Electoral system biased against smaller parties

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist
Anil Mishra is a candidate of Socalist Party (India) from Unnao in U.P. On 12 April, 2014 he sought permission of Election Officer of District Unnao to take out a bicycle rally with about a hundred people on 23 April from his village Khan Peer Ali Nevada to Auras town area. The polling in his constituency will take place on 30th April. The report filed by Assistant Returning Officer said that he had no objection to the rally as well as to the use of megaphone which was also requested.

Anil Mishra was first told to bring reports from two police stations under which the area through which cycle procession was to be taken out fell. He was told that groups of ten cyclists will have to maintain a distance of 200 metres. This would have meant that it would not look like a procession at all. It would be scattered groups of cyclists moving with much less strength that would have been demonstrated by hundred people, the basic objective behind the procession. The effectiveness of the campaign would no longer be there. The rule applied for bicycles is actually meant for motorized vehicles.

Then in a shocking decision on 15 April the Officer in charge of permissions, the City Magistrate refused permission for bicycle rally saying that during campaigning only vehicles for which permissions have been obtained can be used. He also said that no vehicles other than registered vehicles with proper permission to be used during campaigning, can be used in any procession.

This, in effect, means that bicycles cannot be used during election campaigning. Do we remember Akhilesh Yadav moving about on a bicycle all over the state campaigning for his party during the last Vidhan Sabha elections? The AAP candidate in Lucknow took out a horse driven carriage procession. Now horse driven carriage too is an unregistered vehicle. How are the big parties able to do things which are denied to smaller parties. This also demonstrated the bias that election officials have against the smaller parties or independent candidates. Moreover, the order is ridiculous because it implies that candidates can use motorized vehicles, helicopters and planes but not a bicycle during campaigning.

Gowardhan Prasad Gond is also a candidate of Socialist Party (India) from Kushinagar. The DM, Kushinagar, first asked him why he wanted to contest, where would he bring the money from to contest, etc. He also expressed his ignorance about Socialist Party. One wonders whether he has forgotten the general knowledge that he might have studied while preparing for IAS examination? When he did not see Gowardhan relenting he called his advocate Uday Bhan Yadav and told him to convince Gowardhan to drop the idea of contesting. Is this a role that a District Election Officer supposed to play? Was it because of sheer concern that Gowardhan would be wasting his precious resources in contesting a battle in which he was not going to be in fight from the beginning to the end or was it some other external force at play which prompted him to act on his own to act in a manner that was not within his authority? Would he have dared to do the same to a more aggressive candidate or candidate of a bigger party?

Shankar Singh's nomination paper from Kanpur was cancelled. In response to a question on nomination paper which required a yes or no answer he had put a dash. It turns out the Election officers in bigger cities like Kanpur or Lucknow rejected a large number of nomination papers so that they wouldn't have to make extra arrangement for candidates whose names could not be accommodated within two EVM machines. This implies that they didn't want more than 32 candidates, as one EVM machine has space for 16 candidates, in their respective constituencies. It is a foregone conclusion that candidates whose forms were rejected were either from small parties or independents. On the other hand officials were seen helping the candidates of bigger parties complete their applications and correcting any mistakes discovered by them during nomination process.

The nomination fees this time of Rs. 25,000 is not something which an ordinary citizen of India can muster without taking a loan, selling off some property or seeking donations from some wealthy people. The ceiling on amount which one could spent during campaigning, now Rs. 70 lakhs, is also something which is too high for an ordinary candidate. For a person from a modest background even an amount of Rs. one lakh looks big.

The election has become a game for big parties who can spend money. There is a ceiling on expenditure by candidates but none on parties. This virtually allows the parties to spend unlimited money. In spite of strictness of Election Commission the model code of conduct gets violated more blatantly by bigger parties and powerful candidates. In this game even the survival of candidates of smaller parties or independents has become difficult.

It appears that the Election Commission wants only rich candidates and parties to contest against the norms of democracy and the bureaucracy discourages the smaller candidates or poorer parties.

The bigger parties also have the advantage that their election symbols are well known in advance whereas the candidates of smaller political parties and independents have hardly half a month to make voters aware about their symbols.

Our system is biased against smaller parties and independent candidates. There is a need to institute state funding for election so that each party and candidate spend comparable amounts. Also, a new symbol should be given to the parties just before the elections so that all candidates get equal time period to spread awareness about their election symbol.

If urgent electoral reforms are not put in place democracy would continue to be the farce it is in our country. AAP, which started out with the objective of cleaning the political system of corruption and criminalization fell victim to corruption inside the party because it tried doing some of the illegal things which other parties do. It too is spending much bigger amounts than most of the regional parties.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay Awardee and CNS Columnist 
27 April 2014
(The author is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and a senior social activist. He is the Vice President of Socialist Party (India) and member, National Presidium, Lok Rajniti Manch. He has led National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and is a former faculty of IIT Kanpur. Presently he is a faculty at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) BHU. He did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley and is a visiting faculty for a number of US Universities and IITs in India. Email: ashaashram@yahoo.com)