Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fifth National Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms

The 5th National Conference on Electoral and Political Reforms was held in Mumbai on Jan 31 and Feb 1. The conference was organised by the Association of Democratic Reforms ("ADR") and the National Election Watch ("NEW"). NEW is essentially a national network of various groups led by ADR that watch elections in each states. For readers who are not familiar with ADR and NEW, ADR is the organisation responsible for the practice of candidates filing affidavits with their criminal records and assets while contesting elections. NEW then collects and disseminates such information to the people.

The conference was attended by various NEW constituents from across the country. The CEC, N. Gopalaswami and EC, Dr. Qureshi also attended. EC, Navin Chawla was to attend on Feb 1, but skipped it as the controversy about his alleged bias had broken out by then. Chief Electoral Officers from various states also attended. While the sessions focused on a number of issues relating to elections and politics, there were a few themes running across the various sessions. Broadly, they are:

1. Need for cleaning up voter lists and generating a national voter list;
2. Methods of ensuring that candidates with criminal records stay away from elections;
3. Need to regulate political parties;
4. The need for a "None of the above" option in the EVMs; and
5. Accountability of elected representatives.

On 1, the views of the Commission and the NEW more or less matched. Without going into the details, it looks like we are finally moving towards a system where once a voter is registered in a particular place in the country, it will be easy for her to transfer her registration to any other part of the country. This is expected to improve the voting percentages and ensure that nobody loses his vote just because of moving residence. There are numerous challenges in achieving this and it may take a few years before we have this system, but steps are being taken to do this.

On 2, there is an enormous gap between expectations of the people and the Commission's ability and willingness to reform. Essentially, as we are all aware, merely highlighting criminal records of candidates is not helping. The conference discussed various measures to reduce/eliminate candidates with criminal records. However, unless laws are changed we are dependent on the political leadership to ensure such reduction/elimination. Suggestions regarding shifting burden of proof to the potential candidate in criminal cases, time limits for deciding cases, complete ban on people with "serious" criminal charges were discussed. However,nothing concrete came out on this issue. A similar familiar ground was covered on the need to regulate political parties.

It was on 4 that the conference saw some lively debate. The civil society groups are keen to introduce a "none of the above" vote. The Commission basically said no on the basis of two things- a) confidentiality (with the EVM's, it is apparently difficult to maintain confidentiality of the vote, which means anybody can in theory find out who you or I voted for, which certainly causes concern on other grounds) and b) what happens if the "none of the above" vote wins. Re-elections are difficult. Civil society groups want re-election and a ban on the guys who contested earlier. I do not necessarily agree with "none of the above" vote, but it looks like civil society groups are pursuing this seriously.

On the accountability issue, the conference saw a number of new initiatives by different groups. Broadly, this involved developing citizens' mandate in each constituency and getting candidates to sign it; monitoring performance of elected representatives; monitoring development data at a constituency level, etc. Some of the measures and the people behind them are really interesting and exciting. I hope to write about some of these in more detail soon.

However, the takeaway for me from the conference was the enormous energy and optimism that the various NEW groups across the country are generating in their geographies. I was really inspired by the tales of the tremendous work that these groups are doing in the face of sometimes serious danger to their life. The group of people (ranging from IIT professors to grass root workers in naxal infested areas of Chattisgarh to electoral officers) I heard over the weekend showed that hope is alive and kicking in remotest parts of India but they need a lot of help from each of us to make something out of such hope. Help not only in the form of physical support, but in the form of ideas, ideas that can help them conduct and monitor our elections and democracy better.
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