Committee for Peoples' Empowerment

Date: Fri, 4 Dec 1998 08:58:57 +200
Subject: CPE Memorandum, submitted by Bharat Shah

Memorandum of CPE to the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms

The Committee for People's Empowerment notes that a meeting of 18 political parties, which was convened by the Vajpayee Government at the end of May to consider the question of electoral reforms, constituted a 7-member committee under the chairmanship of Shri Inderjit Gupta to study this question and to come up with suitable proposals.

A parliamentary committee to consider a question of such vital importance as the mechanisms for the representation of the people should, at the very least, issue an open invitation to the citizens of this country and to their organizations to send their proposals and views on this question to the committee, so that its deliberations have maximum credibility and its conclusions are sound. This has not been done, as far as we are aware. Moreover, judging from the experience of the previous four official meetings on the question of electoral reforms since 1996, it is unlikely that an open and democratic procedure of this kind will be followed in the case of the present Committee as well.

Nevertheless, considering the importance of the issue that this Committee will be dealing with, our organization, the Committee for People's Empowerment, is taking the initiative to put forward for your consideration its views and proposals on the issue of electoral and related reforms. We believe that these are vital for the much-needed renewal of the Indian polity. These views and proposals are the product of several years of study and deliberation, involving a large number of concerned citizens in different parts of the country, that the CPE has carried out since its founding in April 1993. Therefore we believe that these views are broadly representative of what enlightened men and women in India are thinking today, and deserve the most serious consideration.

1. We are considering the question of electoral reforms at a time when the credibility of the Parliament and the various representative institutions, as well as other institutions of state, have reached their lowest level. The demand for basic political reform to stem the all too apparent rot is being voiced by more and more sections of the people, and can no longer be ignored.

2. We are in agreement that reform of the electoral system, that is, of the system of the representation of the people, is urgently needed. However, what kind of electoral reforms are needed can be decided only by keeping in mind what the fundamental problem that ails the polity is.

3. The fundamental problem afflicting the polity is that the prevailing political system marginalizes the people. The majority of the people are not vested with power to take decisions about the fate of the country, decisions which affect their lives in countless ways. They are the targets, or to be more precise, the victims, of official policies and laws, and not the masters of their destiny. Their representatives are not accountable to them in any meaningful way. From this fundamental flaw - that the people are disempowered and deprived of their sovereignty under the existing system - stem all the other apparent ills of this system, including the all-pervasive corruption, dominance of money and muscle power, and so on.

4. The main purpose, the rationale, of any serious electoral or political reform therefore must be to empower the people, and more specifically, to bring power into the base of the society. That is, instead of the present system in which power is concentrated at the apex and it is the top levels that decide what and how much power should percolate to the levels below, the system should be such that power flows in an integrated manner from the base to the top, with control at the base.

5. Looking at the question from this angle, the Committee for People's Empowerment has come to the conclusion that a key to the reform of not just the electoral process, but of the political process as a whole, lies in the selection of potential representatives by the people themselves before the elections. At present, the electorate has virtually no say in the selection of those candidates from among whom they are expected to choose during an election. This decision is made for them by a select group of political parties, and that too, by the high commands of these parties. The system is totally weighted against a candidate of the people who stands on an agenda or platform other than that of one of these political parties. Needless to say, such a system ensures that these candidates are in practice accountable not to the people of their constituencies, but to the high commands of their parties - a totally undemocratic procedure.

6. People live and work amongst their peers. The people must be enabled to select a certain number of candidates from among their peers, from among those whose worth they are qualified to judge, and to elect the most suitable representatives from amongst them. Linked to the question of selection is the question of the nature and size of a particular constituency, as well as of its homogeneity. The present system of delimitation of constituencies, it is widely agreed, is without any sense or logic in most cases. No one is benefited by continuing with the present configuration of constituencies except those parties that have learnt to manipulate the system to yield the maximum number of votes for them through intrigue, money and muscle power. What is needed is constituencies that are of such a size that people know each other personally and can judge the selected candidates through their work, and which are relatively homogenous -- that is, they consist of people who are each others' peers in economic status.

7. Such a system will have the advantage of checking the influence of money and muscle power as well as of breaking the stranglehold of a few political parties over the electoral process. Moreover, it will also go a long way towards ensuring the accountability of the elected towards the electors. In this connection, it is very important that the people have in their hands the right to recall their elected representatives. The right of recall is being viewed with increasing favour by the people as a way of ensuring that their representatives, once elected, faithfully carry out the mandate of the people, and not some separate agenda of their own or of the parties to which they belong.

8. The prevailing political process serves to keep the people from enjoying their right, as citizens of a sovereign republic, to participate actively in the exercise of power. The party in power serves as the gatekeeper to power under this system. Radical rethinking is needed on what should be the role and function of political parties in the political process. Should political parties act as gatekeepers to power, preventing people from coming to power, or should they play the role of organising the people and enabling the people to come to power? At the present time, even parties which are guilty of indulging in the lowest level of self-serving politics, which stand indicted, not only in the eyes of the Indian people, but even in the courts of law, for having engaged in blackmail, robbery and violence against the people, are not disqualified from seeking to come to power. Not only does the system continue to give them recognition and legitimacy, but it rewards them with privileges denied to organizations that work sincerely and without reward for the upliftment of the people.

9. In this connection, the Committee for People's Empowerment would like to place on record its total disagreement with the decision of the 18-party meeting on electoral reforms to institute state funding of the election expenses of the officially "recognised" so-called "national" political parties. It is well known that the funds will be cornered by the already most privileged and well-endowed of the existing parties, who will use it to reinforce their prevailing monopoly of power. Why should the money collected from the hard-pressed taxpayer go to swell the coffers of such parties? Far from breaking the nexus between these parties and big money, as alleged, this will make the positions of these parties, who have a thousand links with big money, more unassailable than before.

10. The Committee for People's Empowerment also records its disagreement with the decision of the 18-party meeting to put off any move towards fresh delimitation of constituencies. This shows a concern to preserve the status quo at all costs.

11. The Committee for People's Empowerment will be happy to have the opportunity to present its views on these and related questions in person before the Parliamentary Committee on electoral reforms. In our opinion, the entire issue ought to be thoroughly debated and discussed in the widest possible forum. We urge that the various organizations of the people, including trade unions, women's organizations, NGOs and so on, should be invited to submit their views on the matter as well. The task of the official and parliamentary bodies should be primarily one of enabling such a discussion and thrashing out of views to take place on the widest possible scale, and to ensure that the decisions on what reforms must be instituted are taken in the most democratic manner possible - for example, through a referendum or through the convening of a special assembly on the lines of a constituent assembly. Only reforms arrived at in such a democratic manner will have the confidence of the people as a whole and serve to regenerate the polity.