Alleged criminals contribute to political stability !

At least a dozen prominent NGOs have filed Public Interest Litigation (PIL)  before the Hon’ble Supreme Court seeking intervention to shut the entry of politicians with criminal background.  These PILs are at various stages of hearing in the assigned Benches of Hon’ble Supreme Court.  The gist of  the prayer before the Hon’ble Supreme Court is as follows:-

(a) That article 326 vis-à-vis article 84/173 contains a bar both express and implicit against crime tainted persons becoming candidates or members.  Consequentially, sections 8, 9 and 11A of the Representation of People Act, 1951 (RPA)   be declared unconstitutional.

(b) Criminalisation affects the basic structure of democracy and there is a constitutional obligation to uphold free and fair elections envisaged under article 326 of the Constitution and thus ensure that the opportunity of one man one vote is neither breached directly or indirectly.

(c) That direction be issued to the Union Government for bringing legislation to disqualify persons with criminal background who have been charged with serious offences punishable for not less than five  years provided the appropriate court has taken cognizance of the offences.  Provided further that the offence was registered not within one year of the election notification.

(d) Further, the direction should require the Legislature to consider making appropriate law on the basis of recommendations by various expert commissions including the Law Commission on this subject.

(e) To fast track the cases of criminals who have entered the legislature with time bound disposal preferably in six months.

As mentioned,  Hon’ble Supreme Court is seized of this very important matter in different Benches.  It would be better to consolidate all such PILs for hearing by a common Bench so that important constitutional and legal issues raised as well as the relief sought are adjudicated and a stamp of  finality is given.

As per the existing provision in the RPA, 1951, anyone  found guilty of a criminal offence and has been convicted for a prison term of two years or more is disqualified to contest election for a period of six years.  The disqualification remains valid unless the operation of the conviction has been stayed   or suspended.  However, the RPA, 1951 provides a relief under section 8(4) to a sitting Member of Parliament or the Legislature of a State, who if convicted will not be automatically disqualified if within three months of the conviction, the elected representative prefers an appeal or revision against conviction.  Thus, the disqualification is suspended till the outcome of the appeal/revision by  a  competent court.

In a recent affidavit filed by the Ministry of Law & Justice, it has been stated that the convicted MPs/MLAs get disqualified only after exhausting all legal remedies and it is based on a legislative policy to “ensure existence and continuity” of an elected House.  The same affidavit also asserts “thus the plea about criminalization of politics based on the factual statement that a large number of sitting MPs are convicts is unsubstantiated”.

It is unfortunate that the criminalization in politics has been dealt in such a manner.  Is it not a fact that 1158 candidates contested  Lok Sabha election in 2009 who have criminal antecedents in terms of charge sheet framed?  Is it not a fact that 150 MPs have criminal record and 72 MPs are facing serious criminal charges.

Significant number of elected representatives  retain their position by maneuvering  the system in such a way that the hearing on their cases get deliberately delayed at the trial court itself.   It is evident  that such privileges are not available to any other category of citizens enjoying public office or otherwise.

One expected that the Union Ministry of Law & Justice should have recognized the menace of criminalization in Indian polity and assured the Hon’ble Supreme Court regarding measures to check the rot.  Deposing before the Committee on Law & Justice, Secretary, Legislative Department, on 25th January, 2007, had proposed a new section 8(b) to keep away from elections those persons alleged to have been having criminal background.  As per the suggestion, persons charged with heinous crimes at least six months prior to the date of nomination for election shall be disqualified unless acquitted.  It was also clarified  by the Secretary, Legislative Department that heinous offences have been identified for this purpose.  The Ethics Committee of the Parliament also in 1999 had suggested to the Government that electoral reforms should be expedited to keep criminals out of the political arena.  Both the Law Commission in its 170th Report and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002), had proposed a bar for entry of persons charged with any offence punishable with imprisonment  of  five years or more.  The Law Ministry, perhaps, avoided any commitment to Hon’ble Supreme Court in order to escape  any likely embarrassment in future.

