Governance and Democracy

New Delhi, January 17, 2001

I am happy and honoured to participate in the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Election Commission of India. Fifty years ago India gave unto herself a democratic Constitution the fundamental basis of which was the right to vote bestowed upon every adult citizen. The Election Commission was set up to conduct free and fair elections for the entire country.

It may be recalled here that while the Constituent Assembly was discussing the draft Constitution there was considerable demand in the country for early elections. There was a proposal that the Ministry of Law should be entrusted with the task of conducting elections. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly opposed the proposal and suggested that, pending the finalization of the Constitution, an interim Election Commission should be constituted for conducting the elections. The Constituent Assembly provided for a Commission not only to conduct the elections, but to prepare the electoral rolls for the entire country at the cost of the State. It was thus an Election Commission for the whole of India came into being.

We can to-day look back with pride on the functioning of the Election Commission during the last five decades. It has organized 13 General Elections, and many State elections. These were colossal enterprises involving millions of voters spread throughout the length and breadth of this vast country. The efficiency and the unquestioned impartiality with which these elections were conducted went a long way in consolidating the democratic process in this country. The Election Commission thus emerged as an independent institution that enjoyed credibility among the political parties and elicited the faith of the people.

The decision taken by founding fathers to introduce in one go universal adult suffrage in a country of mass illiteracy and mass poverty was a daring revolutionary act. As early as 1931 Mahatma Gandhi had argued "Adult suffrage is necessary for more reasons than one; and one of the decisive reasons for me is that it enables one to satisfy the reasonable aspirations, not only of Mussalmans but also of the so-called untouchables, of Christians, of labourers, and of all classes". Gandhiji saw in it as a means of unifying the diverse sections of the Indian people. Pandit Nehru looked upon elections on the basis of adult franchise as a method for the political education of the Indian masses.

In exercising his right to vote an Indian felt for the first time a sense of participation in the political process of the land and hence empowered. Elections have aroused the hopes and aspirations of the unempowered sections of society. It has been said that "when elections are around the deaf hear and the dumb speak". In a public opinion poll it was found that people rated the Election Commission very high far ahead of the police, the bureaucracy, the political parties, the Central Government, local self Government and even the judiciary. Mr. Chief Election Commissioner, you and your colleagues in the Commission, can be proud of the high estimation the Indian public of the institution you head.

Elections by politically empowering the poorer and the deprived and neglected sections of our society have deepened and broadened the concept and practice of democracy in India. With the broadening of the sweep of the election process serious malpractices have crept into the election process. Even as early as 1920’s when the franchise was highly restricted such malpractices were prevalent. Mahatma Gandhi wrote an article dealing with corrupt practices prevailing in the elections of that time under the title "A Plea for Purity". A candidate for the Council Election wrote to Gandhiji: "My agents play false. They attribute to me virtues which I do not recognize in myself. My opponents condemn me to vice I have never been guilty of.

I want a clean and fair fight …. Can you show a way out or will you simply say that Council-going is wrong and I must retire." The reply Gandhiji gave to this has relevance to our own times. He said "I have been told that all these things are inevitable when a nation is rising from stupor. No doubt there is some truth in this. When people were thoroughly apathetic and only a few men were interested in running elections and running associations, impurities remained underground. Now that a large body of people are taking part in these public matters, the impurities which were hidden are coming to the surface ….The impurities are not superficial, but they are in the whole body itself. I should hope that things are not so bad and that the body is sound…. Without purity of public life, Swaraj is an impossibility". To-day the same can be said of our democracy. Criminals, even convicted criminals are taking part in elections and getting elected to legislatures.

The Election Commission has stated that about 500 to 800 elected representatives have criminal antecedents. Money, muscle power and mafia play an unhealthy role in our elections. The Election Commission is reported to have recommended that amendments in the Representation of Peoples Act should be brought about so that bad characters are prevented from fighting elections and entering the legislatures. It is interesting that Gandhiji had detected this trend in the 1920’s and wrote prophetically "What if unworthy people get elected because we do not come forward? If such people enter the legislatures, the Government will not be able to run the Government of an awakened people and it will be laughed at." To-day it is more than a laughing matter.

Legislation may not be the only solution to this problem. If the organized political parties, who are not obliged to field anyone as a candidate, refrain from giving tickets to individuals with a criminal background, it would be possible to deal effectively with the problem of criminals in politics. Is this too much expected from the political parties? Similarly for an adequate representation of women in the legislatures and Parliament the political parties have in it in their power to give sufficient tickets to women. In all this the Election Commission also can play a very useful role. In a recent judgement the Delhi High Court is reported to have asked the Election Commission to make the voters aware of the background of the contestants in the elections so that people cast their votes with full knowledge of the candidates.

I am aware that the Election Commission is already overburdened with work. But with understanding and a little bit of help from the Government and the political parties it will be possible for it not only to run the colossal election process in our country, but help to get rid of the many malpractices that are plaguing the elections and distorting the will of the voter. It is an institution that has withstood the storms of our political life and also got a reputation for its efficiency and impartiality in the world. Early in its career it was responsible for organizing elections not only in India but abroad. The first Election Commissioner Shri Sukumar Sen was the Election Commissioner of India as well as of the Sudan for one year. We have used the method of elections in an adventurous manner in hazardous situations. For example in the Punjab several years ago it was by holding elections that the tide of violence was reversed and normalcy established. So also Assam. Today in Kashmir panchayat elections are being held. There is no greater proof of the faith that the people have in democracy than the sight of men and women trekking the mountainous roads in Kashmir, in the face of threats from militants, in order to cast their votes in the panchayat elections.

To-day the fact that the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition is present on this podium to pay tribute to the Election Commission on its anniversary is itself a demonstration of the honoured position it occupies in Indian political structure. I am honoured to join them all those present here in saluting the Election Commission of India on its Golden Jubilee.

Thank you.

Jai Hind