Considering the hit that the Election Commission’s reputation has taken over the last year, especially in its handling of polls in Gujarat in 2017 and the widespread malfunctioning of Electronic Voting Machines in bye-polls earlier this year, the all-party meeting it held on Monday was welcome. Opposition parties in particular had an opportunity to raise a number of concerns: doubts about the reliability of EVMs, worries about inconsistencies in electoral rolls, the lack of transparency in political funding and proposals to alter election expenditure regulation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for simultaneous elections to both the Lok Sabha and state assemblies was not on the agenda for Monday’s meeting so Opposition demands for a return to paper ballots will be the headline. The Congress claimed, after the meeting, that 70% of the parties including Bharatiya Janata Party allies like the Shiv Sena had called for paper ballots instead of EVMs. Even those that did not side with the majority of the Opposition demanded more scrutiny of the machines.
There is no doubt that the Opposition has been opportunistic on the EVM issue – notice how the objections over the machines seemed to go quiet after the Congress managed to put together an alliance in Karnataka. But the malfunctioning of machines in some elections earlier this year and general caution about the reliability of technology suggests the Election Commission should not take these concerns lightly. It doesn’t do the Opposition any favours to blame their losses on EVMs, but that should not stop the Election Commission from being vigilant, especially in a world where technology believed to be secure is frequently found to have hidden vulnerabilities.
But the most crucial electoral reforms, the ones that will really help clean up Indian politics lie on the funding side. On this count, it seems as if the parties did not even discuss electoral bonds, even though they have made funding much more opaque in ways that conventional wisdom suggests is tipping the scales heavily in favour of the ruling party.
The parties did however discuss an expenditure cap on party spending during elections. India already has a cap on how much candidates spend during polls, without a similar one on parties, allowing expenditure over the limit to simply be attributed to the party. The Election Commission’s proposal would close this loophole – but only on paper. Most research suggests candidates spend much more money than the limit, though almost none declare that they have breached the cap. Adding a party-level limit would be almost as meaningless. The expenditure will simply go undeclared.
Instead, as academic and activist Jagdeep Chhokar argues, transparency is much more likely to act as a deterrent than rules on paper. The Central Information Commissioner declared in 2013 that the six national parties were public authorities that ought to be under the purview of the Right to Information Act. The parties, including those now in the Opposition demanding transparency, simply ignored this ruling for years. The issue now pending in the Supreme Court, where the government has argued that parties should not be subject to RTI. If genuine electoral reform is what everyone wants, and indeed that is what all the parties and the prime minister claim, then they should start with making electoral bonds and their own organisations more transparent.
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