Interview

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with M.S. Gill

What is your sense of our democracy? Why do you think that the educated middle class seems to reflect declining faith in the process of elections, political parties?

I have a positive perception of our democracy after five years of looking closely at the prevailing situation and the challenges facing us – a billion people, with low levels of literacy (one of our major failures), great poverty, disparity, and differences in terms of regions, religions, caste, language and culture. There is no doubt that our constitution-makers, Nehru and Ambedkar in particular, made a huge leap of faith in granting adult suffrage. Let us not forget that in many western democracies, it is only recently that women were given the vote. In India, we have total adult suffrage despite criticism from many in the elite who were a part of the Constituent Assembly. So, when I look at the end result – in 54 years we have not missed a polling date, far less an election – we have held onto this process despite difficulties and limited progress in social and economic reforms.

The record in my view is a positive one. I am the last one to claim that we have perfect elections, but I believe no other country has either. We have just seen the recent American Presidential election where they elect one man, using 50 different systems, with all the pulls and pushes and little games. We were witness to those shenanigans. Our elections are not perfect, but substantially well conducted.

Today, if the middle class is unhappy with various aspects of our politics, I am not moved. I believe in the democracy we run. It is the poor, underprivileged people out there who show more faith in the system, despite all the battering they get. They turn out in large numbers during elections in the belief that the people and parties they elect will give them a better programme, a better life. The middle classes turn up in fewer numbers to vote. They are cynical and while they freely criticize, I am not sure how committed they are.

 

Since you said that we have, broadly speaking, fair elections albeit with problems both in their conduct and process, where do you see the greatest problems and challenges? Is the issue of violence and money a procedural issue? Where does the real challenge for Indian democracy lie?

It is not possible to generalize about India, or its elections. Therefore, when you talk of violence, you cannot talk of it across the board. There are large parts of the country that are not so violence-prone as some other parts may be. However, violence in one area tends to set a precedent for neighbouring areas. It has to be checked.

Our Constitution is embedded in the 1935 Act, made with great labour in England, to which we have contributed a great deal as well. In the early years we did not face a real test, but today we are a country of 1000 million people. India is today what Naipaul terms a million mutinies. There is every kind of tension, every kind of push and pull, because people are standing up for their rights, which was not so earlier. Even the deprived classes, who were initially fobbed off with patronage and promises, are today asserting their rights. Every group and sub-group, whether divided by religion, caste or region, is fighting for its share of the cake. A wise democracy must explain that it is important to share, and sharing involves dialogue and debate.

Over the last decade or so, a major problem has arisen in following the British way, of a party remaining in power and exercising state authority while being a candidate at the elections. This has led to a perception in the public mind of the misuse of state power and personnel by the ruling party for improper electoral gain. The opposition invariably complains of the misuse of police and civil services, of state financial resources, of even encouraging violence against opponents.

This is why I had proposed that the elected government resign once elections are announced by the EC. Automatically, Governor’s rule would follow, providing for the proper and neutral functioning of police and civil services. Elections would thus be conducted in a fair and peaceful atmosphere. But there is a caveat. This requires a Governor who is perceived by all political parties to be neutral and just. Therefore, I have argued for long that the time has come to ensure that Governors, for that matter all constitutional functionaries such as the EC itself, be appointed after full, effective consultation between the central government and the opposition. My formula is simple: state elections to be held under a Governor, fairly chosen and carrying the full faith of the people and parties, and not under the government of one of the candidate parties.

It should be noted that Bangladesh has been compelled for similar reasons to follow this route. The current election underway there will be under a temporary neutral government. Both Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Begum are out at the hustings as equals.

I think the Indian EC can be proud of its elaborate procedures and systems. We have both elaborate laws and regulations, which have been refined over 54 years. We have recently introduced systems and technologies; particular mention must be made of compulsory identification of voters through ID cards, electronic voting and a powerful computer network.

All this is very well, but the real challenge is one of a contentious political process obeying the rules of the game, showing respect to the spirit of democracy, and fairness and courtesy to political opponents. Much more needs to be done here, but it has to be done voluntarily from within the political process.

