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Election laws need new dimensions

December 30, 2009 15:21 IST

A law making it compulsory to vote, a none-of-the-above feature, as well as the right to recall and neutral democracy at the grassroots can go a long way in stimulating the democratic processes, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar

Once again, a few points on the emerging pattern of new voting laws for local bodies in Gujarat.

Now, after the law on making voting mandatory for all local bodies, from gram panchayat to municipal corporations, the talk is of some more refreshing proposals including conferring the voters with the right to recall people they had elected. In fact, it ought to set the trend for the entire country, and possibly lead to the amendment of the laws that govern elections to parliament and state assemblies as well.

To start with, those who had misgivings about the law to make voting mandatory in the local bodies elections should now see that on balance, when the right to recall is introduced as proposed in that state, is a happy thing. To my mind, both are welcome.

Recall rights

The right to recall can be one of the biggest reforms in election laws that are in force in the country, offering a big disincentive to politicians who, once elected, use the mandate as a prospective omnibus approval for all their misdeeds, including misgovernance and amassing of wealth while pretending to be public servants.

That empowerment of the people could well be something significantly more than all checks now available, including public censure, court interventions etc and the latter involving inordinate delays in the legal system which often gets subverted by the rich and the powerful.

However, since the law is contemplated and is to evolve into a bill first for legislative consideration, there is the need to make it foolproof in that the right to recall is not used for political rivalries to aggravate, as, for example, the no-confidence motions in zilla parishads where scores are settled.

Voter centric

A fine-tuned, well-considered law can be a best instrument in the hands of the citizens entitled to vote. It should not be in the hands of the politicians or political parties to decide who should be subject to the law of recall but the people themselves should have that prerogative. How this should be done is a matter for debate, hoping that Narendra Modi would take sage counsel from those who offer it. Yes, it can be tricky but some thought ought to go into that.

As said already last week, I insist that it does not matter that the laws made and proposed are architectured by the man demonised countrywide for Godhra and the later events. This is not a brief for Narendra Modi but I underscore the idea that any good law from any source is worth considering. The messenger does not pollute a message. The messenger does not taint it in any which way.

No contests

There is, it should be remembered, a practice in Gujarat where the gram panchayats are elected unanimously, which is a euphemism for no-contests, wherein rewards are given for the villages. While the positive spin-off is that the villages could be spared of any acrimony that politics brings in, it divests the people to voice dissent, look for options, and make it competitive. That could be bad for democracy.

Absence of competitive politics can also be regressive for it can bring complacency in its wake. Complacency could even lead to non-governance instead of promote governance. There could be some unforeseen mischief. Indian genius to subvert the best intentions were visible in Maharashtra where a third of the seats are reserved for women in local bodies and men send their wives, daughters, daughters-in-law to contest from there. That promotes dynasties, not necessarily empower women. Once the seats revolve and others get reserved for women, the released seats are reoccupied by the men.

Reconcile any contradictions

There is, therefore, a need for a serious effort to reconcile these contradictions and harmonise them with the new, good proposals.

Speaking at an event in Mumbai, organised by the Jains, Narendra Modi said something about his plans to ensure the right to recall being linked to the need to promote 'neutral politics'. He was not cryptic but did elaborate but the media gave it no attention or if it did, it was casual, far too casual for an important issue.

'The measure (the negative vote) will compel political parties only to put up good candidates and do good politics,' he is quoted as having said. And 'when we make voting mandatory, the voter will become important and political parties will have to address concerns of all,' he said, 'and not just vote-banks'. Good. Negative vote is what makes democracy people-centric from the present politician-centric arrangement.

Change choices

Electing good people is expected of people but there is a deficit of such people among the political parties. The Gujarat Local Authorities Law (Amendment) Act 2009 has the none-of-the-above (NOTA) feature which is a good devise to force the political parties worry about the kind of people they put on the ballot.

Indeed, it is time to ensure that while democracy is to be strengthened, it is important that local bodies are depoliticised. But that has been easier said than done for these elections are not contested on symbols of any political parties at the gram panchayat levels but by professional politicians. There is, on the other hand, anecdotal evidence indicating that well-meaning public-spirited men and women have done far more to their villages when driven by passion for service than what all the professional politicians, full of shibboleths can together manage.

Much needed

So a law making it compulsory to vote, the NOTA feature, as well as the right to recall and neutral democracy at the grassroots can go a long way in stimulating the democratic processes in India. Time the country realised that acted to achieve that goal. For, mere adult franchise once in few years has not necessarily brought the fruits we sought when we became independent and they remain elusive because it has only helped vested interests to flourish. That needs to be checked and if Gujarat can set an example, so be it.

The country is aching for a law like the one in place and the new dimensions that are evolving in Gujarat. But will lawmakers wake up to it or find devils lurking in them to sabotage their personal greed, venality, insensitivity et al?

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a commentator on politics and governance.

Mahesh Vijapurkar