Monday, August 26, 2013

Time to consider Proportional Representation system urges Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan

Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan, Member of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly and Founder President, Lok Satta Party, made a strong case for moving towards an electoral system based on proportional representation (PR), in a lecture discussion at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy on August 24.

A distinguished gathering including senior officials who were involved in conducting elections at the national and State levels, participated in the nearly two-hour long interactive session.

Welcoming Dr. Narayan, Mr. N. Ravi, Director, Kasturi & Sons Ltd., and member of the Board of Management of The Hindu Centre, said that the theme of the lecture-discussion was highly relevant and timely given the “alarming rise in the influence of money on elections”.

“While the measures introduced by the Election Commission have succeeded in curbing ostentatious and overt spending on public campaigning, money has moved underground and operates by way of payments to party workers and leaders to bring in the votes, and at times by way of gifts and bribes to the voters directly. As a result, spending on elections has been rising manifold over the past two decades and the figure of Rs. 8 crores mentioned by a political leader in Maharashtra will most likely be dwarfed in 2014, raising the question if it is at all possible to fight elections innocently,” Mr. Ravi said.

Dr. Narayan, referring to the Indian public’s mounting cynicism over India’s present electoral system, strongly urged the audience to consider “proportional representation” (PR) as an “alternative electoral system” to help curb the dominance of money power and “oligopolies’’ in the political system. He argued that a PR system with a “more realistic and much less threshold of success,” combined with political regulation and complemented by honest politicians, could go a long way to clean up the mess in the current system.

The Lok Satta leader was equally emphatic in adding that strong local governments, particularly in the urban areas to start with, need to be promoted and nurtured as the tradeoffs between a multitude of taxes paid by the citizens and services delivered were a strong incentive for a win-win situation. The system works much better when the tradeoffs are well-defined, transparent and the outcomes measurable in a set time-frame, he stressed.

Addressing a gathering of journalists and members of the public, including K. Praveen Kumar, Chief Electoral Officer, Tamil Nadu, D.K. Oza, former Chief Electoral Officer, Tamil Nadu, T.S. Krishnamurthy, former Chief Election Comnmisioner of India, V. Vasanthi Devi, Former Vice Chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, K. Pandiarajan, Member of the Tamilnadu Legislative Assembly, Mr. T.M. Krishna, eminent Carnatic musician and M.G. Devasahayam, retired IAS officer, Dr. Narayan traced the history of how policy makers have responded to emerging challenges from the 73rd and 74th amendments that empower local government bodies to voter registration and electoral process reform, to mandatory disclosure of candidates antecedents, and political funding reforms.

Yet, the present electoral system (first-past-the-post system) itself needed change, Dr. Narayan argued. Parties desperate to capture marginal votes have led to the conversion of fringe issues into mainstream issues. He cited the Telangana issue in Andhra Pradesh and the faceoff between the OBC Gujjars and Meenas in Rajasthan as recent examples of that disturbing new trend in Indian politics.

Most voters are disenchanted with poverty, corruption and poor delivery of services, yet, instead of focusing on infrastructure, good governance and job creation, which are long term and uncertain outcomes, since the 1980s parties have started indulging in selective populist measures and freebies. Hence the spate of freebies such as mid-day meal scheme, subsidized or free grain, and televisions and mixer-grinders, he pointed out.

Dr. Narayan lamented that most election expenditure was to buy votes, so much so that not spending huge amounts almost guaranteed defeat. It is not uncommon for large amounts such as Rs.10 Crores to Rs.15 Crores being spent on elections for a Parliamentary seat, he noted. A large chunk of that money is for vote-buying and involves law-breaking and black money, he pointed out. Big money, muscle power and criminal nexus, a caste base and entrenched personal followings are often a prerequisite for electoral success. In addition, the absence of internal democracy in parties, and weak local governments make it even harder for enlightened citizens to participate in politics, he said.

Unless large amounts were spent on the political machinery and cadre and infrastructure on the ground, it is hard to win elections he said. The qualities needed for good and effective governance (such as a heightened sense of ethics and personal morality, competence, professionalism and record of service, deep commitment to public good, the ability of harmonise conflicting interests, and focusing on social needs such as infrastructure, rule of law, human development and job creation) are now at loggerheads with the qualities needed to win elections (such as vast, unaccounted supply of money for vote buying and sustaining cadres, a dedicated political machine loyal to the local leader, identification with, and recognition as, the leader of a caste / community / region, willingness to polarise the society for electoral gain and a focus on short term freebies and voters’ individual needs).

Dr. Narayan said that there was a clear crisis in electoral politics which needed to be addressed. This is borne out by the paradox of elections wherein people who are fit to govern are “unelectable” and those who are electable are “unfit to govern”.

Replying to queries from the floor, he admitted that a PR system had its limitations and had to contend with critiques that it could lead to “caste-based politics’’, but added that it was time for the country as a whole to look at other models. “Of the alternatives, the PR system is much more honest for it has a solid base” in reflecting the voices of the people, and moving towards this will require no amendment to the Indian Constitution.


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