If competition is a key component of a flourishing economy, it is equally true that competition in electoral politics and elections is a powerful force for the healthy growth of a vibrant democracy enhancing legitimacy of political parties and their responsiveness to the aspirations of the electorate.
Viewed from the Indian perspective, there is a striking identity between the rights of consumers in the free market economy and the rights of voters in our political democracy. Equally noteworthy is the identity of the fundamental principles governing the rule of law in the free market system, the institutional arrangements for safeguarding consumer rights and the rule of law of elections and the regulatory environment for monitoring the functioning of a free and fair electoral democracy. The free market system ensures the best available goods and services are offered to the consumer at the optimal price following the principles of free market competition without restrictive and unfair trade practices enforced through the Consumer Protection Act1986 and the Competition Act 2002.
In the democratic system, the voters are given the right to elect the best available persons as people’s representatives through conducting elections in a free and fair manner which forms the bedrock of democracy. This is ensured by the Election Commission through the enforcement of the Guidelines of Model Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates during elections mainly with respect to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, election manifestos, processions and general conduct. Thus, while the role of a Referee in the free market system in India is played by the Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum and Competition Commission of India, the rules of free and fair elections in political democracy are enforced by the Election Commission of India.
In a market economy, competition facilitates a host of benefits: awareness and market penetration, higher quality at same prices, increase in demand and consumption through competitive pricing, product differentiation, upgradation and innovation, improvements in efficiency of production at optimal levels by minimising cost and losses and increasing customer service and satisfaction. Competition in politics and elections elevates the voter to a pivotal role in democracy as that given to the consumer in a market driven economy. Electoral candidates vie for votes by promising reforms such as better governance, greater socio-economic equity and positive measures for poverty alleviation.
Each political party through its campaigns, manifesto and other propaganda machinery strives hard to win the maximum number of voters in electoral democracy transforming it as a political free market system with fierce competition between the players similar to the efforts of sellers in the free market economy to attract the maximum number of customers.
A free market system across the globe, is characterised by the existence of not only the most efficient firms but also several inefficient ones who are unable to produce the best quality goods and services at lowest prices and even those resorting to fraudulent , restrictive and unfair trade practices. Similarly, in political democracy and elections around the world, besides politicians and parties with high degree of integrity and democratic values, there are those with criminal records, adopting ideologies prejudiced by notions of race, caste, colour, gender and religion based politics, and those charged with allegations of vote buying etc. which continues to undermine the democratic process.
Consumer Rights in a Free Market Economy
In India, the interests of the consumer in the market economy from restrictive, unfair and anti-competitive trade practices by firms is safeguarded through several strong legal provisions which inter alia includes the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and the Competition Act 2002. In addition, consumers rights in the economy are further protected through The Indian Contract Act, 1872, The Sale of Goods Act, of 1930 and The Agriculture produce Act of 1937. This is further strengthened by the establishment of supportive quasi-judicial institutional arrangements i.e the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission at the National, State and District level as well as the Competition Commission of India.
The main objective of the competition law of India is to promote economic efficiency using competition as one of the means of assisting the creation of market responsive to consumer preferences. The advantages of perfect competition are three-fold: allocative efficiency which ensures that costs of production are kept at a minimum and dynamic efficiency which promotes innovative practices.
To achieve its objectives, the Competition Commission of India endeavours to do the following:
- Make the markets work for the benefit and welfare of consumers
- Ensure fair and healthy competition in economic activities in the country for faster and inclusive growth and development of the economy.
- Implement competition policies with an aim to effectuate the most efficient utilization of economic resources.
- Develop and nurture effective relations and interactions with sectoral regulators to ensure smooth alignment of sectoral regulatory laws in tandem with the competition law.
- Effectively carry out competition advocacy and spread the information on benefits of competition among all stakeholders to establish and nurture completion culture in Indian economy.
