Renu Pokharna

Archive for the ‘Electoral Reform’ Category

Change and its limits

In Corruption, Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Reforms, Politics on January 7, 2014 at 2:09 am

The Aam Aadmi Party has had spectacular success, of that there can be no doubt. But even its most hardened and committed supporters will agree that the government in Delhi will last only a few weeks — at most, a few months. It simply will not have the time or opportunity to prove its capability to govern. Its success has ironically thrown into sharp relief the best and worst of our current political system. It has established the vibrancy of our politics and the maturity of the electorate. At the same time, it has made clear the disjunct between the exercise of individual franchise and the delivery of stable governance. What one must question is the positive of a political system which enables the expression of protest but does not promote a steady and enduring government.

Kejriwal deserves the accolade of “man of the year”. His conviction, tenacity and simplicity are admirable. But compared to another “aam aadmi” who has also had comparable impact, albeit on a much larger scale, his limitations are obvious. Unlike Pope Francis, he does not have the mandate or experience to deliver. This is not his fault, but that of our political system.

Pope Francis was a little known Jesuit priest from Argentina called Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The cardinals of the papacy surprised the Catholic community by electing him the 265th successor to St Peter a month after Pope Benedict had roiled the church by resigning. At the time, the church was engulfed in a sexual scandal, the Vatican Bank was facing charges of corruption, papal institutions had hollowed and parishioners were leaving in droves. Pope Francis could not have inherited a more difficult chalice. His response was “aam aadmi” in character. He rejected the “lal batti” Mercedes and stayed with his clapped-out Ford Focus. He did not move into the apostolic palace but chose a two-room abode. He celebrated his 77th birthday with four poor people and a dog. His every action has exemplified humility and compassion. More substantively, he challenged conventional orthodoxy. He commented that the church was “obsessed” with abortion and contraceptives, and in response to a question on what he thought about gay priests, he replied “who am I to judge”. Further, he sidelined the traditional synod of bishops and appointed his own group of cardinals to advise him on bureaucratic and institutional issues.

The jury is still out on whether Pope Francis will succeed in revitalising the Church, and there is comment that he might be more style than substance. But what is clear is that this “aam aadmi” priest has the authority and tenure to convert intent into policy. He is the supreme unchallenged head of the Church and unless he decides otherwise, he will stay in that position for life. He can change the shape and content of the Church. In contrast, Kejriwal is shackled and will be fighting another election in a few months. The AAP deserves its moment, and whilst no one can or should dilute the significance of its achievement, it must not be surprised if “good” and “honest” people everywhere feel uneasy about the longer-term impact of its leadership in government. After all, it is in for the short haul; avowedly populist; without experience; and its economic programme does not hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

The AAP phenomena will be franchised. Civic groups across the country will be emboldened to take up political cudgels. The electoral response to these new political movements could be disproportionately strong, especially in urban constituencies. This is a healthy trend, as it will shift the contours and narrative of politics. It will upend conventional wisdom. No one in the Cong-ress or the BJP expected the AAP to do so well. Their belief was that the voter would ultimately cast her vote conventionally. The voter would not vote for a party that had no chance to win. “Why waste a vote,” would be the logic. I suspect this is no longer the refrain in party headquarters. The realisation must have dawned that the 60-million-odd new voters are singing to a different tune. They are fed up with the lack of governance and corruption. They do not like the political choices on offer and are looking for alternatives. This is all good. The shake up of old-style feudal politics driven by money and opportunism is long overdue.

At another level, however, this franchisee phenomena does raise some concerns. For two decades now, we have had coalition governments at the Centre, and it has become clear that coalition politics does not allow for statesmanship. It does not give leaders the room to take decisions that pay off in years rather than months. It is also a major reason for corruption. This is because of the required “give and take” and the compulsion to raise finance for the next election, not to speak of the individual impulse to make hay while the sun is shining. The silver lining has been that most state governments have been governed by parties with a clear and decisive majority. This has facilitated clearer (not necessarily cleaner) and better governance. The question, therefore, has to be asked: What if the politicisation of protest movements were to push state governments into the miasma of coalition governance? Would that be in the public interest?

The conditions for a revolution are created when people feel alienated from and disgusted with the institutions of government and the quality of governance. These conditions translate into action when people with passion, leadership and language give expression and meaning to this feeling. The revolution endures if the new political structures and systems reflect and respond to underlying social and economic realities. Take, for example, the American revolution. The people felt alienated from the rule of colonial Britain and disgust at the gap between the reality of social hierarchy and the rhetoric that Americans were “born, the heirs to freedom” for decades before the revolution. They did not, however, take to the streets until George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson gave expression and organisation to this discontentment. The principles of the revolution have endured for over 200 years because the political system has in the main reflected and responded to the interests and aspirations of the American people. In similar vein, Kejriwal and the AAP have given language and meaning to the disgust felt by people towards traditional political parties. They have marshalled this disgust into a brilliant movement of protest. The first-past-the-post system of parliamentary democracy has not, however, given them the authority to deliver. The question that the AAP must thus contemplate is whether its impact might not be more enduring and positive if, rather than looking to govern and risking exposure as an emperor without clothes, it was to use its organisational skills to compel a review of the political system and better alignment to the longer-term demands of a pluralistic, diverse, young and subcontinental polity?

Indian Express, 6 Jan 2014

Washington’s I.T. Guy

In Bureaucratic Delays, Civil Services Reforms, Corruption, Electoral Reform on May 30, 2012 at 7:23 am

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, as progressive activists and Democratic operatives were jockeying for positions large and small within the new administration, Carl Malamud launched a quixotic campaign for an appointment as the director of the U.S. Government Printing Office. The public printer’s task, historically, has been to compile and distribute to the American people the considerable amount of information produced each day by the federal government.

