By Viiveck Verma
In the past one year, India has not only locked horns with the deadly Covid-19 but has also fought economic crises and witnessed unprecedented political activity. In such extraordinary times, it is essential to rethink our polity itself as well as the relationship between leaders and followers, authorities and the people.
Firstly, there is an urgent need to reimagine the multi-party system. While the diversity of the country needs to be articulated in the polity, the current parliamentary system observes a usually divided opposition against an often put-together government. The division of votes is so much that both the government and the opposition lose immediate relevance. For instance, in the 15th Lok Sabha, the Indian National Congress-led UPA won 262 seats and had to be supported by several other ideologically diverse parties to form the government. In the current Lok Sabha, the government may have secured a majority but the opposition is splintered with the largest opposition party, the Congress, reduced to 44 seats against BJP’s tally of 303. As the Election Commission declared in 2019, India has a total of 2,293 political parties and this inevitably complicates any idea of a stable government or opposition due to fragmentation of election mandates.
Messy situations of vote-splitting can be prevented by limiting the number of political parties that contest elections. Fewer parties in the running with clear ideological underpinnings will not just reduce election costs but also lead to fewer situations of horse trading and defections, since political stands will no longer be a matter of circumstance but of declared allegiance. This would lead to strong governments and oppositions and consolidated articulation of the people’s mandate.
It is also crucial to rework our institutional structures. Our institutional architecture must be rebuilt to place constraints on immoderate exercises of power and lack of accountability by authorities. For instance, once elected, governments, MPs and legislative assemblies hold massive power for at least five years and there’s no direct way for voters to put them to test, in case of misuse of powers, till elections arrive. Accordingly, the Right to Recall law, which allows for removal of heads of panchayats through verified votes by people in certain states of India after a lock-in period of one or two years, must also be implemented at the national level to ensure a more accountable legislature. This would ensure an immediate sanction against non-performance and greater power to people to hold their representatives accountable.
The other reforms needed are in the realm of electoral politics and finance. To ensure 100% voting, the process must be simplified and made more accessible to people. This would include an increase in the number of polling booths, greater enrolment of voters and a quick and simple voting process. Indian voters staying away from their constituencies and NRIs should be allowed to cast their votes through electronically transferred ballots. This is likely to make elections more inclusive. In terms of spending by political parties, there should be stricter regulations with details of donations and contributions to campaigns being made compulsory to submit, alongside a cap on expenditure and a limited campaign time for the election cycle. Greater financial transparency and a regulated campaign can create conditions for free and fair elections.
It is simultaneously necessary to have greater independence for institutions— India could certainly use an independent central bank, with powers to disagree with the ruling dispensation over economic matters, for example. Similarly, an independent media and lesser restrictions on the internet can allow for honest critiques of governments and increase citizen participation in popular public narratives.
Most fundamentally, a democratic upsurge can occur when people are given greater rights and choices. Therefore, there should be a general attempt to increase the scope of not just fundamental rights but also measures like the Right to Information. Individual freedom and privacy must be protected at all costs and authorities should commit to taking greater and frequent feedback from electors. All these will help in creating an inclusive and progressive political and legal framework that allows people to engage with the governance.
On the whole, political reforms are necessary to renew people’s trust in authorities and institutions, by mandating their accountability and transparency.
(The writer is founder of Upsurge Global & Senior Advisor, Telangana State Innovation Cell)