Electoral Reforms In India

[op-ed snap ] Making democracy meaningful


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing Much

Mains level : How can democracy be more meaningful besides elections.


General Elections are due in April and May.

Does democracy only mean periodic Elections?

  • Within Indian common sense periodic elections, party-based competitive candidates, and universal adult franchise have turned out to be the primary ingredients of democracy.
  • This common sense has come to cloud everything centrally associated with the idea of democracy in general and constitutional democracy in particular.
  • Reading elections as democracy has also led to the equating of means with ends, celebrating the former, and abdicating it from all responsibility the latter demands.
  • This reduction of democracy to elections, today, threatens to undermine the core aspirations associated with it.

Problems with Elections in India

  • Elections can hardly be termed as the sole and effective conveyor belts of popular will in India any longer.
  • Probably, they were never so.

1.Marginalisation of marginalised

  • But there were reasons to hope, as the poor and the marginalised, cutting across diversity and the social and gender divide, rallied behind it in strength.
  • But the hype that has come to surround elections, the resources that it calls for, the close monitoring of the voters by boxing them in social straitjackets, and the media’s obsessive focus on elections as a gladiators’ den have deeply compromised elections as the preeminent device of representation of popular will.
  • In the process the electoral space of the poor and the marginalised has shrunk, as other devices have been put in place to elicit their assent.
  • Redistribution of resources and opportunities has been lost in the endless litany of promises of goods and bounties.

2.Role Of media

  • Sections of the media have come to play second fiddle in amplifying the sound-bites of political leaders, deploying them to construct and reconstruct opponents, with specified social constituencies in view.
  • They have found jingoism and archaic frames easy to stoke rather than nudge public sensitivity to reinforcing the democratic temper.
  • Highlighting fragments from popular memory-lane, spreading isolated events wide across the political space, and nurturing the effect of simultaneity, particularly with certain audiences in view, have been the take of much reporting these days.

While elections have been successful in reproducing the order of things, they can hardly be considered as the tool of deepening democracy and the nursery of imagining alternative human possibilities.

History of Views on Election in India

  • There has been an ambivalence regarding elections as the route to democracy in India from early on, even before Independence.
  • It is important to recall that the Indian National Congress rejected the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (1919) that expanded the then electoral base, and entertained grave doubts with regard to the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935 till it accorded a qualified endorsement to it.
  • There have always been political tendencies in India after Independence, particularly on the Left, that have sought boycott of elections by appealing to a richer and thicker version of democracy.
  • But there is little to suggest that those who sought to reject or do away with elections have had much success in putting together an alternative, or enjoyed significant and consistent mass support for any appreciable time across the complex and deeply plural social ensemble in India.
  • Subsequent developments, particularly the option of Left parties to take the parliamentary path, demonstrate that elections as a device of choosing representatives find deep echo in the public culture in India.

Way Forward

  • As a political community, the bonds that unite Indians are not given but have to be forged, and have to be forged consciously and deliberately.
  • Certain inheritances, beliefs, memories and shared practices can be a great help in this direction, but it is also important to realise that they can be equally divisive.
  • In a complex society such as India, such a political project needs all layers of the political community.
  • There is no reason for anyone to participate in such a project unless it welcomes them as equals and enables them to pursue what they regard as the best for them.
  • This calls for auditing the election promises of political parties, extending support to some measures and rejecting others.
  • Measures such as access to quality education in the mother tongue, neighbourhood schools, strengthening public health systems, public transport, entrepreneurship and skill development, universal social insurance, and reaching out to those who suffer disadvantages in accessing these measures are definitely in synchrony with the democratic project.
  • There is a dire need to create a helm to focus on India’s democratic project.


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