Malamud, who has made a career of exploring and developing the transformative technology of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, was eager to convert the job of public printer, which traces its roots to Benjamin Franklin, into an Internet-age publisher. He started a campaign for an appointment under the slogan “Yes We Scan.” Rep. Ed Markey, highly regarded in the tech world, wrote a glowing letter to President Obama that described Malamud as “the best qualified individual” for the post. And members of Congress received full-color books that collected supportive “tweets.”

Although Malamud says he went on three White House interviews for the post, he was unable to win the support of the leaders of the congressional committees who oversee the GPO. But lack of an official title hasn’t stopped Malamud from pursuing his open-government goals. “If called, I will certainly serve. But if not called, I will probably serve anyway,” he told The New York Times last February.

Malamud has taken it upon himself to see that all public information — from court decisions to financial disclosures to Army training tapes — is actually, well, public. Malamud, 51, has worked as a network administrator, run technology startups, and taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and in Japan. He has written for Wired and Computerworld, and on one memorable day in the early 1990s, he hooked up the first White House Internet connection. Since 2007 he has devoted himself — and his bank account — to using technology to open the government to the people. He’s the sole employee of an organization, Public.Resource.org, dedicated to that purpose.

These days Malamud lives just outside of Sebastopol, a small town near San Francisco. When I met him in January, he was in New York City to make a presentation at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy about his latest project, a proposed government-run online platform that would allow anyone to easily access all of the laws in the United States, from towns and cities all the way up to the federal level. Nearly everyone I’d talked to in Washington described Malamud as tireless, and he quickly proved them right. We talked nonstop for two hours.

The work of freeing government information often carries the connotation of exposing secrets about nefarious policies or officials’ bad behavior. Malamud, a technologist through and through, approaches it from a different angle, one that can be more palatable to the political class. His art is in figuring out how to free documents that aren’t restricted by secrecy but by the fact that the government has failed to put them online. The conventional wisdom about making all such information publicly available is that it would be too difficult, too invasive, too expensive. Malamud has made it his monumental task to disprove that. It’s a simple idea: If those materials affect people’s lives, they can and should be easily and freely accessible. Citizens must be empowered to see how the government machine works, and especially in the Internet era, there’s no excuse for keeping them in the dark.

Given Obama’s reputation as a our most tech-savvy president to date, and one whose election was due, in part, to online organizing, Malamud is betting that he can get this administration to see the wisdom in open-source government. His success or failure will speak volumes about whether Washington will reap the benefits of the Internet age — or whether the current celebration of technology culture will simply fade away.

***

Malamud’s battle to get government information online is almost as old as the Internet itself. In the early days of the World Wide Web, he ran the nonprofit Internet Multicasting Service (“the first radio station on the Internet”). From his office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., he broadcast everything from House and Senate floor debates to United Nations ceremonies, along with the occasional reading of the works of T.S. Eliot. At the time, Congress was pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to publish online the financial disclosure forms required from corporations so that everyone had access to the information. The documents weren’t secret; Wall Street had easy access to them through paid services. But the SEC complained that putting the corporate disclosures online would cost $40 million and that too few Americans on the budding Internet would be interested in the data.

In 1994, Malamud received a grant from the National Science Foundation and put the financial information online himself for a fraction of what the SEC claimed it would cost. After 18 months, the online service, known as EDGAR, had skyrocketed in popularity, and Malamud seized the moment. He challenged the SEC to take over the site, putting up a note that read “This Service Will Terminate in 60 Days.” The SEC balked, citing a lack of computers and in-house expertise. So Malamud and allies loaned the commission some basic servers, tape drives, and monitors. “We put the computers in the station wagon and drove down to the SEC,” Malamud says. “We configured their T1 line and got them up and running.” The SEC’s EDGAR database is still online and remains an invaluable resource for everyone from high-rollers and journalists to students and senior-citizen investment clubs.

One top Democratic Hill staffer describes Malamud as having “a lot of ’80s punk in him mixed with DIY.” Indeed, his do-it-yourself style often doesn’t look very D.C. His website features a “Seal of Approval” — as in, a smiling cartoon seal. He likes to have friends and colleagues take their picture with a cardboard version of the seal. A program for recycling court records features an animated trash can. His joint project with the Commerce Department — in which he converts VHS tapes of old government movies to digital and posts a copy on YouTube — is called FedFlix, a reference to the movies-by-mail service NetFlix (“Carl likes to name things,” says one Democratic leadership staffer). Many of the 1,900 films Malamud has freed are, well, deeply weird. One Army training film features a female officer lecturing an underling on what a smart fashion choice miniskirts can be.

Other projects include taking several thousand photographs that the Smithsonian claimed copyright on, determining that they were in the public domain, and posting them on the photo-sharing site Flickr. He wrangled with the heavily subsidized broadcaster C-SPAN to put congressional proceedings online without copyright restrictions. His work is imbued with a spirit of whimsy and a history buff’s appreciation for all things government. But of his reputation as a gadfly, he says, “I hate that label. I take a thousand DVDs and rip them and put them online. That’s not a gadfly thing.”

“People are very confused when they first encounter Carl. They try to figure out what his angle is. They think he’s trying to get funding,” says Andrew McLaughlin, the deputy chief technology officer at the White House and a former Google exec. “Instead, he says, ‘Give me a terabyte of data.'” If you think of politics as transactional, the Malmudian equation doesn’t make a lot of sense. For one thing, freelance liberation of government information isn’t exactly lucrative. When Malamud delivered a keynote speech to several hundred people at the Grand Hyatt in Washington this past September, Public.Resource.org had only $180 left in the bank.