The first step could have been to enact a law for the political parties which could ban the parties from giving ticket to contest elections to candidates having serious criminal antecedents.   Such heinous crimes could be listed for the purpose.   The Election Commission could be empowered to frame rules which would disqualify the candidates charged  for serious offences to contest elections.  The minimalistic agenda could be that after the election results are announced, the Election Commission may be asked to finalise a list of winning candidates who have serious criminal cases pending against them where charges have been framed by the court of law and these should be forwarded to a fast track court.    Any appeal filed by such candidates against the framing of charges or against later conviction by trial courts, should also be referred to a fast track court set up by the High Court/Supreme Court.  All such matters could be decided within six months.  The membership of the Lok Sabha  or State Assembly of such candidates should remain suspended till the pendency of the case.

The above arrangement would not disturb the stability of the Government. The suggested constitution of fast track court could be immediately implemented without waiting for an exhaustive electoral reform, which has been  evading political consensus.  This would create a level playing field for all parties and would discourage the political parties from giving ticket to criminals.  The criminals would also feel discouraged as they  may be subjected to a fast track decision which does not serve their self-interest.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF

Proposal by Public Interest Foundation on Electoral Reforms in India

The electoral process was set in tune in the independent India with the institution of Election Commission of India (ECI) and the office of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) preceding the enactment of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951. The elections of 1951 captured the euphoria of India’s constitutional democracy. To Sukumar Sen, the first CEC, the elections in India were, unquestionably, ‘the biggest experiment in democracy in human history’ (Guha 2007, 147)1.

The widely contested debate on ensuring democracy to be safe for a 21st century world order evokes a critical thinking within the institutional structure of ‘the great Indian democracy’. The grandeur of the sub-continent’s electoral process is being marred by the escalation of criminals in politics, often,making laws on offences they are associated with. This, indubitably, affects the process of democratisation in the country. As the evidence of substantive democracy finds its presence in the public discourse on issues of governance deficit, there is an exigency to sustain the idea of Indian State constructed on the framework of liberal democracy.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Elections and Creative Accounting

All political parties confirm the truth that contesting elections costs big money and as a rule it is usually over and above legally prescribed limits. This electoral compulsion for enormous amount of funds has become the fountainhead of the “super structure of corruption”.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) determines the ceiling on election expenditure by candidates from time to time. Based on its 2003 notification, the current maximum limit on election expenses for contesting parliamentary constituencies is Rs. 25 lakh. This limit varies from state to state, with the smaller states such as Goa having a ceiling of Rs. 14 lakh and bigger states such as Uttar Pradesh having a limit of Rs. 25 lakh.Despite individual candidates filing an account of their election expenditure, there are no authentic estimates of election expenditure by various candidates in parliamentary elections. To understand the scale of expenditure involved, it is necessary to draw some assumptions and relate these to ECI’s election ceiling limit. For estimation purposes, there are 543 parliamentary constituencies and approximately 15 candidates contesting from each constituency. This has been determined on the basis of the total number of candidates who numbered more than 8,000 in the 2009 general election. If we take the limit of Rs. 21 lakh as the approximate median limit on election expenditure —calculated by averaging the ceilings across 28 states, which range from Rs. 14-25 lakh—the total cost of elections to the 543 parliamentary constituencies works out to around Rs. 1,710.45 crore. In other words, Rs. 1,710.45 crore would be the approximate official election estimate to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as calculated by ECI.

To relate this official expenditure to the actual expenditure incurred by candidates would be to make a farce of ECI’s ceiling on election expenses, which is totally unrealistic when contrasted with the ground-level situation. The cost of transport alone, including fuel and hired vehicle charges, spent by candidates in each constituency will work out to be more than Rs. 20 lakh. This has been estimated on the assumption that a single candidate hires around 20 vehicles for the 45-day campaign period, covering on average of 200km per day with a fuel efficiency of 8km per litre, calculated at the rate of Rs. 70 per litre. In addition, there is the fee of hiring 20 vehicles for the campaign period of 45 days at the rate of Rs. 1,000 each per day. This, however, excludes other expenditures essential to an election campaign such as money spent on party workers, boarding, printing of pamphlets, dole for supporters, etc.

