Electoral Reforms Consultations
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.