Why electoral reforms are overdue?


By DM Deshpande*

India is about to host the world’s biggest electoral exercise shortly. It is also going to be the world’s costliest event. The US is believed to have spent $ 6.5 billion in it’s last presidential elections in 2016 while India is projected to spend US $7 billion or Rs 50,000 crores in the 17th Lok Sabha elections according to the Centre for Media Studies, Delhi. This is a 40 per cent hike over the previous elections which give some idea of how inflation is pushing up costs in every way.

Indian elections would cover huge geographies that include diverse people, groups and communities. The sheer size and diversity is mind boggling. Numbers too are staggering- 900 million people eligible to vote, 10 million officials in charge of conducting elections, one million voting booths, around 900 contestants aiming for 545 seats and over 500 political parties of all hue in the fray.

The Election Commission (EC) does a commendable job in  planning, organsing and executing abilities against all types of odds. So why have electoral reforms become essential? Because, the system is beset with and plagued by deficiencies and challenges of various types ranging from lack of transparency in the process, persons with criminal background entering the fray and money power. The EC needs to raise voter participation and substantially improve inner party democracy which is largely defunct now.  In short, influence of 3 M’s viz. money, muscle and media need to be controlled if not be curbed entirely. Within media, the latest edition is the social media which is prone to all sorts of manipulation and misuse. It is projected that spend on social media is likely to jump from Rs 250 crores in 2014 to over Rs 5,000 crore in this elections.

Back of the envelop calculation shows per voter spend to be US $ 8 in a country where 60 per cent of the population lives below US $3 per day. All sorts of ‘gifts’ are given to influence voters, from TV’s to bikes to blenders, occasionally even goats! The combined income of all big parties through the year 2018 is just Rs 1,300 crores. While there is a cap on individual spending in elections, no such restriction is there for political parties.  Even a one percent swing in vote is sufficient at times to get 10 to 15 Lok Sabha seats which in the era of coalition could be huge, if not decisive.

How far are our M.P’s representative of Indians? Not much, in fact, next to nil. One, in terms of average age, our M.P’s are getting older. In the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha the mean average age of parliamentarians was 55. Compare this with mean median age of Indians-just 26. Two-third of the population is below the age of 35. In contrast, ageing and advanced nations such as UK, Italy, Canada and France have younger elected leaders.

Two, more than 20 per cent of M.P’s have criminal cases against them with some cases grave and heinous. These numbers are going up suggesting the urgent need to take measures to reverse the trend. Three, 82 per cent of the present lot of M.P’s are crorepatis! Their numbers too are going up indicating that our legislatures are no places for the poor in the country!

Four, on gender the performance of our legislatures is nothing to write home about. Just 12 per cent of the current M.P’s are women. It is not very different for state legislatures, corporations or even the village level panchayats. We have been talking about women’s reservation bill for the last four decades!.

It is no body’s case that only a poor should represent the poor masses of India. Nor is the proposition that highly educated should be at the helm of political affairs. Two considerations are important. One, the connect between the elected representative and the people and second whether he/she understands the needs and challenges of the economy and is ready to respond in an efficient, transparent and time bound manner. This in essence is a principal-agent relationship we talk about in economics.

As an agent, a M.P has to do what he is supposed to, in the best interest of his principal, viz. people whom he/she represents. Finally, the size of the parliament in terms of numbers of M.P’s is frozen. So you have a situation where in some constituencies voters number is in few thousands whereas it could go up to three million in bigger constituencies. We have to grapple with this question of increasing the numbers of M.P’s which is like opening a Pandora’s box. It is only sensible that we undertake some crucial electoral reforms before this exercise.


*The writer is in the field of higher education- teaching, research and administration for nearly four decades. Presently he is the Vice Chancellor of ISBM University, Chattisgarh.