Election Commission empowered to enforce clean politics

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in its order dated July 5, 2013 has directed the Election Commission of India (ECI) to frame guidelines for regulating the contents of election manifesto.  Further, the Supreme Court has observed that the manifestoes even if announced before the notification of election dates, should be brought within the code of conduct as an exception.  It is evident that the order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court to ECI is under Article 324 of the Constitution which entrusts the responsibility for conducting elections in a free and fair manner to ECI.  It is a landmark decision to ensure transparency, accountability and level playing field to all the political parties.  If honestly implemented, the political parties would not resort to the divisive policies and freebies to attract the “vote bank”.  Promises on freebies by political parties have no  linkage with the financial health of the State, likely tax burden and impact on the state revenue.  In the USA, all promises of financial nature during elections are subjected to serious scrutiny by the media, think tanks and the candidates are often called upon during the televised debate to balance the implications of receipt and expenditure.  Political parties in India do not have such obligations, and they only compete with each other to upscale the ‘free’ products.  While working in a State Government, I had once advised against promise of higher cane price on grounds of poor sugar recovery and very heavy cane arrears.  The truth was that the poor farmers did not get  their cane dues for 3-4 years, because the sugar mills were unviable under the cane price dispensation.  On the other hand, the farmers were coerced to make repayment of agricultural credit.  The point being made is that the value of freebies is not really free gift voucher, but short-term gain to a political party.

Recently, Central Information Commission have given a decision that the listed political parties, i.e. AICC/INC, BJP, CPIM, CPI, NCP and BSP are public authorities under Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.  This order mainly seeks to ensure a pro-active disclosure of financial nature, donations, funding of election which, in some manner,  is already required by ECI.  It is expected that the parties would not be required under RTI to provide rationale for selection of candidates, internal management of the party etc.  Perhaps, there is a case for clarification regarding the nature of information to be made available under RTI.  This would soften the all-round opposition to the  pro-active disclosure and the political parties ganging up to challenge the decision may be dissuaded.

The above two developments, i.e. order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court and the decision of the Central Information Commission, are very much in line with the various commissions constituted by the Government which have highlighted the need for regulating financial transparency and inner democracy within the political party system.  Our Constitution, except for the Schedule dealing with the disqualification of a person as a Member of either House of Parliament or the Legislative Assembly, does not make a specific mention of political parties.  The very bedrock of Indian parliamentary system was left to the evolution of healthy convention and respect for rights of the association of body of individuals to constitute a political party registered by the ECI.  Hon’ble Supreme Court in the judgment of July 5, 2013 has stated that the Parliament should frame a new law to regulate political parties in the country.  This was earlier recommended by the Law Commission of India and also by Justice Venkatachalliah Commission on the Review of the Constitution.  Former Chief Justice of India, MN Venkatachalliah  has guided the Centre for Standards in Public Life in the preparation of a draft bill on political parties.  Therefore, the Government does not have to invent a new wheel and it could initiate a dialogue amongst political parties to arrive at  least intrusive law relating to the affairs of political parties.

The most serious challenge before the Election Commission is its capacity to enforce various rules and regulations and also model code of conduct.  Few examples would highlight the point being made.  Section 29C of the Representation of People Act, 1951,  requires all registered political parties to submit an annual report to the ECI on all contributions in excess of twenty thousand rupees for being eligible for any tax relief.  In response to an RTI application, ECI has conveyed that only 8% of 1196 registered political parties have submitted annual reports in 2010-11 regarding contributions above twenty thousand rupees  to the Election Commission.    ECI  under section 29A of the RPA 1951 requires political parties to submit their audited annual financial statements within six months of the end of each financial year.  ECI has made a shocking revelation that out of a total of 1196 registered political parties only 174 have actually submitted an annual audited financial statement for year 2010-11. Further follow-up action is not known.   As the power to withdraw the eligibility of tax exemption is with the Finance Ministry, ECI has sent the list of the parties who are in non-compliance to that Ministry.

The efficacy of powers granted to the ECI is seriously compromised in the absence of a specific provision for imposing penalty on defaulting political parties.  A culture of blatant disobedience among registered political parties has taken roots.  Does the ECI have powers to de-register a political party?  The judgment of the Apex Court dated 10.05.2002 is that the present act and rules do not empower the ECI to de-register a political party.   At least 500  registered  political parties do not have authentic addresses and have never participated in  any  State or national level election.  The ECI proposal sent in 1998 to Government of India to empower ECI with de-registration is still under consideration.

In the absence of any regulation on parties, the nation risks an atmosphere of ruthless politics with little or no public accountability.  The citizen today is aghast to notice that main national political parties are even trivializing the acts of terrorism threatening the national security.  It is a pity that well-established security and investigative agencies are being debated  with half baked information ultimately causing great damage to the integrity of the institutions.  The well-established conventions have been given a go-bye and selective leak is no longer perceived as a serious breach of indiscipline.

In conclusion, three action points emerge for immediate attention.    Firstly, the ECI should frame guidelines under the model code of conduct for election manifesto of political parties; secondly, the Law Ministry without further delay should at least initiate legal reforms based on ECI proposal on issues which are non-controversial.  The power to ECI for de-registration of political parties is one such example. Thirdly, the Government should act upon the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court and also the Law Commission recommendations for major electoral reforms and regulating of the political parties.  The minimum that citizens can be promised is an authentic public information regarding defaults by political parties on binding disclosures.  Is it too much to ask in this great democracy?

(This article has been published in The New Indian Express on 15th July, 2013 and Dainik Jagran on 11th July, 2013)