Free and Fair Elections
the Key is Building Trust
Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, a physician by training joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1980 and among other things served as secretary to both Governor and Chief Minister.
During his nearly 17 years of public service he became a well-known figure for promoting projects for the public good. In 1996 Narayan resigned from the Indian Administrative Service and with a few like-minded colleagues, formed Lok Satta. Lok Satta is India's leading civil society initiative and people's movement for wide-ranging governance and political reforms. Recently Lok Satta launched a national platform called VOTE INDIA in partnership with several organisations to spearhead the campaign for political reforms. Dr. Narayan is the National Coordinator of Lok Satta and Vote INDIA movements.
Recently, Dr Jayaprakash Narayan visited Bangladesh on a four-day tour and attended different seminars. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Star, Jayaprakash Narayan shared his views about the electoral system of India the role of media, objectives to conduct a free and fair election, caretaker government system of Bangladesh and other related issues.
The Daily Star (DS): What are the objectives to conduct a free and fair election?
Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan (JN): The objective is self-evident. The election is an opportunity for the people to choose their servants. After all, that is what election is. In the election you (people) are not choosing your leader on the basis of their intellect, not on the basis of their moral calibre, not on the basis of the power of the gun. Democracy is the only system that imposes the burden of choice and urge the people, we are the sovereign.
So if the election is not free and fair, there is no legitimacy at all. The legitimacy comes from free vote.
DS: So what are the steps to ensure such a process?
JN: First of all an independent election commission is the most important requirement. The government and all political parties must come together to have an independent Election Commission. A process which is transparent and credible from the beginning to the end. Ballot paper, ballot box, nomination process, vote counting, announcing of the result - all these processes must be very clear and well defined .
Very often it is not so much the wrong that is done, it is the misunderstanding, miscommunication that leads to a lot of confusion, a lot of anger in a very polarised situation. If something happens during election time, people do not assume that it is a normal mistake , they assume that there is a conspiracy. It is a normal human tendency. Therefore the process must be so carefully worked out, that there is no room for any doubt.
The second requirement is that some basic ground rules have to be followed by the government and the political parties. The government in particular must agree not to interfere with the election process.
The third requirement is that the bureaucracy conducting the elections, it may not be perfect all the time but it must recognise that the election is one time when it must not side with anybody.
The fourth requirement is a free and effective media, media itself may have some political affiliation, there's nothing wrong with that. The politics in the media must not interfere with the reporting of truth; these two are distinct and the very fierce and free statement of truth and willingness to reach out to the people, that must be there because after all the political parties depend on the media.
And finally I would say that the people themselves must have the tenacity and desire that no matter who wins it must be their choice. People must be a little more sensible. I may have a preference for Party "A" but if party "B" wins, it does not matter. Both are ok. But I will prefer party 'A'. Then you can have a fair election and have a calm atmosphere.
DS: How did the Election Commission of your country become a credible and strong institution?
JN: Like in Bangladesh, the election commission is the constitutional authority in India. At first, we had one election commissioner and one chief election commissioner (CEC). Though it was a single member, by and large the single member acted independently. The government never tried to interfere.
Since the 1990s, we had a three-member commission. Initially there was some fear. The fear was that the two new members would dilute the then CEC. But the public opinion was so strong that these two commissioners also acted along with the CEC unanimously and actually the multi-numbered commission became more credible than the one-member commission. So public trust and media trust is important.
The Indian constitution guarantees that the CEC, EC cannot be removed except through impeachment process. And the court in India does not interfere in the election process.
Once the election process commences, the court does not interfere until the elections are concluded. But if in the process something significant happens which is wrong, then the court always intervenes.
So by a series of institutional mechanisms and by practice and by experience credibility is established.
DS: What are the basic elements needed for an independent and credible EC?
JN: First of all, the track record of the commissioner and their chosen one must be transparent, must be credible and they must have implacable public support.
Secondly, I would prefer (though we don't have it in India but we all are asking for that) if there is a collegium comprising of members from the ruling party, the opposition , the judiciary -- all these together, to nominate the election commission. If it is a nominee of only one party in power then there is risk. In India it is a nomination by the party in power. But because a tradition is being established, it is working. But even then in India many of us are arguing that it (nomination of election commissioner) must be by a collegium, by a committee comprising of ruling party, opposition and the judiciary together sitting and then identifying an election commissioner. If that happens then to that extent the level of acceptance and credibility are much higher.
DS: How can Bangladesh share the Indian experience?
JN: India has good experience in the voter identity card system. After implementing the voter identity card system, the fraud in the polling has come down drastically. It is now close to zero, less than 1%. We have introduced electronic voting machine that is completely trustworthy and are foolproof. It had brought down the cost of election and results can be announced immediately. In this system, you don't need to print the ballot paper. It reduced the campaign period and it is very simple, citizen-friendly - even illiterate people could use them. The Indian election voting machine is a model in the world. So these are areas that can be shared. I am sure that if assistance is sought, the Indian Election Commission will be happy to help Bangladesh.
DS: What role does the media play in the Indian Elections?
JN: The media in India are extremely free and independent. People nowadays mostly watch private television channels rather than government TV channels. Therefore if the government wants to misinform the public, it will not succeed. So both the print and the electronic media hold a remarkable job, keeping the politicians on their toes.
If the government tries to undermine the EC, immediately the media exposes that and the public is outraged.
DS: What in your opinion are the obstacles to make our EC independent and strong?
JN: The political parties must reduce the temperature. The temperature is too high, there is too much distrust.
The most important thing in democracy is some amount of trust. If leading political parties and the political players do not trust each other you are paralysing the system.
Secondly, the party in power must exercise some amount of restraint because ultimately it is a responsibility of the party in power to give that confidence.
Third is that the electoral commission must very pro-active, not adamantly showing its independence. It's not enough to say it is independent, its action must be very strong, very focused and very non partisan in a very public way, so that the people gain confidence. Otherwise if it is very passive, if it is are reactive, if it is not actively neutral and fair, then people assume the worst
Therefore you must follow a free and fair process. I heard about some 600 million taka spent for electoral vote. I also read in the newspaper about a lot of complaints regarding the voter list.
In a large country with such a high rate of illiteracy, mistakes can be very honest. Let there be complete transparency. For instance, the electoral commission can simply open up the voter list in each post office and make it available to the public and said, you come up with complaints we will correct them. Then the temperature comes down. People start trusting. You must bring that cycle of trust. Whereas mistakes beget more mistakes, more anger, more bitterness.
DS: What is your impression about the election under a caretaker government system?
JN: The caretaker system is working in Bangladesh. It is an interesting, innovative system because it is the only country that has it. Let the tradition become stronger, not weaker as there is a lot of mistrust and therefore it will be wise on the part of Bangladesh's politicians to strengthen the caretaker system to make it credible and independent. The politicians of Bangladesh should allow it to function well. Because if they destroy it, it will hurt themselves. Every party could be in power, could be in opposition. If I now do something wrong, tomorrow I pay the price when I am not in power. Secondly, if it goes badly, people will lose faith in the democratic process, lose faith in political parties. If they lose faith in political parties, then you have other extra undemocratic options that are not good for a country. There will be anarchy, some temptation, some kind of extra-constitutional, undemocratic rule.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006