‘It is time to have a debate on proportional representation’

The former Chief Election Commissioner on the problem with electoral bonds, the unnecessary controversy over EVMs, and electoral reforms

March 07

‘It is time to have a debate on proportional representation’

Various electoral reforms are currently being debated, from improving transparency in party funding to holding simultaneous elections. In a wide-ranging conversation, former Chief Election Commissioner (2010 to 2012) S.Y. Quraishi addresses these issues. He also talks about, among other things, the challenge posed by electoral bonds, the concerns over the tampering of electronic voting machines (EVMs), and the problems with the first-past-the-post system. Excerpts:

Electoral bonds, as announced by the Union Finance Minister, hold the promise of making political funding transparent, which has been a long-standing demand of the Election Commission (EC). Do you think electoral bonds are the solution?

  • When the Finance Minister began his Budget speech, he said without transparency in political funding, free and fair elections are not possible. This was music to my ears. But what he offered was just the opposite. So far, all donations above Rs. 20,000 were disclosed to the EC. It is, of course, a different matter that political parties accept donations in crores and convert them into cheques of Rs. 20,000 — and this is more than 75% of all collection of political parties where sources are unknown. Now, with electoral bonds, 100% source will be unknown. The government has decided to give precedence to the donors’ wish to be anonymous. There was a CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) report of 2015 which said that donors want anonymity for two reasons: one, other parties would make a beeline for their donations, and two, fear of political reprisal from those not getting the donation. The real reason probably was that they don’t want the quid pro quo to get known. Finally, the donors’ desire for transparency has got preference over citizens’ desire for transparency and the people’s right to know, which is more important in a democracy and critical for the fairness of elections.
  • I must add, however, that there is one good thing about electoral bonds: cash transactions will not happen as people will have to buy bonds through the bank.

The government, and not the public or even the EC, would know who is giving what, right?

  • Yes, absolutely. And it is the government which can harass the donor more than any political party out of power. Reprisal, if any, can come only from the government. The government has empowered itself to know exactly who is giving what to whom. This is not what we in the EC were expecting and striving for.

Is the removal of the 7.5% cap (based on profits over three years) on corporate donations a good idea?

  • Not at all. The cap existed for a good reason — that the companies should not start influencing political processes. Now companies can exist just to run India’s politics. That is what crony capitalism is, and now it has been legalised. Billionaire-run companies will run Indian politics. The government has created a Frankenstein’s monster for itself. Nobody is in power permanently. Therefore, instead of thinking of long-term national interest, short-term political interest has been given precedence.

Has there been any reprisal against a donor in the past?

  • The solution lies in having a National Electoral Fund, where companies can donate without indicating preference for any political party and thereby avoiding the reprisal they claim to fear. The fund can be distributed transparently on the basis of actual performance. I have given a formulation: for every vote cast in favour of a candidate, Rs. 100 can be given. If 55 crore people cast their votes, the National Electoral Fund distributes Rs. 5,500 crore among parties/ candidates.

Will that money be enough for political parties?

  • I would say more than enough. The basis of my argument is that between 2009 and 2014, the total donation shown by all political parties was Rs. 4,000 crore. With all their efforts at blackmailing, arm-twisting and corruption, they got Rs. 4,000 crore. Here they get Rs. 5,500 crore with dignity, by cheque, based on their performance, on objective criteria. And this is one figure which cannot be fudged. All political parties have been demanding an end to electoral corruption, and state funding of elections. We are opposing state funding of elections as that will be impossible to monitor, and suggesting state funding of political parties, [which is] easy to monitor. There will be no scope for fly-by-night political parties. They will have to first perform in an election before they receive any funds.

What do you think about simultaneous elections, an idea which has been mooted by the Prime Minister?