The majority of members of Parliament (MPs) informally admit that the expenditure by candidates in each constituency ranges from Rs. 1-5 crore, with some prestigious constituencies exceeding even these amounts.

When trying to relate the approximate actual election expenditure made on the modest assumption of Rs. 2 crore to the annual income of major political parties for fiscal 2010, it becomes apparent that there is an anomaly between the two. If we take, to give one example, the Bahujan Samaj Party, it contested from 500 constituencies incurring an expenditure of Rs. 105 crore based on the average ceiling limit of Rs. 21 lakh. But its annual income for that fiscal was Rs. 57 crore. This inconsistency requires further probing by the election authorities.A more detailed analysis raises the question of the relevance of imposing such a ceiling on election expenditure, one that is clearly out of sync with the actual expenditure incurred by parties and candidates at the time of elections. Even more worrisome is the fact that these expenditure ceilings apply to the candidates and do not apply to the costs borne by well-wishers, party workers, friends and relatives. In order to rationally account for this, it would be good if the law ministry immediately revises the election expenditure ceiling, raising it to a level that reflects ground realities.

While ECI has made serious efforts to track election expenditure by strengthening the disclosure requirements by candidates and parties, it seems that a huge amount of funds expended remain undisclosed and unaccounted for in official records. Along with a thorough scrutiny of election expenditure, ECI needs to play a more proactive role in enforcing a bare minimum of financial discipline among political parties. This must include full compliance to its operational guidelines on financial reporting on voluntary contributions received and income and expenditure statements.

Based on the information made available by ECI, more than 80% of registered political parties had not submitted both their annual audited account statements and their annual contribution reports. Without the basic maintenance of party accounts including their audit by auditors empanelled with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, public accountability and transparency in the election expenditure of political parties will remain a pipe dream. After all, as former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee observed, why should an MP begin his/her career in Parliament by embracing an untruth.

(This article was published in Mint on 11th June, 2012)

Salient Recommendations of Various Committees on Electoral Reforms

The 2010 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, a global coalition against corruption, clearly shows that nearly three quarters of the 178 countries ranked in the index score below five, on a scale from 10 (very clean) to 0 (highly corrupt).

India at the 87th rank has been earmarked at 3.3 hinting strongly towards serious corruption problems; Denmark tops the list at a score of 9.3, whereas Pakistan is at the score of 2.3 and Somalia is at the rock bottom with a score of 1.1.

The grave issue with the problem of ‘corruption’ is that besides being a bottleneck in itself, it goes on to hinder and thus stifles the life out of any developmental agenda being undertaken. And the dangers engendered though this issue of corruption becomes all the more omnipotent when it infests the very foundation of democracy i.e. electoral processes.

A democracy cannot afford to ignore the populist emotions, and through the entire uprising that our  nation just witnessed towards lobbying for the formation of a political will for the establishment of lokpal bill, goes on to establish beyond all doubts that aam aadmi strongly desires definitive action against all forms of corruption.

Electoral processes as being a high alert area for corruption is a common knowledge, something that even the leaders of all political parties are in consensus with. There are a number of highly-valued government body recommendations on electoral reforms like the Law Commission’s 170th Report on Electoral Reforms of 1999; recommendations from the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution of 2002; Election Commission’s Recommendations on the Electoral reforms of 2004; Department- Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice Eighteenth Report on Electoral Reforms of 2007.

Thus, well-recognizing the pressing need for electoral reforms starting with the year 2011, the Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, had constituted a core committee to look into various aspects on Electoral Reforms in India. It had decided to hold seven regional consultations across various locations in India to elicit views from various stake holders in order to consensually pave the path for electoral reforms. The Election Commission had co-sponsored this exercise. The consultations attempts to address a number of well established  grey areas in the electoral processes like de-criminalisation of politics, de-communalisation of elections, financing of elections, auditing of finances of political parties, conduct, regulation, better management of elections, adjudications of election disputes and media and elections. These seven regional consultations culminated in the National consultation in New Delhi, and attended amongst others by the Prime Minister of India. As a follow-up action to the nation-wide consultation the Law Ministry seems to have already finalized its list of proposed changes to be made to the Representation of People Act, a finalized draft of the same seems to have been forwarded for the consideration of the Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Complete over-hauling of the electoral processes for the second largest democracy of India, in order to bring about total transparency and accountability into the system will be a gradual evolutionary progression, but there are certain immediate measures that can feasibly be taken to mark the first successful step towards an attempt to cleansing our electoral system even if a little at a time. Some of the areas calling for urgent redressal within the election system are de-criminalisation of politics, political parties reforms, state-funding of elections, adoption of certain ingenious methods like ‘no-vote’ option and the ‘right to recall’ in order to make the political functionaries more accountable to the very general public that they claim to represent.

