Today's Editorial

18 April 2017

Clean and inclusive


Source: By Ashok V Desai: The Telegraph


Air passengers are used to watching overweight dignitaries boarding flights at the last minute and taking the best seats in the front row for which they never paid. The television pictures of a Member of Parliament hitting an Air India cabin attendant have accidentally thrown the spotlight on these unimpressive persons we chose to elect. Can the country not get better legislators? Can they not be made to do some work? No one asks these questions; people are resigned to the brand of democracy we have. Except for Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, who was recently in the news for his love marriage with Ila Sharma, Nepal's election commissioner?

They met at a conference in Mexico in October 2015, fell in love, and got quickly married. But romance is not all that occupies Quraishi. He retired as chief election commissioner in 2012, but unlike a typical civil servant who retreats into a somnolent retirement, Quraishi has been trying hard to persuade the powers that be to improve our election process.

Even while he was chief election commissioner, he was dissatisfied with the system he had to administer and suggested changes. For instance in 2011, he wanted a ban on "paid news" — what are in effect advertisements by election candidates but pose as news items. The Election Commission had caught quite a few candidates who had done this. They promised to show the payments as expenses in their accounts after the election; but that was not good enough, for they had already profited from the fake advertisements. Quraishi wants this practice banned, and anyone who does it to be jailed for two years.

He also wanted door- to- door campaigning banned in the 48 hours before an election, for he found that it was at the last moment that candidates paid out bribes to the electorate. I do not see much merit in this; a bribe can be paid any number of hours before an election. The only perfect solution would be to ban house- to- house canvassing, and allow only remote communication on television and by SMSs; all it would require is to give free televisions and cell phones to those who do not have them yet.

Parties are required to file their accounts with the EC, and they do, but they are perfectly free to fake the accounts. Quraishi wants their accounts to be audited by the comptroller and auditor general. The CAG may find manipulation or inaccuracies, but that would be long after the elections; unless adverse findings led to some punishment — deregistration, or a fine — the audit would hardly make parties behave better.

In 2011, Anna Hazare sat in dharna at Jantar Mantar and made the government's life difficult. Amongst his demands were those for the right to reject — a new choice in an election termed "none of the above" — and the right to recall — a kind of negative referendum on a particular elected representative which would lead to his disqualification if a majority voted against him.

Quraishi did not support these rights. The "none of the above" option has been introduced, but there is no fresh election if a majority of voters chooses it, so it is only a useless statistic. I do not know why no one has yet called for the abolition of cash. The government is supposed to have opened a Jan Dhan account for everyone. It should now give everyone a debit card connected to the bank account, and free electronic card readers to anyone who sells anything; then all payments would be electronic. The transition would be many times more traumatic than demonetization, but what does people's convenience matter? The right to recall was introduced in panchayat elections, and was misused by upper castes against lower castes according to Quraishi. It did not spread further, presumably because it would add to public expenditure on elections.

Quraishi was happy that the government recently reduced the maximum size of cash donations to parties from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000. He thought it did not go far enough; he would have banned all cash payments over Rs 2,000. If someone wants to give more than Rs 2,000, he would have to buy pieces of paper from banks called electoral bonds; he would give them to his favourite party, which would then put the bonds into its bank account. The transaction would be known to none besides the donor, the party and the bank; Quraishi would like to see the EC informed too.

The EC introduced expenditure control in 2010, and curbed the use of black money; parties just use of black money to a few weeks before an election made its use illegal. In Quraishi's view, all donations to parties, however small, should be by cheque; cash should be exiled from elections. He would also like benami property deals to be outlawed. More radically, Quraishi would like to clean up the electoral system: criminals should be barred from politics, money power should be checked, and fake and defunct political parties should be deregistered. He would also like the government to be removed from the appointment of election commissioners.

They should be selected by a collegium of current and past commissioners, and removed only through impeachment, just like judges. The EC should be funded from voluntary donations which should be free of tax. He would like greater mechanization of the electoral processes: votes should be picked up from individual electronic voting machines and added together by central computers. If it was done reliably, results would be available the moment the voting closed.

In response to Mayavati's allegations of manipulation of electronic voting machines, he would introduce voter- verified paper audit trail: every time a vote was cast, the voting machine would cough out a piece of paper giving details, which could then be used to trace the vote into the candidate's vote bag. The EC has tested such machines and would like to introduce them, but the government does not give it money.

Quraishi would like to ban the current practice of candidates standing from a number of constituencies to make sure they win somewhere. They also tend to stand from a constituency where they are most likely to win; that cannot be banned. But their and their parties' problem could be solved by proportional representation combined with priority voting: a party would issue a list of candidates based on priority, and depending on the number of seats they get from proportional representation, a number of candidates at the top of their list would be elected. If one still wants people to be able to choose a candidate, one can have a hybrid of firstpast- the- post and proportional representation as in Germany.

But all these options belong to an age that has passed. Now with wireless communications, it is perfectly possible to give the voter the choice by having a referendum on every issue. Parliaments developed in Europe over the 19th and 20th centuries are passé. It is possible to involve every citizen in decision- making. The universal debit card that can be given to everyone can also serve as a vote card. Let us make a start.