Donations from friends in the tech realm keep his organization afloat. Google has given Malamud what he calls pity money. “They knew I was literally going bankrupt,” he says. “I’d maxed out my credit cards.” In 2007, the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, made a sizable contribution to the cause. Malamud quickly spent $600,000 of it buying court records from the Federal Judiciary and putting them up online for anyone to use. It may seem crazy to execute such a feat for no electoral or financial gain, but it’s the sort of thing people do pretty regularly online — make things and give them away, hoping that other people will do cool things with them. Examples include everything from Lostpedia, the fan-written Wikipedia-style compendium on the ABC show, to Linux, the free, user-created computer operating system. Malamud just happens to think the same philosophy should apply to the federal record.

Malamud’s views on technology and information were shaped by the Internet wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a pitched political battle erupted between governments, international technical bodies, and technologists over whether the development standards behind the nascent Internet would be available, for free, to anyone who wanted to help build the new network — or whether they would only be accessible to a select few experts and at a considerable cost. For a time, it looked like the forces pushing a closed approach were winning. “It just seemed wrong,” Malamud says. For one thing, he couldn’t get his hands on the standards he needed for the technical guides he was writing at the time.

What emerged was a universe of simple, open, universal rules. And you know the rest of the story: an innovation revolution followed. “The open standards won,” he says, “because any kid could download the rules of the game, understand how they work, and make a contribution.” Technologists had fought bureaucracies all over the world — and won. “It taught us,” Malamud says, “that we can make government heel.”

One way Malamud has sought to do that is with his technical expertise. When he pushed C-SPAN to post its government-video archives on the Internet, unburdened by copyright restrictions, his ability to describe concrete solutions to video — conversion and streaming-quality challenges won over C-SPAN Co-President Rob Kennedy. “Our conversations with Carl,” Kennedy says with appreciation, “are often very technical.” But Malamud’s technological orientation can also make bureaucratic obstacles enormously frustrating. “I’ll use the word ‘pure,'” Kennedy says. “He’s kind of a purist about government domain,” referring to the idea that the public should be able to easily see, read, and copy information that has to do with the workings of its government.

“We hold our priests to a higher standard,” Malamud says. A former congressional staffer myself, I suggest to Malamud that, given Congress’ limited resources, progress might be slow going. What are the options in the short term? He replies, “If they can’t afford to put all the hearings online, then they should have less of them.”

***

Malamud was born at the intersection of technology and government. He spent the first five years of his life in Switzerland while his father, noted physicist Ernest Malamud, worked at the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. (Malamud the younger returned to CERN in the 1990s while writing his travelogue Exploring the Internet. He was taken to see a young engineer working on an exciting project. “Interesting,” Malamud recalls thinking to himself, “but it won’t scale.” The engineer was Tim Berners-Lee, and his invention, the World Wide Web.) In the late 1960s, Malamud’s father moved the family to Illinois for a job at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. Malamud earned a bachelor’s in business at Indiana University and dropped out of graduate school there with a gentleman’s MBA before finishing his dissertation in order to build IU’s computer lab, or as Malamud puts it, “do computers again.” Three years later, after working as a computer systems analyst at the Federal Reserve Board, he enrolled at Georgetown Law, but left to start his own computer consulting practice.

Years of consulting, writing, and teaching as well as some run-ins with the current and former staff of Democratic administrations followed. While running the Internet Multicasting Service in the mid 1990s, he was called in to wire the White House. In 2005, when former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta founded a new progressive think tank, Malamud came on as chief technology officer. He was not impressed with what he found at the Center for American Progress. “It was an all-Microsoft shop,” he says. “It was crawling with consultants. And it sucked.” Malamud spent two years converting Podesta’s think tank to open-source software built by its community of users, needling the Smithsonian for making exclusive deals with cable broadcasters, and setting up better computers.

In 2007, Malamud filed papers to incorporate Public.Resource.org. His goal was simple: to do whatever possible, from the outside, to make copies of laws, court documents, and other government materials available for free. It’s a ripe field. For example, PACER, the federal court’s online document service, charges 8 cents per page for access to public information. The money goes to a good cause, funding much-needed technology for district and appellate courts. In 2006, PACER generated $58 million in revenue, according to the Federal Judiciary. “I know they need the money,” Malamud says. “I’m sympathetic to that. But that doesn’t give them the right to claim something that’s not theirs.” Malamud has been working diligently to both post PACER documents that people have already paid for and get the courts to do away with the fee. In addition, he has targeted WestLaw and LexisNexis, which charge thousands of dollars for access to annotated legal proceedings.

He’s also focused his attention on the state of Oregon, which has claimed copyright on its statutes, selling copies for hundreds of dollars a pop. The claim of copyright on public law is dubious, especially considering that the constitutional justification for copyright is to spur creativity and innovation. There’s little threat that states are going to stop passing laws just because they can’t sell copies of them. Malamud’s latest victory has been buying and posting copies of building and other safety codes from all 50 states, even though very often they are marked with a copyright from one of the vendors that produces model safety codes. Justifying the gamble is a 2002 decision, Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress Int’l Inc., that found that once something has the effect of law, it can no longer claim copyright.