De-criminalisation of Politics: Morality & Integrity Essential for Public Life

De-criminalisation of politics has been an area of concern, regarding which recommendations have come from almost all the high-powered committees constituted to advise the government on the issue of electoral and political party reforms. Law Commission in its recommendations of 1999, had emphasized on reforms in this area at two levels, one is debarring of candidates from contesting an election if charges have been framed against him by a competent court in respect to offences mentioned in the newly proposed section 8-B by the law commission to be incorporated into the Representation of the People Act of 1951. Recommendations from the National Committee to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002) and the Election commission (2004) while agreeing with the essence of the above suggestion by Law Commission, further improvises on it by saying that the law should be amended to provide that any person who is accused of an offence punishable by imprisonment of five years or more should be disqualified from contesting election even when trial is pending, provided charges have been framed against him by a competent court. In the draft being finalized by the Law Ministry and sent for the cabinet’s consideration after rounds of regional and national consultation throughout 2011, seems to have attached an additional clause to the above provision in relation to heinous criminal offences, providing that the above provision however shall not apply in cases where the charges have been framed in less than a year from the filing of nominations, thereby providing for a safeguard against politically motivated cases. Additionally through this finalized draft of 2011 generated after nation-wide consultation, Prime Minister’s Office has also proposed for consideration by the Law commission that a person once convicted by any court of law should be disqualified from elections until he/she is acquitted by a higher court of law, providing for no immunity for a sitting MP or a legislator during the pendency of the appeal.

The second strong and clear recommendation from the Law commission in relation to de-criminalisation of politics is that any candidate seeking to contest election should clearly furnish details assets (movable as well as immovable) of his/her own as well as his spouse and dependants; moreover details regarding criminal cases, if any, pending against him, including a copy of the FIR/complaint and any order made by the concerned court should also be made a part of essential disclosures to be filled at the time of filing nomination papers for contesting any election. Action in regards to have already been taken by the Election Commission by bringing about a revised format in February 2011 for filling affidavit along with election nomination paper in pursuance of the judgment and order dated 13th March , 2003 of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, in Civil Appeal No.490 of 2002. This revised format of filling affidavit makes it compulsory to declare clearly not only the  assets, liabilities of his own as well as his spouse and dependants, but also demands for correct statements regarding criminal background (even if a criminal case is still pending though cognizance has already been taken by the court) and educational qualification. The Election Commission’s 2004 recommendations specifically in regards to the above clause calls for stringent punishment of a minimum period of two years in place of merely six months, while doing away with the alternative clause for fine, in case of furnishing wrong information or concealing any information while filing of the affidavits along with election nomination.  The law Commission’s finalized  draft prepared after nation-wide consultations held in 2011 and sent for cabinet’s consideration, proposes additionally in this regard that any candidate who files a false affidavit regarding his/her assets to contest an election should stand disqualified.

Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) through its National Election Watch Campaign advocates strongly that the above clause for asset disclosure should not be limited to a one-time excise, undertaken only at the time of election by all political functionaries, but should be called upon as a regular annual exercise reinforced through legal binding; all of which should then be made available for public scrutiny by the appropriate authority. ADR also calls for all political parties and candidates to declare their sources of funds well before elections so that voters can make their informed choice, especially in light of repeated news in recent times that political parties get bulk of their funds from unnamed donors.