Voters Rights in a Political Democracy
As a free market economy cannot sustain consumer rights without supportive legal and institutional framework, there is little doubt that for the survival of a free and fair democracy, the rule of law should prevail and it is necessary that the best available persons should be chosen as people’s representatives for proper governance of the country (Gadakh Yashwantrao Kankararao v Balasaheb Vikhepati lAIR 1994 SC 678). India isa sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic. Democracy is one of the inalienable basic features of the Constitution of India and forms parts of its basic structure (Kesavanand Bharati v State of Kerala and Others AIR 1973 SC 1461). The concept of democracy, as visualised by the Constitution, pre-supposes the representation of the people in Parliament and State Legislatures by the method of election (N.P.Punnuswami v Returning Officer Namakka lAIR 1952 SC 64).
Accordingly, in India, in the realm of political democracy and elections, the interests of the voters and electorate is safeguarded through the Constitution of India, Representation of the People’s Act 1950 and 1951,Presidential and Vice Presidential Elections Rules 1974, Registration of Electors Rules 1960 and Conduct of Elections Rules 1961.
In India, the above legal provisions of elections and voting under political democracy are administered and further supplemented by the Election Commission’s directions and instructions on all aspects. The underlying principle of parliamentary democracy enforced by the Election Commission of India is to ensure free and fair elections for which there are three pre-requisites: (1) an authority to conduct these elections, which should be insulated from political and executive interference, (2) set of laws which should govern the conduct of elections and in accordance whereof the authority charged with the responsibility of conducting these elections should hold them, and (3) a mechanism whereby all doubts and disputes arising in connection with these elections should be resolved. The Constitution of Indi has paid due attention to all these imperatives and duly provided for all the three matters.
The Constitution has created an independent Election Commission of India in which vest the superintendence, direction and control of preparation of electoral rolls for, and conduct of elections to, the officers of president and Vice President of India and Parliament and State Legislatures (Article 324). A similar independent constitutional authority has been created for conduct of elections to municipalities, panchayats and other local bodies (Articles 243 K and 243 ZA) along with legal and institutional provisions for settlement of disputes relating to elections.
Model Code of Conduct in India
Election Commission of India has laid down a set of guidelines for conduct of political parties and candidate during elections. The main points of code of conduct are:
- The government may not lay any new ground for projects or public initiatives once the Model Code of Conduct comes into force.
- Government bodies are not to participate in any recruitment process during the electoral process.
- The contesting candidates and their campaigners must respect the home life of their rivals and should not disturb them by holding road shows or demonstrations in front of their houses.
- The election campaign rallies and road shows must not hinder the road traffic.
- Candidates are asked to refrain from distributing liquor to voters.
- The Code hinders the government or ruling party leaders from launching new welfare programmes like construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc or any ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
- The code instructs that public spaces like meeting grounds, helipads, government guest houses and bungalows should be equally shared among the contesting candidates. These public spaces should not be monopolized by a few candidates.
- On polling day, all political party candidates should cooperate with the poll-duty officials at the voting booths for an orderly voting process. Candidates should not display their election symbols near and around the poll booths on the polling day. No one should enter the booths without a valid pass from the Election Commission.
- There will be poll observers to who any complaints can be reported or submitted.
- The ruling party should not use its seat of power for the campaign purposes.
- The ruling party ministers should not make any ad-hoc appointment of officials, which may influence the voters in favour of the party in power.
- Before using loud speakers during their poll campaigning, candidates and political parties must obtain permission or license from the local authorities. The candidates should inform the local police for conducting election rallies to enable the police authorities to make required security arrangements.
In a wider sense, both free markets and democratic elections are run on the basis of a set of rules with respective regulatory bodies enforcing the rules of the game. While there is a strong element of political centralization in the decision making process of elections, free market system is tilted more towards the principle of economic decentralisation. However, the consumer and the voter whose rights are legally and institutionally safeguarded remain as the principal beneficiaries of both systems- the economic and political. Thus free markets and democracy have identical underlying objectives of maximising welfare of the people. The convergence of the political economy of free markets and elections therefore highlights the democratic principles governing the welfare of citizens.