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Electoral Reforms in India: Good Governance Diplomacy in Smoke and Mirrors

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The punishment suffered by the wise who refuse to take part in the government, is to suffer under the government of bad men said Plato. The governance is perennial permutation and election is periodic mutation. Governance is not limited to electoral reforms alone; it has got embedded with a multitude of vicissitude. India is synonymous with democracy and it has become a shibboleth in political parlance to address India as the largest democracy.

Democracy is an engine that is propelled by the fuel of equality with equity, liberty with pluralism, fraternity with multiculturalism and unity with diversity on the tracks of rule of law and public participation. But democracy has eviscerated democracy in India due to its being in the hands of people who do not subscribe to an idea called institutional constitutionalism that in turn ensures good governance. The good governance germinates and gestates choices called election that is an inalienable and non-derogable feature of democracy that works as the spinal cord to sustain diversity, pluralism and multi-culturalism.

Election is not a seasonal pomp and show but a sacrosanct and serious process of upholding norms of democratic way of life in all geo-political entities including India. Thus, election is not limited to change of one set of political structure with another one but it a multitude of many dimensions. However, there is a pejorative trend in the most powerful methodology of making choices at the hustings. Despite the fact that scientific and technological advancements [EVMs (Electronic Voting Machine)] are being employed to elicit the free and fair preferences and predilections of We, the People of India, at the electoral politics but electioneering still lacks transparency in terms of funding, trolling, and defection etc.

The robust economic reforms peregrination of India since 1991 has made an indelible integration of Indian economy with the world economy but at home has created a democratic deficit in the Indian polity and left it unattended that is overdue parliamentary reforms called electoral reforms agenda. The electoral reforms in 21st century context have become more important and relevant than ever before. In the absence of electoral reforms, democratic deficit is having an incremental impact in the form of low voter turnout, no compulsory voting, no postal voting and no online voting. These trends are bad for democracy as people’s engagement in the political process is dismal and many vulnerable sections like minorities and Dalits feel alienated and excluded. Consequently, electoral reforms agenda is subjected to amnesia by the political executive that has been basking in a state of hubris since the inauguration of the Constitution of India. This sordid state of affairs has presented a desideratum; can economic reforms alone deliver? How to address the interplay among issues of corruption, accountability, rule of law, political party development, public administration and economic reconstruction in elections in divided societies? How is good governance achieved in elections? How to promote good governance in transition? Is everything fine with the existing electoral process in India? Are we, the people of India suffering from democratic diseases or excessive democracy?

History of Electoral Reforms in India 

The first three general elections (1952-1962) have been regarded free and fair elections but subsequent elections are marred by the distortion of the power structure at every level of governance. Consequently, positive power has been restricted and negative power remains unchecked. State organs have become dysfunctional and have been suffering maximum government and minimum governance. Elections only change players but there is no change in the rules of the game. Moreover, authority stands delinked from the accountability and rule of law. Institutional on-performance has become rampant, good behaviour is not rewarded and bad behaviour is not punished and honesty and political power have increasingly gone incompatible. There have been several attempts to have electoral reforms agenda executed wherefor few committees and commissions were constituted such as 1990 Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms, 1993 Vohra Committee Report, 1998 Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections, 1999 Law Commission Report on the Electoral Laws, 2001 National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2004 Election Commission of India with Proposed Electoral Reforms and 2008 The Second Administrative Reforms Commission. These committees and commissions have adumbrated the appalling deviations, discrepancies and irregularities in the election process and made pragmatic recommendations to reform the electoral architecture.

Supreme Court of India on Electoral Reforms

The Supreme Court of India ruled in July, 2013 that Parliamentarians and State Legislators who have been convicted with a jail term of two years or more are barred from contesting elections. The Supreme Court has struck down Section 8 (4) of the People’s Representation Act, 1951 in India whereunder convicted members of Parliament and State Legislatures were allowed to continue in their elected offices. Meanwhile, their appeals peregrinating in the upward mobility of the judicial hierarchy as the Clause 8(4) had provided special privilege to MPs/MLAs to hold the office even after conviction if an appeal has been filed in a higher court within the span of 3 months. On a petition filed by a NGO called Common Cause for having a separate button on the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) with the option of “None of the Above” (NOTA) and the Supreme Court gave a favourable ruling in the NOTA case on 27th Sept. 2013. The NOTA button was inserted in the EVM machines first time during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the case of People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs. Union Of India, (2013) 10 SCC 1, the Supreme Court ruled that it is a ‘categorical imperative’ that a candidate discloses his criminal antecedents otherwise such concealment would amount to a “corrupt practice” under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Further, such a corrupt practice makes the candidate liable to be disqualified under Section 8A of the same Act. But such progressive judicial decisions do not get any political backing as political parties are not honest to have electoral reforms and cleanse the political system mired in political chicanery and subterfuge. There are some notable cases delivered by the Supreme Court like FCRA Tribunal Case, [CRL.M.C. No. 2784/2011 & Crl. M.A. Nos. 10129/2011/2015 and 6144/2012, Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010], The Alleged Paid News Case [Ashok Shankarao Chavan v. Madhao Rao Kindhalkar and Others (2014) 7 SCC 99, 1], Disqualification Of Convicted MPs/MLAs Case [Lily Thomas and Lok Prahari NGO Case, (2013) 7 SCC 653] and Disproportionate assets of the Elected Representatives Case [Lok Prahari v. Union of India and Others,10 July, 2013]