Yet another actionable step in relation to de-criminalisation of politics that has been proposed by National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution in its 2002 recommendations is that criminal cases against politicians pending before Courts either for trial or in appeal must be disposed off speedily, if necessary, by appointing Special Courts. This suggestion of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, has been seconded by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice of 2007, while further elaborating on it by saying that if a charge sheet in a criminal case is framed in a court of justice against a political person then the case should stand transferred to a Fast Track Court with the mandate that the case be decided at the earliest but within a period of six months, for the sittings of the said Fast Track Court should be held on day-to-day basis till the case is finally disposed off. It additionally states that for the enabling the above the said provisions of the Code of Criminal procedure may be suitably amended, as well as Special Election Courts may be established to decide election related matters.

Political Party Reforms: Bringing Transparency in their Functioning

Political party reforms as an important pre-requisite to cleansing the political and the electoral environment of our country, as well as necessary first step only after which any form of state funding of elections may be considered for the Indian political scenario, has been one area that most importantly needs attention and thus calls for reforms on a most urgent basis.

Law Commission in its 170th Report on Electoral Reforms (1999) had suggested for the inclusion of a completely new Part – IIA, entitled ‘Organization of Political Parties and matters incidental thereto’ to be introduced in the Representation of the People Act of 1951. This new Part-IIA, comprising of Section 11A to 11I, modeled after the German Law on Political Parties provides for the internal democracy of the political parties; the complete adherence of the aims & objectives or goals & ideals of the political parties with that of the Constitution of India; its registration with the Election Commission without which no political party would be permitted to contest elections; general organization of the political parties; maintenance of regular accounts of the political parties of the amounts received by the party, its income, and expenditure, have them audited and submit the same to the Election commission. This Part-IIA also details out the punishment to be met out to the political parties in case of non-compliance of these sections in the form of penalty of Rs. 10,000 for each day of continued non-compliance after notice, as well as withdrawal of registration of the said political party.  Additionally, this report from the Law commission (1999) emphasizes the insertion of another new Section 78A to the Representation of People Act, whereby it provides for stringent punishment for the political parties in case of non-compliance with the maintenance and the disclosure norms regarding the clear and full annual account of the receipt and expenditure incurred by the political parties. The punishments that have been suggested in this Section 78A are a penalty of Rs.10000 for each day of non-compliance as well as de-recognition of the political party by the Election Commission of India in case this non-compliance continues beyond a period of 60 days after notice. The National Commission for the Review of the Working of the Constitution report on electoral reforms (2002) and the Election Commission’s recommendation on electoral reforms (2004) agrees in essence to the registration norms and compulsory maintenance of accounts by political parties duly audited by an independent agency or an agency specified by the Election Commission, as has been suggested above by the Law Commission in its 170th Report of 1999.

ADR through its National Election Watch campaign has also come to certain logical suggestions which may be considered for direct action. In place of insertion of a new section into the Representation of People Act laying down mandatory rules for the reorganization and regulation of all recognized political parties; ADR advocates for the urgent need for a comprehensive Bill to be passed in Parliament for the regulation of the political parties as a whole.

Another very important amendment that the Law Commission has argued for in its 1999 report is the deletion of the Explanation I to the section 77 of the Representation of the People Act. Before the addition of the Explanation I to the section 77, there were limits on the election expenditure since the section 77 of Representation of People Act regulated the election expenditure. But with the introduction of the Explanation-I which says that, ‘Notwithstanding any judgment, order or decision of any court to the contrary, any expenditure incurred or authorized in connection with the election of a candidate by a political party or by any other association or body of persons or by any individual (other than the candidate or his election agent) shall not be deemed to be, and shall not ever be deemed to have been, expenditure in connection with the election incurred or authorized by the candidate or by his election agent for the purposes of this sub-section.’ The result of the introduction of Explanation I has been that now unauthorized party and supporter expenditure in support of the candidate do not count in election expenses incurred by a candidate, for the purpose of ceiling on election expenditure, hence making the limit an exercise in futility. Thereby the deletion of the Explanation I of the section 77 of the Representation of People Act which has also been criticized in several judgments of the Supreme Court since its inception, is a course-correction long over-due.

