Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Shut out the so-called Independents

(First published in The Pioneer dated October 12, 2011)


Those who oppose the replacement of the current first-past-the-post system that elects our representatives to the State Assemblies and Parliament, with the ‘majority’ system in which only a candidate that gets 50 per cent of the total votes polled plus at least one more is declared the winner, argue that, given the large number of contestants for each seat, it is near impossible for a candidate to secure 50 per cent of the total votes registered. It is a valid assertion, but not a reason to continue with a distorted system that gives us representatives who do not largely represent the majority of the voters. Ways must be found to reduce the fragmentation of votes that results in no candidate getting a majority chunk of the votes registered.

There are two important ways by which such division of votes among multiple parties and individuals can be curtailed to a large extent. One, through an enlightened electorate that across the country stops voting on the strength of parochial interests of regionalism, caste and religion; and two, by pruning down the number of contestants. While the first is still a chimera and will take long to evolve, the second option is at least in the realm of possibility because it can be done through amendments to our electoral laws. The step that needs to be taken here is to have laws that bars (or at least discourages) independent candidates from participating in the elections.

On the face of it, the proposal is outrageous because it seemingly impinges on the right of an eligible Indian citizen to contest elections. But this personal right has to be viewed in the context of the larger gain to Indian democracy, and this is the reason why several experts believe that any prospective poll reform must include such a provision. The Election Commission of India has, for instance, strongly pitched for the reduction of “non-serious” candidates in the electoral fray. They are largely the independents. While the poll panel offers a different reason for its suggestion — the proliferation of such candidates makes elections “cumbersome, expensive and unmanageable” — the fact also is that they lead to an unnecessary division of votes.

If the Government believes that prohibiting independent candidates from contesting polls would be too radical a measure and could invite legal challenges, it should hike by at least three times the existing security deposit. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2002, had suggested doubling it. It had also recommended that an independent candidate who loses an election and contests another should pay a security deposit that is double the amount he paid in the earlier poll. The Commission had also suggested that, if an independent contestant fails to win five per cent of the total votes polled, he should be barred from contesting as an independent again for six years. If all of these suggestions are faithfully implemented, they alone would drastically reduce the number of independent candidates, if not altogether eliminate them from the candidates’ list for now.

The argument that such contestants represent an independent voice and, therefore, occupy an important space largely dominated by political parties, appears an attractive one, but the facts tell a different tale. A vast number of the elected independent candidates end up supporting one political party or the other. Post-election, in various States, these independent Legislators have become virtual extensions of political parties and Governments, actively participating in their deliberations and activities. So, the sense of independence is already gone. Independents often use their ‘unattached’ status to bargain for themselves a generous deal from political parties, and become the cause of political instability where they command some leeway.

A number of independents who contest elections are rebel party candidates, entering the fray after being denied the ticket by their party or because of some other grievance. They can, therefore, be hardly called ‘independents’. In many cases, post-elections they either revert to their party or latch up with another party. Again, in several instances, dummy candidates put up by political parties strut about as ‘independents’, thus queering the electoral pitch.

All in all, on most occasions, the independent candidates have remained far from independent, and, thus, no harm would be done if their numbers are curtailed or even done away with.

In any case, very few of the independent candidates get elected to the Legislatures or the Parliament to make a strong case for their continuance in the electoral system. According to a report of the Law Commission of India, submitted to the Union Government in May 1999, while as many as 1915 candidates fought elections to the 12th Lok Sabha as independents, a mere six of them were elected. As the Indrajit Gupta Committee report on State Funding of Elections remarked in relation to the 1996 Parliamentary polls, “Out of 10,635 independent candidates, only nine (0.08 per cent) of such candidates won and 10,603 (99.70 per cent) forfeited their deposits.”

This had been the trend even earlier and has continued later as well. According to the Election Commission of India’s statistics, 2,385 candidates contested the 2004 Lok Sabha election as independents, and only five won. This is barely 0.2 per cent. And, a huge 99.37 per cent lost their deposits. Even the 2009 Lok Sabha election reflected a more or less similar situation, with just nine independents managing to enter the Lok Sabha, though as many as 3829 independents participated in the elections.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Law Commission has had no hesitation in concluding that “the time is now ripe for debarring independent candidates from contesting Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly elections.”

The elimination of the independents from elections should actually be welcomed by the political parties, because not only will it check pre-poll rebellion but also help their candidates secure a more representative mandate from the electorate. The ‘50 per cent and at least one vote more’ idea will then be closer to reality.

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