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Electoral funding totally opaque, open to wholesale corruption: Ex-babus seek action

Counterview Desk 

The former civil servants organisation, Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), in an open letter to the Election Commission of India, pointing towards the measures to be taken to ensure free and fair elections to state assemblies and the Lok Sabha, has said that it should focus on electoral funding,which is “now totally opaque and open to wholesale corruption.”
Referring to electoral bonds, CCG said in a statement, it gives the “party handling the reins of governance greater access to funds, which, in the absence of publicly available audit reports, can be used for purposes inimical to the democratic process, such as inducing wholesale defections after elections, increasingly witnessed in recent years.”

Text:

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. As members of the Constitutional Conduct Group, we are firmly committed to the Constitution of India and are not affiliated to any political party.
We have had written and face to face meetings with the Election Commission of India (ECI) over the past five years. Our communications with the ECI have focused on specific electoral areas calling for remedial action relating to the abuse of money and muscle power, the misuse of print and electronic media, the egregious violations of the Model Code of Conduct by the blatant resort to slanderous and hateful speech, the defects in the process of registration of voters and the opacity as regards the recording and counting of votes during the actual election process. Our group had also taken the initiative to constitute a Citizens’ Commission on Elections: two published volumes of its recommendations have been sent to you earlier. As former colleagues of yours, we note with regret that you have not deemed it necessary to interact with us to discuss our suggestions.
We are now at a juncture where, in the next one year, general elections are due for the Lok Sabha as well as for a number of Legislative Assemblies of states. A host of issues, relating to money and muscle power, media and manipulation, the registration of voters and machine management, still await satisfactory resolution to ensure that the election process is carried out in a free and fair manner.
The union government rushed through the issuance of electoral bonds in the Lok Sabha as a money bill in 2018. Electoral funding is now totally opaque and open to wholesale corruption. With no information on the contributors to the election chests of different political parties, the doors are wide open for favours being doled out to preferred parties by governments in power, leading to concentration of wealth in a few hands and the complete distortion of economic policy. These bonds give the party handling the reins of governance greater access to funds, which, in the absence of publicly available audit reports, can be used for purposes inimical to the democratic process, such as inducing wholesale defections after elections (increasingly witnessed in recent years). The ECI is focused only on the misuse of money power during elections, ignoring the larger problem of the suborning of the choice of voters in the interregnum between elections. The issue is attaining serious dimensions with the instances of toppling of governments in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in recent years. After some initial reservations about electoral bonds, the ECI has made no efforts to raise this critical issue in the Supreme Court.
Alongside the abuse of money power is the misuse of muscle power. Muscle power has now assumed new forms. Just before elections and at times when legislators are sought to be persuaded to change their party loyalties, the services of law enforcement agencies are selectively utilised to bring pressure to bear on political opponents. The unedifying spectacle of Nationalist Congress Party legislators in Maharashtra switching loyalties and being rewarded with ministerial posts, barely days after being castigated publicly by the Prime Minister for corruption, reflects the depths to which our politics has sunk.
What is very troubling are the unabashed efforts to arouse the sectarian sentiments of voters through appealing to religious and ethnic loyalties. The ECI has been found wanting on this score over the past few years. Our group had raised this issue during the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, when no action was taken on divisive religious rhetoric at election rallies in Wardha and Nanded in Maharashtra. The pattern has continued since, with the latest instance being the open call by the Prime Minister to the voters of Karnataka to chant a religious invocation “Jai Bajrang Bali” while casting their votes. The ECI, despite being approached on this matter, took no cognisance.
In spite of clear guidelines issued by the ECI, the media slant towards the Bharatiya Janata Party is clearly visible during the election process. During the recent Karnataka legislative assembly elections, an inordinate amount of time was given by many electronic news channels to the roadshows of the Prime Minister. The silent period of 48 hours before the polling process is completed has also been cleverly exploited by skilful use of the ubiquitous range of modern-day media systems. The very purpose of maintaining a level playing field in respect of media exposure of the election activities of persons belonging to different political parties is defeated in such cases. Our group had pointed out, in a letter to the Hon’ble President of India sent before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, that the operation of NAMO TV constituted a clear breach of the Model Code of Conduct. In this instance, too, the ECI took no action whatsoever.
