Electoral Reforms Consultations

Posted on May 26, 2011. Filed under: Elections, Politics |

For the best possible democracy:
Electoral Reform Consultations
by Jagdeep S Chhokar

GovernanceNow, February 16-21, 2011, pp.32-33
The law minister and the
chief election commissioner
announced a major initiative
on electoral reforms on December
9. They announced
that seven regional and one
national consultation would be held over
the next couple of months with political
parties, NGOs and other stakeholders for
a comprehensive overhaul of the electoral
laws. It was indicated that the proposals
would be ready for initiating action
within six months of the national consultation
in New Delhi on April 2-3, 2011.

Our electoral laws were made almost 60
years ago, during idealistic times in the
afterglow of independence. While there
has been no shortage of ideas and recommendations
(see accompanying box for
the list of reports) and there have been
piecemeal amendments from time to
time, the laws, as a body, are almost completely
out of tune with current ground
realities. The initiative to collect views
from across the country in order to make
comprehensive reforms is thus very
welcome.
The whole effort can be looked at from
two perspectives: content and process.
One way of getting at the content is obviously
to study all the existing recommendations
and the amendments and
their rationale, see how they match up
with existing realities and how things are
likely to evolve in the years to come, and
then develop the proposals for change.
This can be improved by consultations
with a wide cross-section of people. This
is precisely what the law ministry and the
election commission set out to do with the
seven regional and one national consultation,
and that is what raised high hopes.
There have been five consultations so
far, at Bhopal, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow,
and Chandigarh, but the process
followed during the consultations, sadly,
does not inspire much confidence. The
first consultation in Bhopal seemed limited
to politicians and bureaucrats making
speeches. Based on feedback given after
Bhopal, the format at Kolkata was revised
to include parallel panel discussions. The
same format has been followed at Mumbai,
Lucknow, and Chandigarh.
The Chandigarh consultation
The consultation at Chandigarh was
scheduled for February 5, at the Judicial
Academy, consisting of three sessions: inaugural
session (10 am to 12 noon), three
parallel panel sessions (12 noon to 1.30
pm), and the valedictory session (1.35 pm
to 2.15 pm). What actually happened is
revealing.
The inaugural session started with a
‘welcome address’ by the registrar of the
National Law University, Patiala, followed
by an ‘introduction on (sic) electoral reforms’
by Vivek Tankha, additional solicitor
general of India, and the chairman
of the core committee on electoral
reforms constituted by the law ministry.
‘Thoughts on electoral reforms’ by Bhupinder
Singh Hooda, chief minister of
Haryana, followed. Next was a talk on
‘the need for electoral reforms in India’
by S Y Quraishi, chief election commissioner.
Then there were ‘thoughts on electoral
reforms’ by Manish Tewari, Salman
Khurshid and Pawan Bansal, followed by
‘agenda for electoral reforms’ by M Veerappa
Moily, law minister. Following this,
the governor of Punjab, Shivraj Patil, delivered
the ‘inaugural address’, followed
by the ‘vote of thanks’ by Mohan Jain, additional
solicitor general. What is important
to note is that the session started at
10 am and lasted till 1.30 pm.
The parallel ‘panel sessions’ were officially
and technically reduced from 90
minutes (12 noon to 1.30 pm) to one hour
(1.30-2.30) but actually lasted only 45
minutes (starting at 1.45 pm and finishing
at 2.30 pm). Two panel sessions had
six listed panelists each, and the third
had seven. In the panel session that I
attended, the panelists spoke for barely
five minutes each, that too with the
chairperson almost constantly exhorting
them to be brief, and two other participants
got to speak for about a couple of
minutes each.
The panel sessions were to be followed
by the valedictory session, which was
supposed to comprise of six items, each
of five minutes. These, as listed, were (i)
opening remarks, (ii) I panel chairperson’s
presentation, (iii) II panel chairperson’s
presentation, (iv) III panel chairperson’s
presentation (v) address by chief
election commissioner, and (vi) reflections
by M Veerappa Moily, union minister
for law and justice. This was to be followed
by a 10-minute “prize distribution
for the best research papers,” ending the
programme at 2.15 pm.
When the panel session participants
reached the venue of the valedictory session,
around 2.30 pm, Pawan Bansal was
giving prizes to the students and there
was hardly anyone else around. Most
people had moved on to lunch.
The first three rows in the Judicial
Academy auditorium were reserved for
‘VVIPs’, next two for ‘advocates’, the next
two for ‘judicial officers’, and one after
that for ‘press’. The remaining seemed occupied
by a lot of young people in formal
attire who seemed to be students.
Of the 19 panelists listed for the three