State Funding of Elections: Setting the Stage for Level-Playing Field for Political Participation by All

Indrajit Gupta Committee Report of 1998 while agrees on the importance of state subvention of political parties, so as to establish a level playing field for parties with even modest income to contest election alongside parties with superior financial resources; but at the same time the Committee was of the view that state subvention of political parties was an initiative that could be considered only after or simultaneous to the above discussed political party reforms have been well established ensuring internal democracy; internal structures; maintenance of accounts, their auditing and submission to Election Commission. For if without these pre-conditions state funding is resorted to, it would not serve the purpose at all of eliminating the role of money power in the form of corporate funding or black money from the scene of Indian election processes. The state funding, without political party reforms would merely become yet another source in addition to all others, for the political parties and candidates to exploit at the cost of public exchequer.  Moreover, the Indrajit Gupta Committee strongly recommended that given the budgetary constraints and the financial stringencies faced currently by the country, only partial state funding may be resorted to at present which can be disbursed as a relief for financing  not only in carrying out their electoral process but also their day-to-day functioning during non-election times. The Committee further elaborated saying that to begin with state funding may be given only in kind in the form of certain facilities to the recognized political parties and their candidates. In light of attempting to regulate the state funding of election, this committee strongly opined that reasonable restrictions by law in respect to matters like wall writing, banners, hoardings, use of vehicles for campaign & publicity etc. The Law Commission in its 170 report on electoral reforms (1999) completely supports all the above recommendations of the Indrajit Gupta Committee in regards state funding of election in India.

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002) though agrees with the recommendations of the Indrajit Gupta committee, has also suggested certain additional measures that may be adopted for immediate implementation in the area of state funding of elections. Firstly it suggested that the election expenses of various legislative bodies should be suitably raised to a reasonable level reflecting the increasing costs. Moreover, this ceiling should be fixed by the Election Commission from time to time and should include all the expenses by the candidate, his political party, or his friends or well-wishers and any other expense incurred in any political activity on behalf of the candidate by an individual or a corporate entity, thereby in effect also calling once again for the deletion of the Explanation I of Section 77 of the Representation of People Act. Secondly political parties as well as individual candidates should be subject to a proper statutory audit of the amounts they spent in the election process. Thirdly campaign period should be considerably reduced.

The Law commission in the final draft towards electoral reforms which it has prepared after nation-wide consultation in 2011 and forwarded for Cabinet’s approval, advocates for law to provide for state funding for the women and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes candidates of recognized political parties. This can be an important step in enabling the marginalized classes and their pressing agendas to become a part of mainstream politics.

Time is Ripe for Immediate-Concurrent Action

Besides the few immediate actionable points suggested above under the various heads of high concern within the electoral process in India, there are other very innovative steps that are also being widely discussed on public platforms to increase the hold of general public on its own right to adult franchise within a representative democracy. Under Section 49(O) the current election rules provide for an option wherein a voter may not vote for any of the candidates, but this option rather being integrated as a choice directly on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), has to be registered separately with the polling both in-charge as a ‘no-vote’ option. This prevalent procedure of registering a ‘no-vote’ option not only violates the fundamental principle of secret ballot; but also would prove to be an effort in vain unless steps are taken to secretly and exactly record the number of ‘no-vote’ polled through EVMS and if these polled exceed that of all other candidates, then that constituency should be obliged to conduct a fresh round of elections with a new set of nominees. In strengthening this ‘no-vote’ option appropriately through integration in the EVMs, there are very high chances that general public will finally succeed in forcing the political party to put up suitable candidates in election.

Another novel idea doing the rounds is that of ‘right to recall’. Recall is a powerful tool to make politicians accountable since it does not require any corruption charges against the public functionary, all that it requires is 25% to 50% of the electorate to be dissatisfied by the MP/MLA’s performance. But ‘right to recall’ elected representatives for perceived non-performance in the middle of the term can also be arbitrary and problematic especially looking at size of the India’s democracy, moreover it can also lead to politically motivated trouble creation by the losing candidates for the ones who are winning. Another caution against ‘right to recall’ is that it has inbuilt danger of inclining the political functionaries towards short-term populist measures lacking any long term developmental agenda. So without questioning the fact that ‘right to recall’ would go a long way in increasing the efficiency and the accountability of the political functionaries at large, what one really needs to debate and deliberate is the feasibility of its applicability in the present political scenario in India.