The process of registration of voters is still far from satisfactory. Names of genuine voters are often found to be missing from the electoral rolls, while names of those no longer resident at specific locations are still on the rolls, providing scope for bogus voting. A social audit involving voters should be carried out in all assembly constituencies in advance of elections. This would facilitate verification of voter information as well as deletion of names of bogus voters and duplicate entries. After display of booth wise voters’ lists for, say, fifteen days, a day should be fixed when voters are invited to a location to examine the electoral rolls and hear the name-wise reading out of the rolls. This exercise would be carried out by the booth level officer in the presence of Panchayat/Municipal officials and representatives of political parties and civil society organisations who choose to be present. The ECI should also ensure that Electoral Registration Officers scrupulously follow its instructions that due process of law is followed in case of any proposed deletion and all voters are served with notices and given an opportunity of hearing before the proposed deletion of their names.
It would seem that the ECI, after introducing VVPAT machines with much fanfare nearly a decade ago, is lukewarm about using these as a manual check on the accuracy of the EVM count. The initial decision of the ECI to verify the VVPAT count in one polling booth per assembly constituency lacked any sound statistical base. The 2019 Supreme Court decision to verify five VVPATs in each assembly constituency is equally statistically unsound. 
ECI, after introducing VVPAT machines with much fanfare a decade ago, is lukewarm about using these as a manual check
More importantly, the ECI has not introduced any transparency in the VVPAT count. In no election, starting with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, have the comparative EVM and VVPAT counts of the sample polling booths in assembly constituencies been made available in the public domain. In fact, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, counting of the VVPAT slips and matching them with the EVM counts for the corresponding polling stations was not done before the results were publicly declared. As pointed out by the Lok Sabha Committee on Government Assurances, the ECI is, four years after the last Lok Sabha general elections, yet to provide an explanation for discrepancies between the EVM and VVPAT counts in the five assembly constituencies in each parliamentary constituency where VVPAT counts were undertaken as per the directions of the Supreme Court.
For a credible voting process that commands the confidence of voters, the voter should be reasonably confident that her/his vote has been correctly recorded as cast and correctly counted as recorded. Forms 17A and 17C should be tallied and publicly disclosed at the end of polling on the polling day itself and tallied with the counts of VVPAT printouts. We recommend that all VVPAT slips be counted for every assembly constituency, both in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. The EVM counting and 100% VVPAT slip counting should be taken up simultaneously in every assembly constituency to arrive at the result as expeditiously as possible. Where the EVM count and the VVPAT count yield different results as to who is elected, the VVPAT count (as a manual, verifiable count) should be the basis for declaring the election result.
With the paramount objectives of instilling confidence in the voter and ensuring that, in accordance with the vast powers vested in it under Article 324 of the Constitution of India, its writ runs in any election, the ECI must take the following actions at the earliest:
(i) Move the Supreme Court for an early hearing of the Electoral Bonds case, to bring about transparency in election funding.
(ii) Initiate a dialogue with representatives of political parties to facilitate the amendment of Article 102 of the Constitution of India to disqualify MPs/MLAs, who defect after being elected on the ticket of a particular political party, from contesting any election for a period of six years from the date of defection.
(iii) Strengthen provisions of the Model Code of Conduct to bar all sectarian, divisive communal propaganda/statements that are likely to influence the voting process and initiate severe action against offenders, including even prohibition from contesting polls for a specified period of time.
(iv) With new forms of media coming into play, evolve norms to ensure fair play and even access to all forms of media – print, electronic and social.
(v) Carry out social audit of electoral rolls as indicated above.
(vi) Develop a robust cross-verification system of EVMs through systematic VVPAT use, as detailed above.
You are the inheritors of a rich tradition of conducting free and fair elections that has withstood the test of time over seventy years. We urge you to continue the legacy of your eminent predecessors in maintaining the sanctity of the electoral process and safeguarding democracy.
Satyameva Jayate
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Click here for signatories 

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