India has the distinction of being the largest democracy in the world and election is an integral component of the democratic system. A successful democracy is based on the free and fair elections and not on the rigged and manipulated ones. While politics is the art and practice of dealing with the political power, the election is a process of legitimisation of such power. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is a permanent constitutional body that was established on 25th January, 1950. The ECI is the guardian of free and fair elections in India. Post independence, the elections are held after every five years at the state and national levels to choose the representatives of the people and to elect the government. The Article 326 of the Indian Constitution deals with election to the House of People and to the legislative assemblies of the state.
Over the years, there have been a number of electoral reforms in India. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years by the Amendment to the Constitution (1st Amendment) Act, 1988 and this enfranchised a whole new generation of voters. Under the Representation of People Act, 1951 a new Section 13CC was added, which provides that the officers or staff engaged in the preparation, revision and correction of electoral rolls for elections shall be deemed to be on deputation of Election Commission for the period of such employment and such personnel during that period, be subject to the control, superintendence and discipline of Election Commission. Besides, the number of electors who were required to sign as proposers in nomination papers for elections to the Council of States and Legislative Council have been increased to 10 per cent of the electors of the constituency of ten such electors whichever is less to prevent frivolous candidates. The Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) were used on an experimental basis for the first time in assembly constituencies in states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and New Delhi for the General Elections in November, 1988. The Election Commission was empowered under Article 324 of the Constitution to use EVM during elections and it successfully accomplished the vital task of the introduction of photo identity cards for all the voters in the country. This has been successful in weeding out the bogus and duplicate entries during the elections.
The NOTA (None Of The Above Option) was used for the first time in the Assembly Elections held in five states in 2013. It was introduced in the electronic voting machines after the honourable Supreme Court delivered the landmark judgement in Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India Case. The option of NOTA upheld and recognised the rights of the citizens to not to cast a vote while maintaining his secrecy during such abstinence. The true spirit of democracy lies in giving the citizens power to exercise their rights. NOTA replaced the process of filling the form 17(A), which was used in order to cast a negative vote. The form 17 (A) was under the Section 49 (O) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961
The elections have become synonymous with corruption, communalism, violence and power. The criminalisation of politics has led to the misuse of money and power. It is tough to expect fair and just decisions when the law breakers have become the law makers. The inclusion of anti-social elements in the legislative assemblies have diluted the essence of democracy and led to a feeble electoral system. Money power has a baneful influence on the elections in the country. In fact, it has vitiated our democratic system. The voters are purchased like saleable commodities and the highest bidder can carry the day. Caste and religion have a decisive influence on the ultimate voting behaviour and election results. The leaders elected on the religious and caste lines are apt to show favours to the adherents of their cast and religion. It has been seen and often reported that the employees preparing electoral rolls sometimes deliberately ignore certain section of voters by their names and not entering them in the electoral rolls at the instance of interested parties. On account of emergence of coalition era, stability of our governments both at the state and country level has gone to the winds. Hence there are too frequent elections, and the voters develop a sort of electoral fatigue. Since the implementation of our Constitution, impersonation of voters has been a main prank of main political parties which matters the most. Even the dead and absentee voters could be impersonated with the connivance of their families and some polling officers. Too many candidates in the fray for elections is said to be the glaring defect of electoral system in India because it spoils the chance of good candidates winning the elections. All these defects of our electoral system induce our political analysts to clamour for electoral reforms so that our democratic edifice attains stability and the representatives elected may render dedicated service to the nation.
Despite several reforms initiated, these issues are still paralysing the Indian Electoral System for decades. Consequently, the number of committees had been appointed to examine these issues and the major challenges affecting Indian Electoral System. The committees include the Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990), the Vohra Committee (1993), the Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998), the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001), the ECI Proposed Electoral Reforms (2004), the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC- 2008) and the Law Commission of India. All these committees pointed towards the divergence and irregularities in the election process and then made recommendations for its implementations.
The Section 8 of Representation of People Act strongly advocates for the disqualification of candidates with criminal background. But as per the Section 8, a person is disqualified from elections only on conviction by a court of law. The Election Commission has time and again proposed the amendment of this law to provide that any person who is accused of a punishable offence by imprisonment for 5 years or more should be disqualified from contesting the elections. The Election Commission strongly advocates for the fact that this will play an important role in cleaning up the Indian political system. In July, 2013, the honourable Supreme Court gave a ruling that the MPs and MLAS who were convicted of serious crimes be barred from contesting elections. But the implementation of this clause has not been strictly adhered to in the Indian elections. The opponents of this law have been firm on the opinion that a person is presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty by a court of law.
It is paradoxical that everyone including the Election Commission knows that the ceiling of the expenditures fixed for elections is just enough to cover up the small proportion of actual expenses. There are no means by which the Election Commission could check the expenditure done by the candidates and political parties during the elections. During the election period, the State and Central Governments embark on the advertisement spree in the guise of providing information to the public. The expenditure incurred on these is recovered from public exchequer. This gives the government which is in power an edge over the others. Recently, the Union Government has announced the Electoral Bonds Scheme in 2017-18 in the Union Budget as part of certain electoral funding reforms. These bonds will prompt donors to take banking route to donate, with their identity captured by the issuing authority. The paid news and political advertisements have risen exponentially in the regional and national media.
Election Commission has laid down a model code of conduct for the guidance of both the political parties and the candidates contesting elections. Some of these codes are (i) Since the announcement of elections, the ministers and other concerned authorities should not announce the financial grants in any form, (ii) Ministers, MPs and MLAS of the ruling party should not combine official visits with the electioneering work, (iii) The ministers and the other concerned officials shall not advance payments out of discretionary quotas after the announcement of elections, (iv) Criticism of other parties is to be kept confined to their policies, plans and their implementations etc. These set of norms have been evolved with the consensus of political parties who have consented to abide by the principles embodied in the said code in its letter and spirit. But the bitter truth is that these rules are openly flouted and never abided by. The predicament is not the lack of laws, but their strict execution and implementation.
Over the years, the Election Commission has conducted a number of laudable reforms to strengthen the democracy and conduct free and fair elections. However, there is still a lot that can be done. The Election Commission needs to be vested with more power and authority. It should have the power to penalise the politicians and political parties who disobey the electoral laws. The political parties need to show their will to abide by the reforms. It is high time that the citizens of India rise above the issues of religion, caste and community, vote on the basis of their convictions. The citizens must be aware of their rights and duties. An enlightened voter is the cornerstone of a successful democracy. All these reforms will go a long way towards making India a democracy in its true sense.