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A test for reforms

Print edition : Nov 07, 2003 T+T-

The Election Commission hopes to test the effectiveness of the new reforms in the elections to the five Assemblies, which will be held in November-December.

in New Delhi

THE Election Commission's (E.C.) announcement on October 7 of the schedule for the Assembly elections in Mizoram, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in November-December and five byelections to fill vacancies in State Assemblies is remarkable for its concern for transparency and for creating conditions conducive to free and fair polls.

While drawing the schedule, the Commission kept in view the festivals falling between now and the end of the year, as well as the constitutional requirement to have a new Assembly in each of the five States on or before the term of the outgoing Assembly expires. The schedule is also in keeping with the Commission's consistent policy of clubbing elections to different State Assemblies together even when their terms end on different dates.

Mizoram goes to the polls on November 20, while the other four States will have their Assembly elections on December 1. While counting of votes in Mizoram will start on December 2, it will start on December 4 in the other States. The five Assembly byelections (three in Uttar Pradesh and two in Bihar) will be held along with the Assembly elections in Mizoram.

The elections to the five Assemblies will be the final round of State elections before the 14th Lok Sabha elections, which are due by September 2004. Therefore, the outcome of these Assembly elections is likely to be seen as indicative of the people's sentiment, at least in the Hindi heartland, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) will be the principal contestants for power in these States except Mizoram, where the Congress(I) is not directly threatened by the BJP. As such, whichever party emerges victorious in these elections is likely to have a decisive advantage over the other, not only in wooing potential allies for the Lok Sabha polls but also in choosing the campaign strategy.

For the E.C., the Assembly elections will give one more opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to ensure free and fair elections, before the present Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh retires in February 2004. The Commission has already introduced a number of measures in order to achieve this objective. An important initiative has been one relating to clean and accurate electoral rolls.

In a span of two years (2002 and 2003), the Commission has intensively revised the rolls through door-to-door survey of electors, in 27 States and Union Territories. The revision of electoral rolls in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, National Capital Territory of Delhi, Lakshadweep and Pondicherry was completed in 2002. In Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, the E.C. completed the work in 2003. In the remaining eight States, that is, the seven northeastern States and Jammu and Kashmir, a summary revision was done in 2002 and 2003.

As part of the exercise, two copies each of the electoral rolls are given, after the publication of the draft and also the final rolls to all recognised political parties for their use and, importantly, for feed back. The E.C. received a number of complaints, particularly from Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, from political parties and citizen's groups about the veracity of the entries made during the revision.

The E.C. took prompt action to rectify the discrepancies. In both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh action was taken immediately, and the E.C. published the rolls by the end of June only after satisfying itself of the quality of the exercise.

In Delhi, the scrutiny of rolls was taken up by teams deputed from the Commission to the Assembly constituencies from where complaints emerged. In August-September, special observers drawn from among senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers of the Central government were drafted to assist the Commission in supervising the scrutiny of electoral rolls and the electronic photo identity card programme in Delhi.

Over and above these administrative measures, and with the aim of enhancing the involvement of citizens in the verification process, the Commission for the first time took the initiative to publicise the electoral rolls among the people at the local level. Copies of the electoral rolls were made available well in advance to local bodies to verify the entries through the active participation of citizens. The Chief Electoral Officers of the four States and Delhi have held meetings in gram sabhas and ward sabhas in rural areas and in resident welfare associations and other forums in urban areas where names of electors residing in the respective areas were read out and inclusions, deletions and corrections carried out in the electoral rolls based on local verification. Consequent to this exercise, the Registration Officers have taken steps to correct the rolls.

The Commission brought into effect on March 27, 2003 the directions of the Supreme Court on affidavits to be filed by candidates along with their nomination papers. Such an affidavit should include information on the criminal antecedents of the candidate, the moveable and immoveable properties of the candidate and his/her spouses and dependents, the liabilities of the candidate, and his/her educational qualifications.

The filing of the affidavit is mandatory. In order to disseminate the information contained in the affidavits to the citizens at the earliest, the E.C. has issued instructions to the Returning Officers to make available copies of the affidavits freely to other candidates, the general public, the media and so on, on the very day the nomination is filed by a candidate. Besides, District Election Officers have been instructed to compile the information contained in the affidavits for all Assembly segments falling in their district and make available the consolidated information for the district to any person desirous of obtaining such information on payment of copying charges. The Commission has appealed to the citizens and all interested parties to cooperate with the election authorities for the widest dissemination of this information as contemplated in law.

After the enactment of legislation on proxy voting for service voters belonging to the armed forces and members of a force to which provisions of the Army Act applies, the necessary rules have been notified. These service voters have been given the facility to opt to vote either through proxy or through postal ballot. The Commission has already issued detailed instructions to the Chief Electoral Officers and the Returning Officers to implement the same, as this round of elections will be the first when proxy voting will come into effect.

In the recent past, the Commission had drafted a section of the polling parties from outside the State in the Jammu and Kashmir elections and from outside the district in Gujarat. This was done keeping in view the special circumstances in the two States.

However, the Commission learnt from the experiences of the two States that a mixture of polling personnel from outside does lead to better booth management, removes grounds for complaints of local bias, and builds confidence among the electors in the neutrality of the election machinery. Accordingly, the E.C. decided that in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan 50 per cent of the presiding officers and 50 per cent of the polling officers in every district would be from outside.

In Delhi, the presiding officers will be drawn from the officials of the Central government. The E.C. has decided to use electronic voting machines in all Assembly constituencies in the five States and in the five byelections.

The Assembly elections will also show the effectiveness of the reform undertaken in political funding. As amended by Parliament during the monsoon session, the Representation of the People Act now exempts only travel expenditure of leaders of political parties from election expenditure limits, besides offering tax incentives for corporate donations to political parties.

This is expected to keep within legally recognised limits all visible, legitimate, campaign expenditure, and make political funding transparent. The law, as amended, also contemplates indirect public funding in the form of allocation of free equitable share of time on the cable television network and other forms of private or public electronic media, based on past performance.

It will be interesting to watch how the E.C. and the government implement this reformed law in these elections.