Today, I am proud as an Indian. After having completed seventy years of independence, against all odds and defeating all the prophets of doomsday, who signaled the breakdown of India after every major crisis, insurgency or famine, or the death of a prominent leader, right from the Mahatma to Rajiv Gandhi. There are certain things which have become our way of life. Participation in elections, or the lack thereof, is one of them. That was not supposed to be the case according to the conventional wisdom during 1947.
According to historic precedents available during 1947, never before a nation so populous with such a huge percentage being illiterate (around 85%) and significantly poverty stricken, was given the right to vote in inception. It was always a gradual process, beginning with the propertied male, then educated male, then all male, then educated women and so on. In fact, it took the black population of the world’s oldest democracy a civil war to finally get the right to vote in 1960s. A nation as progressive as Switzerland gave its women the Right to Vote as late as in 1971. To quote the former Governor of Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi “India is known in the world for very many things, but three more than others, the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian General Elections”.
We do have a very popular discourse of celebrating the ‘idea of India’. We cherish all its ideals of freedom, liberty, democracy and justice emanating out of the freedom struggle and enshrined in the Constitution. However, popular elections is not only the vehicle of carrying forward but also the ‘glue’ of the idea of India. ‘One person one vote’ is the guiding principle. This is one of the most significant mechanism of the empowerment of the common populace. This is the pedestal from which the common person speaks truth to power. This is one institution where the richest and the poorest person has equal value. This is our medium of ‘democratic assertion’. This is the most complex ‘human experiment on the planet’.
Well, as a sign of caution, let me say at the outset that apart from that last statement in the previous para, all other claims, although true, yet are bit exaggerated. Yes, one person one vote is the guiding principle as far as the queue of the election system is concerned, but nonetheless people with more money and muscle power has more value in the electioneering system than the common person. This surely is the pedestal from where truth to power is spoken, but nevertheless, when compromised with inducements and fear, the truth is compromised as well. Yes, this is certainly our medium of democratic assertion, but also as a result of which we have become an “Elections only democracy”. There is virtually no accountability mechanism in between subsequent elections.
All those mentioned above, and other menaces like politicization of crime and criminalization of politics, corrupt and opaque election funding, fixed opinion polls, fake and paid news, until recently, booth capturing, sharing of power by the privileged, inaccessible political power structure, use of musclemen and so on has apparently led our populace in general, and the youth in particular to a general sense of electoral apathy. This can be evinced by the low electoral turnout year after year.
Nothing can be more disastrous than this and this state of doom and gloom shall change. This can be only done when the electorate believes that they can really bring about a change in the system. That is where the image building exercise and reforms need to be done.
First of all, the appointment to the office of Election Commission shall be made bereft of all political interferences. The Collegium system shall be introduced. The office shall be empowered and given the power of ‘Contempt’ similar to the courts.
The ‘NOTA’ was a right measure to begin with, but without spine, it is rendered useless. It should be empowered, like if a constituency gets majority NOTA votes, re-election needs to be conducted and all the candidates therein shall be debarred from contesting elections for a certain period. Also, I woul stretch it further to introduce the ‘Right to Recall’ as an ingredient of the election system so that we are not only left as an elections-only democracy.
The VVPAT shall be introduced where in the voter gets a paper-based confirmation of his/her vote and all the suspicion about the EVMs wither away.
All political parties shall come under the ambit of the RTI Act. Their financial activities must be accounted for. Clubbed to this is that the funding of the political parties must be made transparent and accountable. Also, the rules regarding election expenses and the mode of campaigning shall be reformed with the demands of the changing times, and the advent of the ‘new media’.
The ECI must be empowered to carry on suo motu investigations against election malpractices and also candidates invoved. Severest of actions shall be taken against malpractitioners like permanent debarment from contesting elections in the future.
Most importantly, the public must feel that they are a stakeholder in the system and can bring about significant change. For this, along with NOTA, the ‘Totaliser’ machines should be introduced which will prevent the political parties to get the booth-level pattern of voting behavior.
As a radical measure, the First-Past-The-Poll system should be changed to proportional representation. This will lead the parties to appeal to the larger populace and not just some caste-community combine and also appeal on substantive issues and not merely rhetorics.
Also, I would personally appeal to the ECI to bring about a reform on which the large size intra national migrant community can vote. In today’s day and age, most of the youth are far away from their homes, living in metro cities and it is most often not possible to return to their native place to cast their vote. Something similar to postal ballot shall be introduced.
The ECI shall utilize the advent of new technologies. Beginning from the process of Voter Registration and the issuing of Voter-ID cards to the casting of vote, a highly secured system of ‘e-Election’ shall be introduced. This will undoubtedly increase the participation manifold.
Also, along with all these hard measures, certain soft-measures need to be introduced. Like the Republic Day and Independence Day, the Voter’s Day shall be celebrated with as much fanfare. Popular superstars from Bollywood, regional Cinema, Cricketers can be made brand ambassadors. Concerts and friendly matches can be introduced. Volunteering internships shall be introduced, where in the youth can intern under the ECI in creating awareness amongst masses and certificates for the same shall be issued along with graded system, which they can add in their CV. Also, every voter shall be awarded with “Active Citizen” certificates, which will automatically increase their personal credit ratings. ‘Electioneering’ as a subject shall be introduced in the school curriculum as a recreational subject and its practical implementation shall be conducted as well. Schools need to be incentivized by way of ratings to inculcate a culture of debate and electioneering in the minds and spirits of the students.
Also, if I am permitted to go a bit radical, I would suggest the ECI shall arrange for ‘packed food” for the voters. I guess the taxpayers wouldn’t mind that much. All in all, it is a two way street. We the civil society shall join hands with the Election Commission and empower each other in other to bring about these substantial reforms and bring back the glory to this monumental institution it most certainly deserves.