 

Do you also feel the same about the role of money in elections: there is talk of state financing, setting up of ceilings on expenditure. Also if elections are becoming far more expensive, should there be a floor? How can we ensure a floor so that decent candidates come forward?

The true essence of democracy will be lost if money overpowers everything, particularly if the money or a substantial chunk of it is unaccounted cash. That is a common national concern. First, the law. Section 77 in the RP Act provides that there shall be a limit to expenditure (currently Rs 15 lakh for an MP and about Rs 6 lakh for an MLA), and accounts should be filed within 30 days of an election with the district election officer. This is being done. But the whole thing was nullified in the mid-70s by the addition of a proviso that allows money spent by parties or friends not to be counted as an expenditure. Therefore, all candidates are now able to show that they don’t spend more than the legally permissible amount! Everyone knows that a lot of money is spent, some candidates overspending horrendously, but this back-door facility nullifies the controls imposed under Section 77.

The EC has raised this issue in repeated representations to all parties and to successive prime ministers. The Supreme Court has in a number of judgments said that this proviso should be removed and the back door for illegal expenditure by candidates shut.

The proposition set out by the EC is simple. There should be a reasonable limit, revisable for inflation from time to time by the Commission. It should be effectively checkable. This legal lacuna exists because the parties are reluctant to deal with the problem. Indrajit Gupta headed a sub-committee to look into state financing of elections, but both the major parties were not inclined to touch this aspect though the smaller parties were in favour.

As for state financing of elections, we should be very careful, and think calmly before acting on it. Why? It is broadly known that a large chunk of our economy operates on unaccounted money – the estimates vary from 40% to 60%. If that is so and public money given, they will take that and happily go on with illegal spending. If a large part of our economy is working in that manner, with two layers of money, then the fact of officially giving money will not solve the problem.

I am unable to suggest a solution for which we must turn to the economists. This can only be rectified when our economic policy, through financial instruments, can change the reality of a substantially black economy to a nominal one, which we can live with.

But, I believe, that this is not an important idea. The important idea is the one discussed first, that there is a law, but tragically nullified by a proviso to Section 77. This needs to be changed. The Commission can only try with various mechanisms to dampen this splurge at election time. If elections are substantially focused on money, which to an extent has happened – parties choose candidates who can bring in money, not only for themselves but also for the common kitty – will we get the kind of candidates who represent India? The poor, the lower middle class, the professional, the men and women who can really contribute to democracy? All that Mahatma Gandhi stood for is under challenge.

 

Let us shift to another terrain: the issue of defections. It has both plagued stability of electoral systems or legislatures as also parties. Rather than rely on the Speaker of the House, would the matter be better handled by the Election Commission? Do you think the EC ought to take on this complex role?

There is certainly a problem. A law was made with the best of intentions, but we have seen how on technicalities, party’s break and rebreak like earthworms in the monsoon. Every subgroup claims a separate identity, contending to be the stronger or the purer one. The Commission has had to deal with many such cases judicially on issues of recognition and non-recognition and other matters.

Under the anti-defection law, the Speaker of the House is to decide all such break-up cases. There is clearly a problem coming out of the provision taken from British practice, but without the British historical precedent. The Speakers in Britain, chosen through discussion between both parties, are not challenged for 10 to 20 years. As all parties agree, they are no longer put through any electoral turmoil. They become like Supreme Court Chief Justice or Lord Chancellors in England. A honourable Speaker, with such a long and unchallenged tenure would find it much easier to deal with such contentious party break-up questions.

Unfortunately, in our tradition, the Speaker is much more tied to the party’s political process. When an election is declared, Speakers have to first seek and struggle to get a ticket from their party. Then they have to fight fiercely and hard to win. Sometimes they scrape through, sometimes they lose. Often, the Speaker of a previous Parliament, even if the same party is ruling again, is not given the job for party political reasons. In other words, our Speaker is willy-nilly pushed into the parties’ political actions, turmoil and pressures. When a sensitive matter such as defection comes to the Speaker, obviously it will cause difficulties. The result is before all of us.