Malamud is certainly willing to provoke but prefers to be sure the law is on his side. In response to his call to open PACER, a young activist, entrepreneur, and programmer named Aaron Swartz used a bit of code and a trial program at his local library to download nearly 20 million pages of files, which caught the attention of the FBI. Malamud ended up in an interrogation room with two armed agents. “Unlike my good friend Aaron Swartz and others who are willing to stick it to the man,” Malamud says, “I look very carefully at what we’re doing to see if it’s legal or not.”

In 2010 Malamud is shifting his focus somewhat. In the past, he’s often been a lone operator. Now he wants to evolve into a leader of a large-scale movement to change the relationship between people and the law. Malamud hopes that Obama’s election has created an opportunity to go beyond the decision in the Veeck case and firmly establish as an American principle that laws are accessible to anyone. The movement is centered around a simple idea known as Law.gov: an online platform that will allow anyone to easily and freely access federal, state, and local law; judicial rulings and briefs; congressional hearing transcripts; regulations; and other government materials. Malamud estimates that running something like Law.gov would cost $50 million a year, and he plans to spend the next year convening meetings about it at the nation’s top law schools, tapping into the vibrant movement for free access to law, getting judges on board, and figuring out how to build such a system.

“When I started this, I understood that I might crash and burn,” he says. “The whole point is that even if we crash and burn, the dialogue will be useful.” Indeed, the Law.gov concept is already running into the buzz saw of jurisdictions. Roberta Shaffer, head of the Law Library of Congress, surprised many when her holiday letter to her staff announced that the law library had already applied to direct the Law.gov domain. Shaffer wouldn’t speak with me for this article, but the Law Library of Congress’ Facebook page did post a pointed message: “The Law Library of Congress is a government entity, and has no formal or official relationship with Carl Malamud,” it reads. “However, the Law Library is always interested in working with and receiving feedback from concerned citizens and the organizations with which they are affiliated.” It doesn’t stop there. “Therefore, we welcome and consider input from Carl and many, many others on our public-facing initiatives.” It’s at that second “many” that you begin to think that the Law Library might not be all that welcoming to Malamud’s views on public information.

Still, Malamud believes that if he can appeal directly to the president, he can convince him that opening up access to the nation’s law archives is a worthy and achievable goal. Obama is a former constitutional law professor, after all, and a bit of a technocrat. “We really want to take this football, hand it over to the president, and say ‘go for it,'” he says. But Malamud is not convinced that the Obama White House is populated with true believers. Obama “would do his job a lot better if he did improve that infrastructure,” Malamud says. “But I don’t think that’s something that he gets. I don’t think that’s something that Rahm Emanuel gets. If you look at the [chief information officer] and [chief technology officer] of the United States sitting there with a Dell computer and a 15-inch monitor, you think to yourself, ‘Why in the hell does our CIO not have, like, three 30-inch monitors?'”

It’s time for the government to catch up to technology. Creating free and easy access to court records, congressional hearings, and C-SPAN archives isn’t a partisan issue. But open access is a populist politics all its own, a challenge to the pay-to-play mentality that has allowed the financial world to leap so far ahead when it comes to information-sharing technologies. “You see what they did with it,” Malamud says. “They drove our economy down. They stole all our money. This stuff can very much be used for evil, and it has been, often. The opportunity here is that it can now be used for different things.”

 

13  June 2010,  The American Prospect

None of the above

In Bizarre Laws, Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Reforms on February 7, 2012 at 5:41 am

This clamour for right to reject is a muddled response to electoral issues

The “Right to Reject” proposals are again gaining ground in discussion. But there is something extravagant about the claims being made. While the proposal may not do too much harm, it is not at all clear it does much good. It is another instance of reform debates taking recourse to wishful thinking.

There are at least three versions of the right to reject on offer. The mildest version, proposed in the Election Commission’s letter to the PM, is an updated version for Rule 49 of the Conduct of Election Rules. Under this, voters can choose to have their abstention registered. Under current procedures, this abstention is not secret. The idea is simply to give voters a “none of the above” option. This has expressive value and is least disruptive. But it will not have any bearing on the outcome of an election. The other two proposals are more consequential. In one version, if more than 50 per cent of the electors choose a “none of the above” option, the election will have to be held again with a new roster of candidates. In another version, the election will be re-held if the number choosing “none of the above” option exceeds the number of votes garnered by the leading candidate. Then there are minor variations on the prohibitions the rejected candidates have to suffer.

It is not entirely clear what problem this is meant to solve. In discussions, one argument put forward is that it will lead to fewer criminals in politics. The logic for this supposition is not entirely clear. But a fair response to the worry about criminals in politics is this: if we are serious about removing criminals in politics, we need to get serious about the criminal justice system. Final convictions have to be secured in a reasonable amount of time. But to be a little more provocative, we need to ask why it is that in some cases people vote for so-called criminals? It is often because they provide services that often the state cannot – ranging from protection, to a visible ability to get things done. Condemning the choices without grappling with the circumstances that lead voters to make the choices they do is a species of easy moralising.

The second argument, expressed in Law Commission reports, is the concern that with plurality of candidates contesting, the winning candidate usually has a very low percentage of votes in their favour. If we could somehow require candidates to poll at least 50 per cent plus one vote, the system would be more representative. It would, so the argument goes, also diminish the role of caste etc., since every candidate would have to have broad-based appeal. But this argument is also too quick. First, if we really want a 50 per cent plus one rule, we need to openly discuss either runoffs, or Alternative Vote proposals, which the British just rejected. The Right to Reject has nothing to do with it. But we should also be cautious about the numerical fixation on 50 per cent plus. The claim that someone is our representative will always be endogenous to the rules of getting elected. Just because the rules require 50 per cent plus one, it does not necessarily mean that individual is more representative. It could mean other things as well. It could mean voters have had to compromise even more in making their choices. It could raise entry barriers into politics and cut down choices. This may not be sufficient to reject 50 plus one requirement. But we must get away from the idea that there is a set of election rules that does not generate its own externalities. Voting rules also have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Many well-intentioned reforms in places ranging from California to Israel have often produced worse outcomes. Tread cautiously.

