Opinion

Manish Tewari writes: The big black hole in the functioning of India’s democratic model

The framers of the Constitution made a giant leap of faith when they included universal adult suffrage into the design of India’s founding document and enshrined it in Article 326. In 1947, India’s literacy rate was only 12 per cent. In other words, 88 per cent of India was illiterate. What this epochal decision meant was that all Indian citizens, irrespective of caste, colour, creed, sex, place of birth or any other disability, including illiteracy, would henceforth be qualified to participate in the great Indian democratic experiment that was set to unfold in 1952.

In many nations around the world, the right to vote has followed a very hard fought battle, especially for the coloured, indigenous and the poor, and more so for women. It was only as late as 1928 that women got the right to vote in the United Kingdom, even though the parliamentary system was established in 1215 with the creation and signing of the Magna Carta.

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It was only pursuant to the 15th amendment to the US Constitution in 1870 that African American men got the right to vote and it was in 1920 through the 19th Amendment that women were entitled to participate in the democratic process. Remember the US constitution was formally adopted in 1789 and the Bill of Rights that encapsulates the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution was approved way back in 1791. In Australia, interestingly, true adult suffrage was not achieved till as late as 1967 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act extended the right to vote to all Australian citizens irrespective of race. In Japan, the right to vote was made universal only after it lost the Second World War in 1945.

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This plunge into the dark that the makers of modern India took has held us in good stead. With every election since 1952 our democracy has deepened and become more broad based. In 1988, at the instance of the NSUI that I then headed at the national level, the former prime minister, late Rajiv Gandhi, in the teeth of internal opposition from party apparatchiks, lowered the voting age to 18 years. By the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution, Parliament institutionalised democracy at the third tier or at the grassroots of the administrative or governance paradigm. It also reinforced the belief of the people in the ballot box as the principal instrument of change. Except for certain areas in the Northeast, north-west and minuscule parts of Central India, an overwhelming number of people developed a deep-rooted belief in the efficacy of the country’s democratic system.

However, there remains a big black hole in the functioning of India’s democratic model and that is the functioning of political parties that underpin our democratic edifice. At last count, there were 2,858 parties registered with the Election Commission of India. Of these, eight are national parties, 54 are state parties and 2,797 are unrecognized parties.

The internal functioning and structures of an overwhelming number of these political parties are opaque and ossified, to put it very mildly. While the Election Commission of India has superintendence, direction and control of elections under Part XV of the Constitution of India, it argues that this does not extend to the supervision or superintendence of internal elections of political parties — a claim that is problematic. While it is correct that under Section 29-A of the Representation of People’s Act 1951 the Commission has the powers to register a political party and not deregister it, that assertion precludes the fact that the Commission has wide ranging powers available to it under Section 16 -A of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968 to either suspend or withdraw recognition to a political party as a national or state party.

On August 13, 1996, the Election Commission in a bold initiative issued a circular to all political parties registered with it, whether national, state or unrecognized, that they must hold regular elections in accordance with their respective constitutions. Two paras of this circular are worth quoting and they are extrapolated from the judgment of the Commission in the matter of Arjun Singh vs President Indian National Congress: “… the Commission having noticed that a large number of political parties have failed to hold elections for years and have been functioning on an ad hoc basis. We have therefore decided to issue independent notices shortly, to all the political parties registered with the Commission to send us the latest information regarding their elected office bearers as per provisions and procedure in their respective constitutions along with all material and documentary evidence not later than the 1st of July 1997. If any political party fails to do so the Commission may be left with no choice except to consider such legal measures as are available, necessary and appropriate”.

Consider the import of these three words — such legal measures as are available, necessary and appropriate. They clearly underscore that the Election Commission is not a mere post office that has to accept without demur any drivel that political parties furnish it with in terms of the integrity and fairness of their internal organizational electoral processes, which unfortunately is the practice that the Election Commission has adopted since 1997. It is reluctant to lift the veil and verify for itself whether the claims being made by a political party are correct and honest. It hides behind a carefully constructed and assiduously cultivated myth about its lack of powers to escape from what it construed as its own mandate in the Arjun Singh case. The correct interpretation of it’s own mandate and powers two and a half decades back under the stewardship of Late TN Seshan has given way too an inexplicable servility and reluctance to do what is necessary to correct and rectify the fundamental distortions in India’s democratic paradigm.

The time has come for the Election Commission to ensure through the appointment of external election monitors and other innovative mechanisms that the internal democratic processes of all political parties play out in a just, fair and credible manner. Only when the underpinning is truly democratic would the great Indian democratic experiment bloom in its true glory. That is the second wave of democratic reforms that India desperately requires.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 1, 2022 under the title ‘How to fill the big black hole’. The writer is a lawyer, Congress MP, and former I&B minister

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