Follow us on

|

Tackling money power

Print edition : Apr 15, 2000 T+T-
VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

THE Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), although bitter rivals in the recent Rajya Sabha elections, have an agreed perception about the way the elections were held. The BJP won all the 16 seats it was expected to win in the eight States where ele ctions were held, but party spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu said that the polls had "betrayed a trend towards making the Rajya Sabha a place of money power". He alleged that a "vulgar display of money power" was in evidence in the majority of the eight St ates; he also admitted that "some BJP legislators have fallen prey to indiscipline". The Congress(I) expressed concern over what it called "the rise of money power" and held the BJP and its allies responsible for the malpractices in several of the States .

Apparently, what upset the BJP was the voting pattern in Uttar Pradesh where cross-voting by as many as 20 legislators of the party enabled Rajiv Shukla of the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) to secure the largest number of first-preference vote s (50), whereas two of its own five successful candidates mustered only 38 and 36 first-preference votes and the three others had to wait for more rounds to scrape through. The Congress(I) was mauled in West Bengal where more than half of its legislators defied the leadership and voted for the Trinamul Congress candidate.

Venkaiah Naidu's comment was followed up by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani. Vajpayee noted that cross-voting was "a serious matter" and that all political parties, big and small, were victims of this malady. Advani said that the trend of money power playing a significant role in Rajya Sabha elections had been evident for the last five years, but it was the most pronounced in the recent elections. "In order to prevent the rise of money power, he suggested that the syste m of voting in Rajya Sabha elections be changed from secret ballot to open voting.

BJP leaders such as Sushma Swaraj suggested that there were other factors too that allowed money power to come into play. One such is that no contesting party can issue a whip to its legislators and enforce it because electoral rules prevent a whip from being binding on legislators. All that is possible to do is to allot a certain number of legislator-voters to a particular candidate; there are no ways to cross-check who has violated the arrangement.

The Congress(I) responded positively to Advani. Party spokesperson Ajit Jogi said that the suggestion was welcome on principle, although a thorough examination of all the issues involved was necessary before acting on it. By all indications, the two main parties seemed to be moving towards a consensus on changing the electoral system.

Legal opinion, however, is divided. In the perception of Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert P.P. Rao, Advani's statement was a hasty reaction to a current development. "It is a fact that the political practice followed by all these parties in the last few years has thrown up unscrupulous elements who would do anything to capture offices of power. The solution to this does not lie in this type of knee-jerk reaction," P.P. Rao told Frontline. What is required, according to him, is a tho rough review of the electoral system - including the stratagems employed by various political parties - leading to comprehensive electoral reforms. "But," he added, "I do not think that those who advocate piecemeal changes have the will to do this. For t hey are all beneficiaries of the malpractices that are evident in the system now."

P.P. Rao said that it was not merely money power but also muscle power that affected the election process. "Is there any guarantee that open balloting will hold back a candidate with muscle power?" he asked.

Another Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert, Gopal Subramaniam, however, welcomed the suggestion for a switch-over to the open ballot system. According to him, such a move would go a long way in curtailing malpractices. In his view, Rajya Sabh a elections should not be mixed up with the constitutional provisions on the presidential election. In the case of the latter, the "electoral college is independent of legislatures" and "none of these legislatures have any separate identity vis-a-vis< /I> the electoral college." In Subramaniam's view, this dictum of Article 54(3) is not applicable in the case of Rajya Sabha polls. "For the identity of the parties in the legislature is definitely a matter for consideration in the Rajya Sabha polls and any body who goes beyond this identity violates the confidence of his party and his electorate," Subramaniam told Frontline.

As the debate goes on, the news from the States is that many legislators who made "material gains" in the Rajya Sabha elections have started flaunting them.