But it is not clear negative voting has helped anywhere. In the US, some states have experimented; Russia had it, and abolished it. One simple reason is that under the 50 per cent rule, casting a negative vote makes sense only if you are confident that half of all voters agree with you. The middle class may have more contempt for politicians, but this is an extravagant assumption to make.

There is also the curious paradox of expressing contempt for electoral choices, through the rhetoric of more choice. Ostensibly giving the right to reject gives voters greater choice: they have the choice to reject and express exasperation. But in reality the choice argument is more complicated. One rather subtle point about elections is the moral importance of the simultaneity and independence of voting. My expression of preferences should not depend upon knowledge about how others have voted; and it should be based on broadly the same possible information. Only then have votes got equal value. Administering a right to reject in a way mimicking the simultaneity requirement is not going to be easy. Second, the issue of preferences is also not that straight-forward. Just because voters reject a set of candidates does not automatically mean that a second set has enhanced their choice or produced something closer to the illusory idea of their real preferences. Since you cannot test the transitivity of preferences along two different choice sets, it is a bit too quick to claim that the choices exercised on the second set are somehow more authentic than the first.

One possibility with negative voting, particularly the third variant, is that it could penalise good candidates. At least now in campaigns, we discuss sops and promises, however illusory. But under negative voting there may be huge incentives on part of weaker candidates and parties to ensure good candidates get disqualified. Finally, since party structures remain important, the significance of getting rid of one set of candidates is not as clear as people suppose; the individual characteristics of MPs now matter less. We need better institutionalised parties more than negative voting.

We need to discuss serious issues: party systems, election finance, decentralisation. We have created huge anomalies by aspiring for proportional outcomes out of a first past the post system. But the clamour for negative voting is distraction. I may not happen to agree with much of what goes on. But at some level I have to acknowledge that my arguments have lost. Having lost, I ought not to blame the rules, or construct the voters as helpless victims of bad rules. Politics is the slow boring of hard boards, as Max Weber said. But India’s privileged, having failed to do the requisite manual labour of politics, and elicit trust, now place excessive faith in new rules.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

 

2 Feb 2012,  Indian Express

Restoring the House

In Civil Services Reforms, Electoral Reform, Politics on December 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

As the depressingly familiar routine of parliamentary logjam plays out yet again, it is worth examining if the rising crescendo of criticism is nearing a tipping point that will finally tilt the balance in favour of a correction. But the reality is that there will be no correction until the root causes, and not just the superficial symptoms, are addressed.

Both the criticisms and the proposed solutions so far treat parliamentary disruptions as the disease, whereas they are merely the symptoms. Notwithstanding a few younger MPs seemingly defying their leaderships with a “no work, no pay” proposal — which incidentally I support, but only as a symbolic gesture — there has not been a serious debate on the root causes.

India’s Parliament contains many obsolete rules and conventions that desperately need changing, without which it is illogical to expect lasting change in its functioning (or lack thereof). These rules are rooted in the restrictions of Raj-era limited democracy, as well as an earlier, more genteel, era when Victorian norms, not rules, governed the settlement of disputes. In other words, they are not built to tackle the conflicts that we must, as a nation, work through.

First, the Raj hangover: well before Independence in 1947, the British gradually started involving Indians in governing India. A series of reforms — such as the Indian Councils Act of 1909, and the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 — gave Indians limited participation. Although elections were introduced, the ensuing elected body fell far short of being a parliament, with authority denied to it in many crucial areas. The idea was to devolve just enough power to keep the natives from rebelling, but mostly just to provide them a platform to blow off steam.

That mindset survives, with successive governments — not just this one — happy to treat Parliament as a platform for the opposition to vent its ire, but not to the extent that it can exert true pressure. That would be too uncomfortable, requiring the government to mobilise its members, utilise its political capital, and sell its agenda to the nation. Instead, every government strongly prefers the easy option of treating Parliament as a toothless debating house, listening to the opposition with an indulgent smile, and then doing exactly as it pleases. Very British Raj, except that we get to take turns being in charge.

This attitude, and the obsolete parliamentary rules which enable it, is at the heart of the problem. This is precisely why the government is loath to agree to debates that require voting — rather oddly, considering that we are a democracy after all — since that would require of it all the above-mentioned labours for the passage of contentious proposals.

This is where that other relic of the past accentuates the problem: the lack of precise rules and dependence on gentlemanly codes for settling disputes. With the exception of a no-confidence motion — that nuclear option threatening the very existence of a government — every other voting motion in Parliament is left to the discretion of the speaker, that is, to consensus between the parties. That provides a veto to every side, making it totally unworkable.

An analogy would be the early days of automobiles, when there were so few of them that no hard and fast traffic rules were needed; if two happened to be at the same junction at the same time, both drivers could be counted on to arrive at a genteel and courteous solution to who would go first. Today, that just would not work; without traffic lights and roundabouts, there would be utter chaos.

Indian democracy has come a long way in these 64 years; it has empowered millions of the previously disenfranchised, and it has become far more competitive. In line with this, its highest legislative body now needs precise traffic rules to function efficiently. What might these rules be?