  • It is a desirable idea. It has many advantages, some of which were listed by the Prime Minister. And they mainly have to with the huge costs and dislocation of normal life. I add two more. Money in elections is the fountainhead of all corruption. If you are always in election mode, you are always in corruption mode. Secondly, communalism and casteism are at a peak during elections. Hateful, divisive politics is the consequence of frequent elections.
  • The arguments in favour of staggered elections are equally strong. What do people want? As a Biju Janata Dal MP once remarked, people love elections as the vote is the only power they have. Secondly, election time provides work opportunities to lakhs of youth. At a recent Chhatra Sansad in Pune, I heard this interesting remark from a young girl from Chhattisgarh: “ Jab jab chunav aata hai, garib ke pet mein pulav aata hai (Whenever the elections come, the poor get some food).” Thus, in a way, frequent elections are good for the economy as the money goes from the rich to the poor. Thirdly, national and local issues don’t get mixed up.
  • Interestingly, initially the Prime Minister had mentioned that there should be simultaneous elections at all three levels. Somewhere down the line, the third tier has disappeared from the debate. So, you have already compromised on one-third of the suggested reform. Of the remaining two-thirds, half has been sacrificed by the suggestion of the Parliamentary Standing Committee and Niti Aayog that if it is not feasible to hold elections once in five years, let there be two in five years!
  • Fourthly, let’s not forget that India is a federal country. Regional parties have an increasingly important role to play. If they feel threatened by the proposal, they are bound to oppose it, making consensus impossible.
  • In a scenario where 29 State governments have come to power with absolute majority, if at the Centre the government falls, why should the States suffer? Of course, the anti-defection law is there to discourage this to a considerable extent. But in an era of coalition governments, there is always the possibility of governments falling, when a partner chooses to leave.

You had mentioned in an essay that it is time to review the first-past-the post system (FPTP)? Has the demand for replacing FPTP with proportional representation (PR) become louder after the 2014 general elections?

  • When I wrote An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, which came out in the middle of the elections of 2014, I had written that FPTP was the best system for its simplicity. I had also discussed various PR systems but dismissed them as not being practical for India. After the 2014 elections, I felt compelled to change my position when we saw that even with the third largest vote share of 20%, one party (the Bahujan Samaj Party) got zero seats. This is not democracy. I think it is time to have a national debate on this. We could look at the German model where they have a mixed system — half PR and half FPTP.

Doesn’t PR carry the threat of further dividing our society on caste, religious and other lines? When parties are promised seats in proportion to their votes, don’t you think politicians will find innovative ways means of forming newer parties?

  • No way. In fact, it may make the competitive, no-holds-barred politics of today less bitter as the parties will hope to have their presence in the legislatures according to their vote share instead of being wiped out completely even after getting a sizeable vote share.

There is a debate on EVMs. Should we go back to paper ballots?

  • Certainly not. Our EVMs have stood the test of time. Every, I repeat, every political party has raised questions about EVMs at different times. And when with the same machines they come to power, they go silent.
  • In any case, after introduction of voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), there is no ground left to quibble. VVPAT makes the system transparent and foolproof.

The EC said that at least 25% of the booths in a constituency should have VVPATs. But ground reports suggest otherwise.

  • That must be old hat. The EC has now committed to the Supreme Court that every election in future would be with 100% VVPAT. The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections were the first-ever full VVPAT elections. The dispute now is, how many machines would be counted for voter chits countercheck. The EC has said one booth per constituency. There are 200-300 polling booths per constituency. One is certainly too little for the purpose it was introduced. Let the EC discuss it at an all-party meeting to arrive at a consensus.

Has the credibility of the EC taken a hit?

  • In the context of CEC Achal Kumar Jyoti’s decision on Gujarat election dates, you mean? But the same Mr. Jyoti was applauded for his verdict in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections. The problem lies in the process of appointment of Election Commissioners. They are appointed by the government of the day with no consultation with the Opposition. The controversy was unfair to Mr. Jyoti just because he was from Gujarat. We should have a collegium to appoint the CEC. When we can have a collegium system for the CVC (Central Vigilance Commissioner) and the CIC (Central Information Commissioner), which are not even constitutional bodies, why can’t we have one for the most critical constitutional body, the EC? The most powerful electoral body in the world has the most defective system of appointment. This reform cannot wait.


  • Voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT)
  • Simultaneous elections
  • Electoral bonds