Holistic, overall reforming of the political and election scenario for upholding the highest tradition of probity and morality in public life in India, is going to be long-drawn process, but what has been suggested above is a package of various measures which may be considered for immediate action and thereby marking atleast the very first step in a positive direction in the entire process of electoral reforms. The overlapping nature of the measures that need to be taken for de-criminalisation of politics, political party reforms, state-funding of elections etc, necessitates that all the steps suggested above are undertaken in simultaneous synchrony to make India’s democracy more efficient as well as more accountable to the aam aadmi.

Promises to keep in the upcoming UP elections

The election to the UP Assembly in 2012 is likely to be the most hotly-contested and closely-watched political event of next year.  As the election date approaches, there are attempts by various political parties to strike a rainbow coalition across socio-economic lines, one that will assure electoral success.

As is widely acknowledged, the role of primordial identities like caste and community will figure prominently in the political strategies of the contesting parties.  But there is also a discernible aspiration among the people of UP for a higher growth model and rapid economic development.

This change would require a paradigm shift in the electoral campaigns of political parties—one that downplays the role of caste and community and replaces it with a developmental agenda. It remains to see whether the main political forces at work are able to weave a vision for all-round economic and social development in securing the people’s mandate.

The challenges facing UP are enormous; the state suffers from a ‘hindu’ rate of economic growth and its people enjoy poor health outcomes and a low per capita income.  Being primarily an agrarian state, it has comparatively low levels of urbanization.  The boom in the services and manufacturing sector experienced in other parts of the country has largely bypassed the state. There is a critical shortage in power generation, coupled with a skewed transmission and distribution network. The power units are financially unviable, wholly dependent on government subsidies to make up for revenue gain and tariff imbalances. The state has no world-class infrastructure to boast about.  The roads are in dire need of up-gradation and the low road connectivity is a major constraint for both agriculture and industries.  There is also serious shortage of skilled manpower within the state.

The IT network, which is a prerequisite both in delivery of public services and economic development, is still very weak in the State.  All in all, the investment climate is far from attractive, and the low morale of the civil and police administration gives little hope for speedy course correction.
If there is to be a political turnaround, the political parties must develop a time-bound list of ‘doables’ or actionable milestones that reflect widely-felt aspirations of the citizens of the state. More than ever, the state needs to break free of its image of being “bimaru”, a byword for corruption and political misgovernance that has characterized everyday life, and set itself on the path to development and good governance.

The first and foremost programme that needs to be taken up in the party manifestoes is good governance. Although this has been promised in all previous elections, specific action on it has largely evaded the voter.   To begin, there should be a State Civil Service Commission for administering the postings and transfers of IAS/IPS/PCS and PPS officials so as to de-politicise such bureaucratic decisions.  There must be strong commitment to introduce police reforms within a year based on the directives of Hon’ble Supreme Court. In addition, a white paper giving a broad outline of work undertaken on the implementation of police reforms should be published in the public domain within the first 100 days of the new government.

Similarly, it is not enough to publicly declare that the scourge of corruption would be routed out.  A concrete plan that lays down systemic reforms for curbing corruption is necessary.  The existing Lokayukta Act of UP suffers from many weak provisions, rendering it an ineffective institutional arrangement at tackling endemic corruption.  It is therefore imperative that model Lokayukta Act circulated by Colloquium of Lokayuktas in 2010 is immediately adopted. In fact, very recently the State of Uttarakhand has passed a strong Lokayukta Act, whose model could be replicated in UP as well.

The buzzword of governance at the cutting-edge level is public convenience and accountability, one which includes an element of citizens’ grievance redressal.  In this regard, it is important that a law ensuring citizen-friendly public services accessible to one and all be introduced in the state.  The States of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Delhi have already enacted laws ensuring essential public services to the people in an assured and time-bound manner.  They have provided legal teeth to largely ineffectual citizens’ charter, thereby making them legally enforceable public entitlements.  Further, these laws fix the accountability of non-performing officials for delays and denials, enforcing penalties which can then be claimed by the aggrieved citizens as compensation.

