Forum for Electoral Integrity met for a preliminary discussion on 29th August at Chennai. The consultation received good response and 16 invitees from various civil societies participated which included our organization 5th Pillar. Mr. Vijay Anand participated in this discussion and a follow up was scheduled for the 12th September 2010. Earlier some of the invitees, including N.Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner had responded with valuable suggestions. These were compiled and circulated and also distributed at the meeting.
The meeting was chaired by Mr. G.Narayanaswamy. After his introductory remarks highlighting the criticality of the initiative in ensuring the survival of India’s Democracy, all the participants expressed their views in a clear and candid manner. Following important suggestions emerged out of the deliberations.
(i) At the macro-level evolve a Democratic Agenda to rally public in general and youth in particular towards a Movement for cleansing the electoral process.
(ii) Emphasise on Election Commissioners being appointed in a transparent manner by an ‘independent body’.
(iii) Section 49 (O) – Right to Reject – should be part of the balloting process
(iv) Election expenses should be concurrently audited
(v) EC should evolve stringent ‘code of conduct’ for eliminating the ‘paid news’ syndrome.
(vi) Relentless public pressure on bureaucrats and police not to allow ‘money-power’ to sway the elections.
(vii) Need to address the issue of political and bureaucratic corruption in order to effectively contain money-power in elections.
(viii) Launch a public movement for ‘Electoral Integrity’ in line with the JP Movement of the Seventies.
(ix) Strengthen the hands of the bureaucrats to ensure free and fair elections.
(x) Youth, particularly students in Colleges should be reached through extensive use of electronic instruments like Internet and Mobile phones
(xi) Networking of all concerned NGOs, citizen groups and Resident Associations.
(xii) Direct appeal to Editors/Owners of media houses to contain ‘paid-news’ menace.
(xiii) Distribution of freebies and liquor should be banned.
(xiv) Government should steps down sixty days before the poll day, and the polling should be held under President's rule.
(xv) Interaction with higher judiciary for sensitization and stressing the need for speedy disposal of election-related cases
(xvi) Constituting High Court level Special Tribunals to expeditiously dispose of election petitions and other election related cases
(xvii) Professional and eminent educational Institutions should be roped into this task
(xviii) Special strategy to reach out to the poor and low-income voters who are the real targets of ‘cash-for-votes’.
(xix) EC and the CEOs are expressing helplessness I dealing with cash-for-votes. Is it because the administrative machinery is within the grip of the ruling party? This grave anomaly needs to be seriously addressed.
(xx) CEO or EC should suspend the election process in an entire constituency, when widespread malpractices and corruption become known and well publicized.
2. Response by Experts
To the points raised above, two experts – Naresh Gupta and DK Oza – former CEOs of Tamil Nadu responded with their views.
(i) Electoral Reforms is a long process. We must attempt only what is doable and put forth workable solutions
(ii) Close monitoring, accounting and booking of election expenses and taking swift action to disqualify candidates violating model code of conduct could be effective.
(iii) Information is that in the new bribe-giving model that is in vogue, hired people are distributing money in an organised and structured manner. Difficult to establish a nexus with contesting candidates.
(iv) Information, Education, Communication (IEC) campaign should be taken up in a big way through media and public mobilization. This could be very useful.
(v) Through the Election Observers, EC can intensely monitor sensitive constituencies where cash-for-vote menace is the maximum. Based on the credible evidence gathered if EC can postpone/cancel elections in some of the worst constituencies it can have a very salutary and psychological effect.
(vi) EC has limitless mandate to ensure free and fair election. Constitution provides for it and Supreme Court has confirmed it.
(vii) Election Commissions observers is a good scheme but it needs to be strengthened and fast-tracked to achieve the desired results.
(viii) Institutional involvement is important for ensuring electoral integrity. Panchayati Raj institutions could pay a vital role in checking electoral malpractices (distribution of money, alcohol, intimidation, impersonation, blatantly religious or communal propaganda, etc.)
(ix) Involving the corporate sector and its apex bodies like CII, FICCI, etc. could be seriously considered.
(x) More than anything else we should concentrate on the EC for remedial action instead of frittering efforts to send Memos and delegations to PM etc. As a Group we should call on the Election Commission ASAP.
3. Summing Up
M.G.Devasahayam, Convener of the Forum expressed his views and also summed up the deliberations:
(i) All the points raised are valid and valuable. But most of them are vast and time consuming in nature. As rightly pointed out by Naresh Gupta and DK Oza, in the short term we should attempt what is doable and concentrate on the EC.
(ii) Right thinking Electorate (which is the majority) is looking for exemplary and effective action and expects EC to come down heavily in the blatant exhibition and deployment of money-power in elections. Why can’t EC countermand elections in constituencies where massive money power is being deployed — as described in Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act — that can send shivers down the spine of the ‘cash-and-carry candidates’ who are destroying the credibility of the electoral process? Is it the failure of EC or the much celebrated band of ‘Observers’ who does not seem to be doing anything worthwhile except enjoying some ‘outing’ at taxpayer’s expense!
(iii) As of now provision for countermanding of election in a constituency is available under Section 59 A 2(b) of the Act for ‘booth capturing’ which covers the physical act of taking possession of polling stations, ballot-boxes/EVM or ballot-papers because of which ‘result of the election is likely to be affected’. Since proven pre-poll vote purchase would also have the same ‘result’ there is nothing wrong in invoking this strong psychological weapon to make the elections free and fair, which is the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission.
(iv) Instead of we going to New Delhi on a delegation to meet EC, there is a possibility of EC coming to Chennai to discuss with the delegation and also participate in a ‘Open House’ to find ways and means to severely contain the malaise of money-power in elections. He is in touch with the EC and would work out the details.