Thursday, April 9, 2009

Article on Poll Reforms - Unpublished by media

Poll time - Debugging franchise
By Gokul Kishore & Subhashree Kishore

It is poll time again in India. And it is time too to put electoral reforms on the agenda again. The Election Commission of India has begun blown the bugle with the proposed curbs on exit polls.

Democracy evolved to counter concentration of power - monarchy or other forms which often ended up in abuse of power. But de jure leaders in today’s democracy remain de facto kings, no matter victorious or vanquished at the hustings. The general decay in moral standards in public life, the perpetuation of dynastic rule cloaked in modern instruments of power and our impassive response to opportunism being ‘politics is refuge of scoundrels’ or ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’ often undermine faith in this form of governance.

Democracy has become all about winning elections, consolidation and staying rather than serving. Of course some incidental progress happens and India manages to be a functional democracy with separation of powers and guarantee of civil rights but good governance remains elusive. Experiences of developed nations reveal that proportional representation or opinion polls cannot combat selfish interests or bad decisions.

Electoral reform is a topic often debated when the polls are round the corner only to be consigned to the backburner later. Asset declaration and general media outcry against criminals in the fray are major developments perceived as having brought semblance of reforms. But the agenda remains unfinished and of course, daunting. Certain measures do suggest some changes but are confined to addressing administrative difficulties and costs. Something concrete is yet to come up to ensure fairer elections. For, a climate of responsibility is a must and elections should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Not just because of the outgo in monetary terms, but also for the fact that the electoral process is bedrock of the system of governance we have chosen.

Campaign money becomes a quicksand of quid-pro-quo syndrome with candidates seeking to reach maximum voters in a limited time frame and trying to ‘capture’ their imagination. Hardly is there any party immune to corporate lubricants. The largesse from business houses borders on extortion once elections are in the air. State funding has been much talked about and there are no takers as obviously opinion is unanimous that public money cannot be wasted for such ‘undeserving’ exercise. The collection spree gets the tag of voluntary contribution by the loyal supporters and arms of the Indian Income Tax law do not extend in this direction. On a practical plane, campaigning should ideally begin at least six months before elections and emphasis should be on door to door campaign rather than accentuating pollution through loud speakers and festoons, paper handouts and road blocks. Mud slinging and unsubstantiated statements should cease.

Any meeting should be treated sacrosanct. Instead of rabble raising monologues, election meetings can be a two way affair with some time devoted to responding to the queries of voters. Unbridled campaign till the D-Day deprives the voter of his 48 hours of calm to reflect and decide. Campaign restrictions must also extend to other forms of media like private TV channels. Also mandating equal airtime by private channels, if they choose to broadcast political ads, will be a step towards fair campaigns. A code of conduct, self-imposed by the media, may serve the purpose.

Elections cannot be belittled nor electorate slighted by candidates choosing to fight elections whimsically hopping constituency in last minute. Election Commission of India had floated a proposal sometime back to collect cost of resultant bye-election from the candidate. A candidate oblivious of his constituency or its problems, can hardly be represent it and demand measures for its growth. A pre-condition that the candidate should have stayed in his constituency for certain specified period prior to nomination can be explored.

In this era of 24 x 7, the Indian news channels and print media with their battery of psephologists vie to give accurate forecast and analysis. In this process, caste and religion wise vote share is highlighted rather disproportionately. Statistical or scientific analysis may be unbiased but the obsession with such divisive factors is counter-productive and diverts focus from larger issues. Reasonable restrictions must be imposed on such analysis. We don’t need constant reminders about our differences through lens (dis)coloured by caste/religion or social strata. With elections becoming a major law and order issue, staggered poll schedule has become order of the day. In such a scenario, attempt to gauge voting preferences through exit polls, which are inherently unreliable as respondent may not reveal his actual choice, should be regulated effectively. Election Commission has advocated restriction on publishing results of such opinion polls for a particular period.

There is no dearth of suggestions on poll reforms. The political class retains the key to usher them in. Public opinion needs to be mobilized so that the men intending to serve the public, achieve that ‘noble’ end to mutual satisfaction.

No comments: