Governance of Electoral Democracy

by Dr. Rajesh Tandon, President PRIA

Global expansion of democracy has come to be associated with the ‘right to vote’ to elect the representatives who form the government every 4 or 5 years. Many countries around the world are now electoral democracies, though not necessarily substantive democracies.

India is the largest democracy in the world today, with nearly 800 million plus voters. The forthcoming parliamentary elections next month are thus making for an engaged ‘demos’ as they cast their votes. There are several important institutions involved in electoral democratic exercise, and the governance of such elections calls for an integrated view of the whole.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is, of course, at the centre of this enormous exercise. It prepares authentic electoral rolls, ensures that electronic voting machines (EVMs) are functioning to ensure secrecy of each ballot cast. Most importantly, it has to ensure that conduct of elections is free and fair, implying that no coercion or undue influence has been exercised. Preventing fear of Naxal violence and criminal actions are its contemporary challenges; it is dealing with them by conducting elections in 3-5 phases in certain provinces (thereby spreading voting over a 5 week long period).

The second key institution is the political party; in India, there is a multiplicity of them, and some new entrants like AAP. Most political parties are ‘family businesses’, themselves lacking any democratic accountability. Political parties ‘select’ candidates on numerous considerations of winnability, thereby making anti-corruption slogans somewhat meaningless. More importantly, there is no law that makes political party functioning transparent and accountable in India; their funds are not even audited; they have rejected any suggestion that they are covered under ‘Right To Information’ Act.

Then there are candidates who contest elections. In India, a large number of candidates (mostly independents) contest in most constituencies. The candidates have to mobilise their own resources, volunteers and campaigns. They have to keep their expenses within limits, and reveal their assets and criminal records at the time of filing nominations. Most of them ‘hide’ more than what they reveal; spend more than is allowed; and appeal to parochial identities (of caste, religion, linguistic and ethnicity) of voters. Recent debates are on quality of candidates and the nature of parties they represent—do candidates really matter?

Media has now become  a major stakeholder in electoral democracy. Many newspapers provide reviews of performance of parliamentarians. Some promote voter registration and voting, especially for the young first-timers.  Most electronic media is conducting, releasing and propagating various types of opinion polls, almost on a weekly basis. Media advertisements make a huge impact, apparently, on winnability. Media management is key to electoral results?

Finally, there is the citizen—the voter. Casting vote is key citizenship responsibility in democracy. Voters act as ‘blocks’, not just individual choice-makers. Blocks of votes are based on class, locality, caste, religion, language, region, ethnicity, gender, etc. etc. Voters act in the absence of information, as well as with overdose of information. Voters read newspaper analysis, watch television debates, engage in informal discussions at tea-shops and bus-stands, offices and homes. They participate in opinion and exit polls, but they vote as well. Indian voters accept every gift that comes by; then they exercise their right to vote on their own.

In the final analysis, governance of electoral democracy is about informed and active citizenship. Exercising the right to vote is but a small part of being a citizen of democracy.

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