To begin with, an attitudinal change can and should be facilitated by doing away with paternalistic relics of Raj-era limited democracy. One example: private members’ bills. By convention, these are never passed by Parliament, acting only as moral suasion on the government. In fact, even to introduce such a bill, an MP needs to seek the president’s permission! No such permission should be needed, and the convention of not passing them should be turned on its head. When it becomes normal for MPs — and not just governments — to author bills that become law, parliamentary participation will prove far more attractive.

Another example of paternalism is that, even after Parliament passes a law, the government has the discretion of delaying its notification, that is, implementation. That should go; any law passed by Parliament should automatically become the law.

Most importantly, voting motions should be commonplace in Parliament, as is the practice in most evolved democracies. Governments routinely reject opposition demands for voting motions with the taunt that they would entertain only the mother of all voting motions, the motion of no-confidence. That is a non-starter, since the opposition will almost never have the numbers for it. And why should there be only two extreme alternatives of either a toothless debate or a no-confidence motion? There is plenty of room in the middle for voting debates that keep the government on its toes without jeopardising its continuance.

But safeguards are needed to prevent the opposition from using flimsy excuses to punch above their weight class. The best way to balance both is to do away with consensus and discretionary powers to decide what should be a voting motion; instead, replace those with a precise rule requiring a demand from a substantial minority of MPs, say 33 per cent. If one of every three MPs asks for a voting motion, there ought to be one.

 

6 Dec 2011,  Indian Express

Making the government account for itself

In Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Reforms on December 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

In a parliamentary democracy, Parliament’s Question Hour is of utmost importance to keep tabs on the executive. Questions to ministers by members on the floor of the House can expose inactivity, lethargy or perfidy of a government department, or identify the downside of governmental action.

The government’s accountability is ensured through a variety of parliamentary procedures; however, Question Hour is one of the most effective instruments in the hands of MPs to ensure continuous assessment of the government. While advocating the parliamentary system for India, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of our Constitution, observed: “The daily assessment of responsibility, which is not available under the American system is, it is felt, far more effective than periodic assessment, and far more necessary in a country like India.”

Of all the means of investigation at Parliament’s disposal, asking questions is the easiest way for MPs to get information about public matters, and it is their unfettered right. Nothing can weaken Parliament’s control over the executive more than the abolition or curtailment of this right. Rule 38 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Rajya Sabha states that unless the chairman of the Rajya Sabha so directs, the first hour on every sitting shall be kept for asking and answering questions. A similar provision exists for the Lok Sabha.

However, of late, disruption of this crucial Question Hour has become a disquieting feature of both Houses. Asking a question is both a right and a privilege of a member of Parliament. There have been instances when the presiding officers have cautioned members for disrupting Question Hour, thereby encroaching on the right of other members to ask questions or listen to ministers.

Question Hour is the best instrument to test ministerial competence. Ministers are meant to be aware of every aspect of their ministry’s working. If she or he fails to satisfactorily respond to a question, it embarrasses the minister and puts the government in an awkward situation. No other procedure has such potential to leave a minister standing alone, defending the government’s policies. The questions keep the government alert. The fact that ministers cannot refuse to answer parliamentary questions, unless in the interest of the nation, underlines its importance.

From time to time, the rules have been amended to render Question Hour more effective. Time management is crucial, so that maximum questions can be devoted to oral answers. Here are some of those changes:

Crisp questions and replies are necessary — a question should be concise and factual rather than laden with opinion and argument. To cover more starred questions during Question Hour, the chair has, on many occasions, ruled that the members should put up pointed questions, free of verbiage and long prefatory references. Ministers have also been exhorted to fully answer questions in a direct and succinct manner. Questions should aim to elicit more information rather than attack the government.

Mounting supplementaries on a few questions had resulted in only those starred questions being taken up in the House, leaving many important issues untouched. However, it was once decided that “a member in whose name a starred question is admitted will be allowed two supplementaries and if there is another member whose name is clubbed with the member for that question, he or she will be allowed one supplementary. Thereafter, only two further supplementaries will be permitted on that question”. This was a notable innovation, often enabling all 20 starred questions to be raised. It has also been ruled by the chair that no point of order should be raised during Question Hour, nor should any clarification be sought from the minister. There is also an amendment that limits the number of starred questions a member can ask — it has been brought down from three (once as a first questioner and twice by clubbing) to one.

Since a lot of time, effort and money are involved in the preparation of an answer to a question, absenteeism during Question Hour defeats its purpose. A recent innovation by Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari has now amended the rules to ensure that even if the main questioner is absent, the chair would allow three supplementaries to that question. This step will go a long way in streamlining procedure.

Other suggestions that have been mooted include shifting Question Hour to another time — being the first hour of the day, Question Hour is frequently disrupted when MPs are agitated over some issue. Upset at the frequent adjournments during Question Hour, the Rajya Sabha chairman directed, in March 2011, that such matters be raised at 11 am and the Question Hour be moved to the first hour after lunch from 2 to 3 pm. However, disruption of Question Hour continued, and the chairman decided, after consulting party leaders, to move it back to its previous 11 am slot from August 2011 onwards.

There have been demands from some quarters that the duration of the Question Hour may be increased to accommodate more questions. The Lok Sabha speaker, Meira Kumar, mooted a similar idea in the recently held Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth. However, the move is yet to break any ground.

The efficacy of Question Hour as an accountability mechanism depends on how members, cutting across party lines, utilise it. Questions asked in Parliament not only have a bearing on the policy decisions of the government, but have on several occasions even resulted in the setting up of commissions and courts of enquiry. However, with the overall sittings of Parliament per year going down and frequent disruptions and suspension of parliamentary business, the instrument has been weakened, in effect.

