Elections in India have often been described as a ‘dance of democracy’ or a ‘festival of democracy’ but one would seriously question these descriptions if one follows the progress of the recent elections that seem to have brought out the basest instincts in workers and leaders of all political parties. Political discourse has touched its nadir; additionally, all participants in the election have demeaned themselves and the electorate by promoting violence. Probably, complete mayhem has been avoided only by a large police presence.

Elections go on interminably, spread over seven to eight phases in four to five weeks’ time, and are always taking place in some place or the other. Citizens suffer as imposition of the Model Code of Conduct stymies most Governmental functions and National and State leaders perambulate through the electionbound places, abandoning their official responsibilities. Sadly, elections appear to have become an end in themselves rather than a means to good governance.

The cost of holding elections has also increased exponentially; General Elections 1952 cost the nation only Rs10.5 crore while General Elections 2019 cost nearly Rs 10,000 crore. Moreover, the time when people voted for good and honest candidates without any inducements is long past. All candidates have to bribe voters; freebies do not guarantee votes, but electors do not vote for candidates who do not distribute goodies.A CMS Study found that candidates and their parties had spent Rs.60,000 crore in the 2019 General Election ~ a colossal figure, as the expenditure limit for a candidate was only Rs 70 lakh. The Study estimated that while Rs.20,000 to Rs 25,000 crore was spent on publicity, Rs 12,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore was given directly to voters. The seizure report released by the Election Commission after the General Election is revealing; total seizure was Rs 3,500 crores, comprising drugs worth nearly Rs 1,300 crore, cash of Rs 839 crore, liquor worth Rs 294 crore, gold/silver valued around Rs 986 crore and other valuable items worth Rs 58 crore. These statistics are important because the level of corruption post-election, is directly proportional to the real election expenditure of the winning candidates.

In this background, major parties prefer candidates with deep pockets; during the 2019 General Elections, the BJP fielded 363 crorepatis, followed closely by the Congress, with 349 crorepati candidates. All candidates fielded by the TDP, SAD and AIADMK were crorepatis. The richest of the rich representing the poorest of the poor underlines the incongruity of elections in India.

Along with moolah, muscle power is also required to win elections; according to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), 88 per cent MPs had assets exceeding Rs one crore and nearly half of the MPs had criminal cases against them ~ a rise of 26 per cent compared to the last Lok Sabha. One MP had terror charges against her and another had a record of 204 cases against his name. Further, the Report says that 128 (24 per cent) MPs were non-graduates with one MP declaring himself as illiterate and another as barely literate.

A flurry of defections precedes and succeeds every election, particularly in those States where the same people cling on to power by representing different parties at different times. The hunger for power and pelf gets multiplied after getting elected; large-scale floor crossings and change of government in a number of States, in the last few years, points to political corruption of the highest order. Legislators have their own compulsions; with the need to arrange resources for the next election they cannot afford to remain out of power.

The current elections are an exception only to the extent of the viciousness on display. Personal attacks, threats and polarisation, freely employed by political parties, are driving a wedge between communities. Respected leaders are calling each other kraits and Judas; such acrimony guarantees that democracy and the public would lose out regardless of who wins at the hustings.

Elections are seldom fought on real issues but on sops and catchwords; in the current elections, none of the major parties has good governance on its agenda, rather manifestos of all parties promise targeted sops. Tactics of competitive populism, hyper-nationalism, hyper-religiosity and a vote-gathering appeal to Bengali pride appear to be the mainstay of the election campaign.

Reform of the electoral process is an obvious necessity, which is constrained by the interest of political parties in continuing with the present, imperfect setup. The Supreme Court has often tried to exclude criminal candidates, but Parliament has shown no eagerness to amend the Representation of the People Act. In the celebrated Lily Thomas case, the Supreme Court ruled that a legislator convicted of an offence would be automatically disqualified, reversing the earlier position that legislators could be disqualified only after disposal of appeals at all levels. Shamefully, the then Government tried its best to overturn this decision.

Later on, in 2014, the Supreme Court directed that trials involving elected representatives should be completed within one year. In 2017, the Supreme Court oversaw the formation of Special Courts with exclusive jurisdiction over legislators, and in 2018, the Supreme Court directed political parties to publicise the criminal antecedents of their candidates. Sadly, Special Courts have not achieved their purpose; in September 2020, the amicus curiae assisting the Supreme Court reported that a total 4,442 cases were still pending against MPs/MLAs in different courts. The amicus curiae further reported that the number of legislators involved was more than the total number of cases, since there were more than one accused in some cases.

The progress in most cases was minimal, the oldest case in the Special Courts dated back to 1983, and three cases registered in 1991, 1993 and 1994 had not even reached the trial stage. Almost no one had been convicted by the Special Courts, for example, of the 245 cases in Telangana, 73 had been disposed of with no conviction and the rest were still pending. The UP Government has done even better, by withdrawing serious cases against political personalities. The Model Code of Conduct is honoured more in breach than in observance because most election related FIRs are withdrawn as soon as the elections conclude.

Similarly, transparency in electoral funding is a desirable goal but resisted by all political parties that, according to an ADR study, had received two-thirds of their declared income in 2018-19, from undisclosed sources. The financial accounts of political parties are never audited by independent auditors. In a telling instance, after the Delhi High Court found that both the BJP and the Congress had illegally accepted foreign donations, both parties co-operated in retrospectively amending the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, to nullify the High Court judgement.

Electoral Bonds have made electoral funding even more opaque. Again, by legal amendments, the percentage cap on a company’s political donations has been scrapped and details of political donations are no longer required to be revealed in a company’s balance sheet. Significantly, the Reserve Bank of India and the Election Commission had apprehended that Electoral Bonds could promote money laundering and attract dubious foreign funding through shell companies.

The internal working of all parties is fully opaque as all parties refuse to honour the Central Information Commission decision that political parties are “public entities” subject to the Right to Information Act. The matter has been referred to the Supreme Court, where it has languished for the last eight years.

Politicians defend the use of money and muscle power by pointing to the need to contact a large number of voters spread over a vast geographical area in a limited time. Voters say that they sell their votes because candidates would countenance them only during the elections. Electoral reforms should reverse this trend; constituencies need to be smaller so that there is a personal connect between the electors and the elected. To reduce the importance of money power, the amount spent by a political party should be added to the candidate’s expenditure. Concomitantly, electoral spending limits should be reduced, to the level that only door-to-door canvassing is possible during elections. Legislators changing parties should immediately lose their membership, and CAG should audit the accounts of all political parties.

Finally, imperfect as it is, the electoral process, gives a voice to the public who are also responsible for the outcome. As Abraham Lincoln had said: “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”