Major Electoral Issues

Electoral canvas of India is in utter chaos from top to bottom and it appears beyond correction at least at the end of political architects of the country. The Election Commission of India has been making all efforts to cleanse the electoral system but We, the People of India, only look up to the highest judicial establishment of the land—the Supreme Court of India—for the redress of our repinements. However, judicial branch of the state should not be treated as a panacea for all ills that have been plaguing the country since its emergence out of the colonial clutches in 1947. There is crisis of governance that has raised its ugly head in many forms like Increasing Lawlessness, Inefficient State Apparatus, Unresponsive Bureaucracy, Expensive Judicial System (or Ineffective), All Pervasive Corruption, Criminalization of Politics, Politicization of Criminals, Money and Muscle Power in Elections, Political Instability, Erosion of Legitimacy of Authority, Fiscal Power [Cash Limit], Misuse of State Machinery [Incumbent Government], Compulsory Voting [Penal Consequences], State Funding [Reimbursement of certain % of amount] [National Election Fund], Casteism, Communalism, Religion, Regionalism [CCRR], Intra-party Democracy [Nepotism and dynastic political outfits are autocratic & unaccountable], Inclusion, Exclusion and Cessation of Candidates [Qualifications etc.], Candidate Expenditure Limits- No Limit on Political Party, Corporate Electoral Trust/Corporate Funding to Political Parties [Proposal for Electoral Bonds], Issue of Foreign Funding Taken By BJP and INC and How to bring Political Parties under RTI?

Way Ahead

In this conspectus, there is a need to have comprehensive, consolidated and holistic electoral reforms while addressing following submissions along with all issues that have been identified hereinabove that there must not be a caste-based or religion-based delimitation of parliamentary and state assembly constituencies, True Representation of political attitudes must be attended, state funding of election campaign must be based on securing minimum percentage of vote share by a political party and to equalize the election completion, there should be an easy procedure for voting, vote counting, ballot design that must be identifiable by the ordinary voter. The Constitution of India must appropriately be amended to address the administrative and legal framework to make the electoral reforms more pragmatic and practical, election law must make transparency a prerequisite of a fair election and change the way politicians plan to win the elections under all circumstances, the Election Commission of India should again be a single member body or primacy to the opinion or decision of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India be accorded in the existing election body to ensure fairness, transparency and integrity of the system, the avenues must be cajoled to ensure full turnout of the voters, National Transparency Courts (NTCs) must be established to try election-related offences and violations within a time-frame of one month, election reforms must make honesty compatible with public office and create a fusion of authority and responsibility within the gamut of citizen-centered governance. Electoral reforms must respect the people’s sovereignty and the instruments of accountability [Right to Information, Citizen’s Charters with penalties for non-performance, Stakeholder empowerment, making crime & corruption investigation agencies independent and autonomous. Therefore, the idea of a democratic polity is incomplete without periodic elections. The attitudes, ethics, and values of a society wedded with democracy of diversity and multiculturalism are expressed in elections. People’s sovereignty is asserted in the elections that accords legitimacy to the government and its lego-institutional structure for good governance. A free and fair election is the backbone of a democratic political set-up and same has been ordained in the schematization of the Constitution of India.

Ph. D., LL.M, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAARC)-New Delhi, Nafees Ahmad is an Indian national who holds a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in International Refugee Law and Human Rights. Author teaches and writes on International Forced Migrations, Climate Change Refugees & Human Displacement Refugee, Policy, Asylum, Durable Solutions and Extradition Issus. He conducted research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Jammu & Kashmir and North-East Region in India and has worked with several research scholars from US, UK and India and consulted with several research institutions and NGO’s in the area of human displacement and forced migration. He has introduced a new Program called Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations for LLM along with International Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law & Forced Migration Studies. He has been serving since 2010 as Senior Visiting Faculty to World Learning (WL)-India under the India-Health and Human Rights Program organized by the World Learning, 1 Kipling Road, Brattleboro VT-05302, USA for Fall & Spring Semesters Batches of US Students by its School for International Training (SIT Study Abroad) in New Delhi-INDIA nafeestarana[at]gmail.com,drnafeesahmad[at]sau.ac.in

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India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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