The political parties should promise to enact a law which incorporates provisions for compulsory and annual disclosure of movable and immovable property and assets by bureaucrats and politicians as well as confiscation of illegally-acquired properties by them.

The state needs to leverage its comparative advantage in the agriculture sector.  The political parties in their election manifesto must promise to relax all restrictions on procurement, processing and marketing of agricultural produce by farmers.  This would require amending the ‘Agricultural Produce Market Committees’ Act which will reduce the burden of cess placed on transactions that take place outside the ‘mandi’ and for auction of a specified quantity of agricultural produce or sale. With the help of ‘mandi’ cess already available with the state, an efficient supply chain upgradation could be made benefitting farmers.

The promise of “water to all” should also be included in the party’s manifesto.  The state has enjoyed an efficient irrigation system, with the number of main and feeder canals successively expanding.  There should be a concrete and viable plan for replenishing the depleting underground water levels as well as other schemes for water preservation in drought-prone areas like Bundelkhand.

The state has an inadequate power supply, poor road connectivity and a sluggish transport network.  Any strategy proposed by political parties for the infrastructure up-gradation must focus on these critical areas along with strengthening existing power and transport networks.  Given that the state is poor in power generation, with an inefficient transmission and distribution system, it is important that the government within two years covers and connects all villages with a population of more than 500 persons with a regular power supply. In addition, the state can make use of the abundance of Central Government assistance in constructing new roads connecting the rural hinterland with peri-urban and the rapidly urbanizing town and cities across the state.

Despite the plethora of welfare schemes and large fund flows, the poor remain mostly unserviced and outside safety-net programmes.  A good beginning could be made by integrating all existing welfare schemes in single-window delivery system for the poor.  In fact, the Delhi Government with the help of non-governmental organisations has experimented with a scheme called “Mission Convergence”, wherein it aims to overcome both the supply and demand side challenges that affect welfare service delivery.  A similar convergence of welfare schemes aimed at the poor could also be implemented in the state.

To improve its poor track record in the implementation of Right to Education Act political parties should promise the adoption of the Act in full earnestness. Further, to make up for the state’s education deficit, a public-private partnership may be struck for the establishment of world-class school infrastructure so that schools remain easily accessible and within every child’s reach. Such a partnership would also address capacity-building issues relating to teachers’ training and course curriculum development.

There should also be a well-structured scholarship programme for SC/ST students upto class XII.  Special hostel facilities should be made available for girl students, who are forced to drop out of the educational system. Such a network of hostels could be identified in collaboration with colleges and located near block headquarters.  Like in Bihar, all girls going to junior high school should be given free cycles.  These programmes should be seen as removing the social disabilities that hamper the spread of education.

Equally important is the modernization of the health sector and expansion of the reach of state-wide health schemes.   A computerized health insurance scheme to cover all citizens with a token contribution by subscribers must be assured.  This scheme could be availed in both private and public hospitals with reimbursement of cost made possible through a Smart Card facility.  Such a programme has already been experimented successfully by the Labour Ministry, Government of India.  Further, to build up state healthcare facilities, district level training centres can be set-up for training of para-medics, nurses and lab assistants to equip them with the latest medical know-how.  A pilot programme to provide widely-prescribed medicines for common diseases could be introduced at primary schools with the placement of trained paramedics which would help reduce the morbidity rate of the state and generally improve health conditions.

To encourage the growth of modern industries, the parties should commit to a cluster programme for the development of industries, making full- use of economies of scale. To attract private capital, there must be concerted effort to end the license-permit raj system with its circuitous process of bureaucratic clearances and inspection.  Government regulation should be exercised through a self-reporting system that places value on performance obligations and provides monetary incentives.

Finally, there needs to be greater decentralization of power in the Panchayati Raj System with an emphasis on building their capacity in terms of funds, functions and functionaries.  Such devolution needs to be participatory with citizens to work as equal partners in grassroots development.

It is clear that UP faces daunting challenges of governance and development. The hope is that whichever political party is elected to power will adopt a pragmatic and action-oriented plan—one which ensures not just law and order but also all-round prosperity for all.