 

6 Dec 2011,  Indian Express

Candidates facing charges may be barred from elections

In Electoral Reform, Politics on September 15, 2011 at 6:10 am

With the conduct of politicians under a spotlight, the Law Ministry has finally drafted an amendment to the 1950 Representation of the People Act that debars even chargesheeted persons from contesting polls.

Law Minister Salman Khurshid told The Indian Express that he had finalised an amendment Bill last week and sent it to be listed before the Cabinet.

“Since it is part of a Cabinet note, I cannot disclose details or guess when it would be listed as an agenda item before the Cabinet. But the thrust of the proposed amendments to the RP Act will be decriminalisation of elections,” he said. At present, only convicted persons can be debarred from contesting elections, allowing politicians a large loophole given the speed of the justice system.

The Election Commission has been demanding for long that persons against whom charges have been framed in a crime that attracts more than five years of imprisonment more than six months before the elections should be declared ineligible to contest. Also, persons who are involved in henious crimes like rape, murder, sexual assault and extortion should be debarred.

Incidentally, a Standing Committee of Parliament had rejected the proposal of the EC in 2007, saying voters should have the right to elect candidates of their choice and that only absconders as well as convicted persons be debarred.

Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi has been urging the UPA government to “revisit” the issue and along with former law minister Veerappa Moily participated in seven regional consultations on it in different parts of the country.

The draft amendment Bill to the RP Act was prepared during Moily’s tenure, and was finalised during the early days of Khurshid as Law Minister.

Quraishi confirmed that a copy of the Cabinet note had been forwarded to the EC by the Law Ministry last week. “The debarring of chargesheeted persons from standing for elections is the most important of all election reforms suggested by the Election Commission, and a very good begining will be made if the government takes this up,” the CEC said.

 

13 Sep 2011, Indian Express

EC proposes right to recall local body representatives

In Electoral Reform, Gujarat on June 17, 2011 at 7:41 am

The State Election Commission has asked the Gujarat government to bring out necessary amendments and introduce a right to recall the elected members of local bodies like municipal corporations, municipalities, district, taluka and village panchayats if they are not performing according to the minimum expectations of the voters. The state government has not made any remarks on the subject.

State Election Commissioner K C Kapoor told The Indian Express: “As part of our efforts for reforms in the electoral process, we have proposed the state Urban Development and Panchayat Department to make necessary amendments and introduce the right to recall non-performing elected members of local bodies. The right to recall can help in making the elected representatives more accountable and active. Chhattisgarh and another state has introduced this right and many local bodies representatives have been recalled. We have proposed to the state government to introduce such reform in Gujarat.”

He added: “We have proposed that the voters should have the right to recall after observing a two-year performance. Through referendum or other means, if 51 per cent voters want to recall their elected candidate then they can do it. In this type of case, we have to organise re-election on the particular seat. I had discussions with the concerned ministers and are awaiting the government’s response.”

Kapoor said they are planning to introduce online voting in the municipalities and panchayat polls in the next term.

The EC has also decided to introduce other electoral reforms within a short time.

P S Shah, Secretary, State EC, said: “The Commission had a meeting with all the approved political parties for two days last week and discussed issues related to reforms in the election process in all local bodies. Political parties have agreed upon the Commission’s suggestion to make the election Code of Conduct legally binding for all contesting candidates and parties. At present, the Code of Conduct is voluntary and there is no legal implication for any violation. We will shortly announce legal action for violation of the election Code of Conduct.”

About the other reforms, Shah said: “For the first time, we have decided to registered an FIR against those who file wrong affidavits and give false details about their age, criminal records and other details. So far, we were acting upon complaints, but now, the Commission will initiate sou-motu police action.”

The Commission has also decided to make it compulsory for all candidates and parties to file accounts of election campaigns within a month. Shah said those who do not file their accounts within the stipulated time will be automatically disqualified. He added: “We have also decided to increase the campaign expense limit in municipal corporation, municipalities and in all panchayats. The Commission has decided to reduce the present limit of getting minimum one-sixth votes for deposit refund to one-fourth for more fair elections. All parties have agreed to it. We are also planning to adopt a new system of announcing election results on the very day of voting. But parties need time to think over it.”

 

Indian Express, 16 June 2011

A wasted vote

In Electoral Reform, International Relations on May 25, 2011 at 5:33 am

BY TRADITION, British political leaders dislike referendums. A gift to demagogues, they grumble, and easily hijacked by irrelevant side arguments. Well, they should know.

On May 5th Britain will hold its first national referendum since 1975, to decide whether to change the voting system for general elections. National politicians and their proxies have barely tried to explain the question on the ballot to voters. Instead, the two sides have staged a mud-pie fight of spurious, partisan claims and counter-claims.

This could have been a chance to debate the sort of democracy the country wants. After all, the ballot offers a distinct political choice. Either keep the current model of first-past-the-post (FPTP), which provides ideological clarity but is not very representative (it offers nothing to parties with minority support in a given area, whether Labour in southern England, the Conservatives in Scotland, or Liberal Democrats, Greens and anti-Europeans all round the country). Or choose a new method, the alternative vote (AV). Though falling well short of a revolutionary leap to proportional representation, this would favour candidates who reach out beyond party lines, because winning under AV often relies on second-preference votes from defeated rivals.

