECI for succumbing to the incumbent, the opposition had also criticised that meet at PMO in solo amounts “a surrender of ECI” to the party in power and its “caving in”.
Minister says it cleanses electoral process
While introducing the Bill, the Law Minister contended that by linking Aadhar number with voter registration 1)”cleanses the electoral process”, 2) prevents multiple voting from electoral rolls, 3) makes the electoral process credible, and 4) empowers the electoral officer to ask for validation of voting right with Aadhar number (not only in the case of new voters but even the ones already on rolls). The Bill provides that no application for inclusion of name in electoral roll shall be denied if individual is able to furnish or intimate Aadhar number. The Bill now gives that power as a discretion to the electoral registration officer. The Minister also maintained that this amendment is in fulfilment of long pending reform agenda. Whereas as it is too obvious that the Bill is for neither of these objectives, rather it is obvious that it blatantly ignores again any of the electoral reforms suggested by the Law Commission and other committees including the constitution review committee. And a decline in the credibility of the process as is being reminded election after election recently.
It enables the ruling party to take control of electoral process
This amendment now is rather timed and aims to enable the party in power take control of the electoral process (from ECI) on the eve of crucial elections to the State Assemblies and the general election thereafter. The ECI is not provided with say on Aadhar operations.
In my latest book now, “Next Big Game Changer of Elections in India”, I discussed the compulsion and urgency of changes in our electoral practices, most of which require no amendment to the PR Act or any other. Most important need is to allow ECI to function independently and assertively as reminded even by the Supreme Court, redraft poll codes and that all parties, including the incumbent, adhere to the model code, and that the incumbent should restrain from influencing the process directly and indirectly. More urgent initiatives required include to do with funding, pre-qualification of candidates so that criminal and antisocial elements are avoided by parties, rationalise duration of poll phases such a way to complete voting in one week. The Amendment has not dealt with any of these more urgent issues.
SC observations ignored
Why the linking Aadhar number with voting ID is being opposed overwhelmingly and yet why the Government hurriedly considered that as a reform when it circumvents the right of citizen and the status of ECI. And goes about with an Amendment in the 1950 Act ignoring even Supreme Court observations more than once both on the use and misuse of Aadhar and on the functioning of ECI.
The bill passed by both the Houses of parliament undermines the ECI. It is ECI which should decide how an eligible voter could be deprived from voting, whether anyone is voting from more than one constituency. In fact, never before ECI has come up with this problem nor it has any data on how many figure in electoral roll from more than one booth or constituency, how confidentiality in voting should be ensured, how the authenticity of a voter should be ensured as all these come under “free and fairness” of poll. And, already a list of voter identification options are indicated by ECI and this list already includes Aadhar, and,it is for the ECI to decide conditions under which voter registration officers should function.
It amounts to depriving eligible voters
This linking empowers electoral officers with discretion to disqualify a otherwise eligible citizen already registered (as in the case of online deletion of otherwise eligible voters from voting using F7 of ECI, for example). If Aadhar is made an obligation (although only as an option on record) even a noncitizen with Aadhar could end up voting at the discretion of the officer (using F6). Insisting on Aadhar number by linking with voter ID number facilitates the party in power in particular to reach out, influence beneficiaries of various public schemes, the party in government could manipulate “remote voting” even selectively as enrolment and dis enrolment could be even by on line and in the last minute of voting depriving some eligible voters (as happened in Telangana recently, for example).
Suggestions of committees ignored for 25 years
For 25 years the governments did nothing to take on the suggestions made by more than five high power committees for poll reforms. In the meanwhile, the elections of 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019 have changed the very scope of representative character of elections pointing to new compulsions and priorities. Instead of taking any of those urgent initiatives, the government has now taken to this abrupt move of linking voter ID with Aadhar. I refer to seven more critical correctives which are far more urgent to rejuvenate the slagging credibility of elections and parliamentary democracy.
7 critical correctives
First, recent four elections point to the fact that it is corporate funding which decides the representative character of our legislatures not so much by merit. Already 70 percent of funding of winners is by corporates, according to what the sitting Lok Sabha members themselves have declared. There are hardly twenty-five sitting members now who were elected with their own money or and crowd funding. By a legislation for Electoral Bonds this government even regularised this corporatisation. without reversing this trend rather urgently no poll reform will make a difference. Second, what difference any initiative now makes a difference if we cannot change the character of contestants and representation. Despite self-declared information of winners in 2019 there is no respite, the number with criminal or corrupt background is on increase election after election, not on decline. If we cannot bring change the way candidates are selected by parties, what difference anything else could be expected? Third, election after election it has come out how voters are being induced with outright lures and promises of all kind. If that trend continues can we expect any better governance? Recent devastating observations of Madras High Court reminded this trend. Fourth, we have been witnessing recently,that elections have become battle ground with no holds bar and serious consequences of divides, divisive and deepening disparities. Should this not be a priority? Fifth, with increasing polarisation of parties, can we expect anything different without political parties coming under some regulation, transparency and having internal democracy as per their own constitution and coming under ECI clout? Sixth, the model code of elections lost its sanctity as if no one cares for it or busy in circumventing the provisions. Can we expect anything better from our elections without complying to codes? We could not even reposition the model code of conduct of candidates and parties. Seven, without sustaining independence of ECI can we ensure credibility of elections? And poll after poll ECI has been the loser despite the Supreme Court’s reminder of its powers in 2006,2011 and 2013 what initiatives have been taken to restore and reposition ECI. Should not these be far more urgent priority for the government to take on? Without these initiatives, what difference this linking voter ID with Aadhar number is going to make? Guess!!
(Dr N Bhaskara Rao is a public policy analyst of over 50 years standing and with more than a dozen books encompassing many of the issues discussed here).