panel sessions, there were five politicians,
five academics (three of whom were professors
of law), four from the media, three
advocates, and two bureaucrats (one retired
IPS officer and one serving IAS officer).
The three professors of law and three
advocates, taken together, make six legal
professionals out of the total 19 panelists.
Reflections
The process followed for the five consultations
conducted so far certainly seems
to have involved local political figures, including
chief ministers. For example, in
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh chief minister
Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s remarks that the
Rajya Sabha should be closed down, as its
memberships were being freely bought
and sold at the time of elections, were a
major news story. Similarly, at Lucknow,
the media reported that it was the first
non-BSP event attended by Mayawati after
becoming chief minister. However,
the event at Chandigarh seemed to be
meant almost exclusively for the Congress.
In addition to the speakers mentioned
above, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and
Vidya Stokes were also on the main dais
though they did not speak. There were
some representatives of the BJP, INLD,
and NCP among the panelists but the Akalis
were conspicuous by their absence.
All the five consultations held so far
seem to have been dominated by the legal
fraternity. This is also indicated by the
composition of nine-member ‘core committee’
constituted by the law ministry
“to work as a nodal committee for electoral
reforms”. The committee consisted
of three additional solicitor generals, one
legal scholar, one advocate, one additional
secretary to the government of India
(law ministry), one joint secretary and
legislative council, one person from a civil
society organisation, and four research
fellows. As a natural corollary to this
composition, the consultation in Mumbai
was held in and organised by the law department
of Bombay University, and the
one in Chandigarh was held at the Judicial
Academy.
It is of course true that any significant
change in the electoral process would
necessarily require fresh legislation but
the assumption that only politician, legal
experts and bureaucrats will be able
to put together the most appropriate legislation
is not correct. There are a lot of
other people in the population, and not
limited to organised civil society groups,
who have experience and knowledge of
the electoral process and may be able to
contribute meaningfully to the ongoing
exercise.
A couple of examples of potentially significant
contributors come to mind. One
is the former supreme court judge and
the former chairman of the law commission
of India, Justice B P Jeevan Reddy,
under whose stewardship the 170th report
of the law commission of India on
electoral reforms was prepared. Though
it was written in 1999 and therefore may
require some updating in view of the
changes in the situation on the ground,
it remains, by far, the most comprehensive
document on the subject in the country.
The others are the former chief election
commissioners, J M Lyngdoh and N
Gopalaswami.
The other concern is the lack of general
awareness about this exercise. At Lucknow,
two days before the proposed consultation,
a large section of the media did
not seem aware of what was planned. The
situation in Chandigarh was different, as
the media seemed fully aware. It is difficult
to say if that was the result of the high
“power” speakers or otherwise. Following
the media reports, one is struck about the
lack of “buzz” about this extremely significant
exercise in the country.
Reforming the electoral process in the
country is actually the most important
activity in the governance of the nation
since the making of the constitution, as the
chief election commissioner, S Y Quraishi
has often said. This indeed is true and the
electoral process is the backbone of the
functioning of our democracy. For democracy
to bear its just fruits, it is necessary
for the electoral process to be effective
and efficient, and to cover the entire political
spectrum, including the functioning
of political parties. It is hoped the process
will be recalibrated to ensure that the
outcome is the best possible for the future
of democracy in the country. 

Electoral reforms: the
reports so far
1. The Second Administrative Reforms
Commission (2008)
2. Election Commission of India – Proposed
Electoral Reforms (2004)
3. National Commission to review the Working
of the Constitution (2001)
4. Law Commission Report on Reform of the
Electoral Laws (1999)
5. Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of
Election (1998)
6. Vohra Committee Report (1993)
7. Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms
(1990)
Chhokar is a former professor, dean and
director-in-charge of Indian Institute of
Management, Ahmedabad, and a founding
member of Association for Democratic
Reforms (www.adrindia.org) and National
Election Watch.

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    This blog contains Jagdeep S. Chhokar’s views, opinions, and comments on variety of issues.

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