The proposed ‘right to recall’ bill, even though aiming for the noblest of goals, would wreck widespread damage if ever it is made into law.
A few weeks ago, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament (MP) Varun Gandhi moved a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament proposing an amendment in the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
As per his Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2016, MPs and members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) can be ‘recalled’. The recalling process can be initiated by any voter of the constituency after a minimum period of two years after election by filing a petition before the Speaker, signed at least by one-fourth of the voters. After confirming its authenticity, the Speaker will move the application to the Election Commission (EC) for its verification and authentication of the voters’ signatures on it, and the EC will then organise voting in the respective constituency of the MP or MLA.
If three-fourth of those who voted in the constituency vote against the elected representative, the member will be recalled, the bill proposes. According to the bill, the Speaker will notify the result to the general public within 24 hours of the receipt of the result, and once the seat gets duly vacated, the EC will organise a by-poll in that constituency.
The right to recall has the potential to bring some accountability among politicians. It will keep them on their toes and make them want to be seen as working for the people. In case the politician goes against the popular will, he might be penalised. Defection from one party to another, without going for a re-election, can be reduced. Politicians who change their stand on major issues without giving a reasonable justification can be penalised too. Leaders who are caught red-handed in unlawful activities may be punished immediately instead of having them summoned to courts and then waiting for years to get the verdict.
In the first-past-the-post system, the candidate with the most votes wins, sometimes even with a small percentage of the total polled votes. This means that majority of the people would have already voted against such a candidate. The right to recall would make life difficult for such leaders.
However, vested political interests may try to mobilise people against the winner throughout the term, and elected representatives will be in perpetual fear of being removed from office if they don’t pander to the demands of the people. They will hesitate to take a tough stand or take bold decisions in such a context.
The representative’s independence and flexibility will be under threat and they might go for quick fixes and populist measures. There is no yardstick for the measurement of the performances of MLAs and MPs, except perhaps observing their participation in law-making. Developmental works involve multiple departments and an MLA/MP alone cannot be made responsible for inefficacy or incompetence. Also, different projects are approved by different governments, and governments might discriminate between the ruling party and the opposition representatives while sanctioning development works.
The right to recall thus might result in the very evils that it plans to address. De-election and re-election may lead to wastage of time and resources. Also, the entire process requires politically well-informed voters. The present level of public understanding of the federal structure of government and role of elected representatives doesn’t guarantee that people will make an informed choice in recalling a representative. Primordial loyalties may come into picture in trying to overthrow some representatives.
There are other procedural difficulties too – who all would be allowed to vote in recall poll and the identification of such voters, verifying the signatures, and so on.
We live in a time when citizens are rightly demanding greater accountability from politicians. Social activist Anna Hazare too has been pushing for the right to recall along with the right to reject for a long time. He believes that the right to recall will make a positive impact.
Former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi doesn’t think so. He fears that if the right to recall is put in place, “elections will go on happening and the entire system will destabilise”.
There is some evidence to this effect in local bodies of a few states which have introduced the recall option. More than 50 per cent of the local representatives who have been recalled in Madhya Pradesh so far have been re-elected in the ensuing elections and there are serious allegations of misuse of the recall option by the powerful in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
While making politicians accountable is important, let us not throw the baby away with the bathwater. We should take this opportunity to discuss electoral and political reforms suitable for the country. For example, Dr Jayaprakash Narayan of the Loksatta Party has been proposing direct election of the chief minister with clear separation of powers between the executive and legislature and freedom to choose the Cabinet from outside the assembly. This will bring specialised talent to a cabinet. Separation of executive and legislature will also decrease the demand for the position of MLA and, hence, vote buying will also decrease. This is the right time for the BJP government to bring systemic reforms. If Prime Minister Modi, with such a huge mandate, cannot do it, wonder who else can.