It is for such reasons that Mr.Sangma, a former Speaker, who knew the practical difficulties of firmly and quickly applying the law to quell such wrong doing or behaviour under the anti-defection law suggested that the job be given to the EC. There is nothing wrong with the law; it is the will to implement it effectively and clearly that is lacking. In my view, Mr. Sangma’s suggestion should be seriously considered. I am clear that the EC being an independent body will be able to address all such question expeditiously, firmly and fairly. The current defection disease will rapidly die.

 

Another issue you have talked about is to do with the representative nature of our legislatures, specifically in the context of women. How do you think the Indian electoral system should handle this?

First, like many others, I am strongly of the view that there should be a more equitable gender representation. Today, we have barely 8% women in Parliament and the state assemblies and this has been so for over 50 years. This is not satisfactory. I believe that if we have a substantially larger number of women in Parliament, it will make for a better Parliament, better policy-making, even a better ambience in every way. It will be a positive step.

In our Constitution we have used reservation in Parliament and assemblies for affirmative action. Our experience shows that while it has been beneficial, it also had some negatives. Reserved seats were to be rotated, but that could not be done, as rotation itself would disrupt the careers of both dalit and other candidates.

If we have 33% reservation for women, along with the SC and ST reservation, we would end up with more than 50% of seats being reserved. Their rotation could cause disruption of the political process. We must remember that women should not fight each other in limited battle, but be part of the open national process. Indira Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Subhashini Ali, Mamata Banerjee and a host of women have defeated the best of men without need of discriminatory advantage. We should also not jump to amend the Constitution frequently. India has 90 odd amendments in 51 years, the USA barely 20 in 200.

The fact is that the problem created by political parties is sought to be transferred onto the Constitution. If the parties put up enough women candidates voluntarily there would be no issue to deal with. The problem has arisen because political parties, barring none, do not guarantee adequate space in the political arena to women.

I have proposed a simple solution: Amend the RP Act by simple majority in the Lok Sabha to say that all political parties shall have to give x percentage of tickets to women at every state election and in every state during parliamentary elections. Let the parties by consensus fix the percentage. This has been done in many West European countries with great benefit. Tony Blair in his two elections ensured adequate tickets to women and the result is a sea-change. The House of Commons had very few women, now they have around 150 with about six in Cabinet. I put my proposal to an all-party meeting. There was widespread agreement with parties barring one or two. I am confident that they will come around to this solution eventually.

 

What about reservations for minorities?

I would not support the idea. If you recall, this was one of the arguments in the Partition debate. We have used reservations for affirmative action, but as explained earlier, the experience of 51 years shows some limitations. In an effectively run democratic process, political parties have to reach out to all sub-groups. India is a coalition of cultures, religions, and languages. Our political parties are sensitive enough to understand the need for wide plural support. No party can govern this country in a narrow exclusiveness of religion, caste or region. I think it is best to let the process go on; the compulsions of power will ensure that no party neglects any sub-group.

 

To go back to the beginning: What is your overall assessment about our democracy?

At one level, one can express considerable satisfaction with the situation considering our difficulties. People like me and in the Election Commission beat our drum and say what a great country, the largest democracy and what a good job we have done in India.

But at the end of it all, I ask myself: Has the spirit of democracy deepened? Has it enhanced over the 13 Parliamentary elections? There, I am afraid, I begin to worry. I am not able to answer so aggressively, easily and positively. Are we able to claim after 54 years that we have a democracy, because democracy really means that we respect each others rights, there is a willingness to listen to each other calmly, no matter how outrageous the arguments, to silently let others have their say; that we do not threaten each other; that we do not feel any fear in following any line or attitude in our country. These are the kinds of questions I find difficult to answer because I think our political process has begun to try and formulate more and more methodologies by which they can overcome handicaps (legal or otherwise) to obtain or retain power, ignoring the true spirit of democracy.

Sometimes the methods used and the threats offered are worrying. It has come to a situation that amuses me also. I would like to go back to a sports analogy! Mohammad Ali said, ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, catch me if you can.’ I ask myself: Is Indian democracy going that way? All those who are protagonists try to follow this short-cut. In other words, I must somehow get by and you, the Election Commission of India, find some method of blocking me, if you can. This is not something I am happy with. Democracy is about all of us accepting self-restraint.

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