The vote could have been a referendum on British views of competition versus compromise. The current voting system, for all its faults, implies a bracingly free-market, winner-takes-all view of the world: it is no surprise that famous folk endorsing the No to AV campaign are mostly entrepreneurs and sportsmen. In contrast, the AV system is closer to the consensual, corporatist worldview cherished on much of the European continent, in which ideological clarity (and thus accountability) is sacrificed on the altar of majority support. The Yes camp has been endorsed by numerous affable entertainers such as Colin Firth and Stephen Fry.

True, explaining the technical choice on offer is a fiddly business. In the seaside town of Lyme Regis this week, a “Fairer Votes for Dorset” event set out to sell AV to locals with stirring speeches and a mock double election for pizza toppings. Under FPTP, Lyme Regis was a two-way marginal between divisive rivals: Vegetarian Feast and Meat Feast. Then came an AV ballot. Watching from the back, near the tea urn and trestle-table piled with leaflets, Bagehot wondered if the AV demonstration had not misfired: after four rounds of counting, victory went to Meat Feast, presumably annoying quite a few in the room, starting with the vegetarians. The truly consensual option, Cheese and Tomato, was eliminated in the first round.

But the national campaigns have not attempted patient explanation, instead plumping for cartoonish exaggeration. A television broadcast by the Yes campaign shows MPs variously hiding from voters in their big houses, or arrogantly tucking into an expense-account lunch. It claimed AV would force MPs to “work harder” because they would all have to aim for majority support. That is a stretch. A study by the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, estimates that AV would merely trim the number of safe seats, so that 16% rather than 13% of seats would change hands at a typical election. Furthermore—in contrast with the system used in Australian federal elections, in which all candidates must be ranked in order—the form of AV on offer in Britain would allow constituents to give their favourite a “1” and stop there, turning AV elections into a messy version of FPTP, and allowing candidates to win with a minority of votes cast.

If anything, the national No campaign—which is backed by the Conservative Party but also many Labour MPs—has aimed still lower. Billboard posters unveiled on April 13th urged Londoners to vote No to “Keep One Person One Vote”. That is misleading. Under AV everyone gets the same ballot, but fringe-party supporters can cast, cost-free, a first preference protest vote, confident that their second preference has a good chance of affecting the result. The No camp’s nastiest poster simply declares that elections under AV would be much more expensive, and shows a soldier in battledress with the slogan “He needs bulletproof vests NOT an alternative voting system. Say NO to spending £250m on AV. Our country can’t afford it.” Given that all democratic elections cost money, this is a perilous argument to pursue very far (it cannot be a good sign that the same poster could be used, with minimal alteration, by the Qaddafi regime on the streets of Tripoli).

Talking past each other

The Yes and No camps bellow and roar about the marvellous or horrible consequences of AV. The ordinary voters Bagehot encountered this week on the campaign trail wanted to talk about something more down to earth: the public’s experience of democracy, and whether AV might possibly improve it.

In west Dorset, an AV supporter, Rikey Austin, talked of yearning to cast a first preference for the Greens after years of tactically voting Lib Dem. Accosted by Yes canvassers in the Cambridgeshire village of Kimbolton, John Chadwick suspected AV would “not make a lot of difference”, but hoped it might increase voter turnout by interesting those fed up with the big three parties. In the Manchester suburb of Urmston, a No voter walking his spaniel said a winner should be the person with the most votes: ranking preferences felt like “hedging bets”. (Still others admitted they knew nothing about AV, so would not vote.)

Nobody dares predict a result: the opinion polls are close and turnout risks being very low, especially in London where no other elections are being held on May 5th. One question has already been answered, however. Offered a chance to engage seriously with voters, Britain’s political leaders rejected it. It seems that distrust between electors and the elected runs both ways.

The vote could have been a referendum on British views of competition versus compromise. The current voting system, for all its faults, implies a bracingly free-market, winner-takes-all view of the world: it is no surprise that famous folk endorsing the No to AV campaign are mostly entrepreneurs and sportsmen. In contrast, the AV system is closer to the consensual, corporatist worldview cherished on much of the European continent, in which ideological clarity (and thus accountability) is sacrificed on the altar of majority support. The Yes camp has been endorsed by numerous affable entertainers such as Colin Firth and Stephen Fry.

BY TRADITION, British political leaders dislike referendums. A gift to demagogues, they grumble, and easily hijacked by irrelevant side arguments. Well, they should know.

On May 5th Britain will hold its first national referendum since 1975, to decide whether to change the voting system for general elections. National politicians and their proxies have barely tried to explain the question on the ballot to voters. Instead, the two sides have staged a mud-pie fight of spurious, partisan claims and counter-claims.

This could have been a chance to debate the sort of democracy the country wants. After all, the ballot offers a distinct political choice. Either keep the current model of first-past-the-post (FPTP), which provides ideological clarity but is not very representative (it offers nothing to parties with minority support in a given area, whether Labour in southern England, the Conservatives in Scotland, or Liberal Democrats, Greens and anti-Europeans all round the country). Or choose a new method, the alternative vote (AV). Though falling well short of a revolutionary leap to proportional representation, this would favour candidates who reach out beyond party lines, because winning under AV often relies on second-preference votes from defeated rivals.


Economist, 14 April 2011

Constitutional reform in Britain

In Electoral Reform, International Relations on May 25, 2011 at 5:13 am

“OUR political system is broken.” That blunt verdict on British democracy is not taken from a protest banner. It is the position of David Cameron’s coalition, set out in the programme for government drawn up after the 2010 general election. To that bleak diagnosis, the programme adds a prescription: fundamental political reform, starting with a referendum on May 5th on whether to change the voting system used for elections to the House of Commons (see article).

This newspaper agrees that British democracy is in need of repair work. Public suspicion of politicians—though hardly unique to the British Isles—is high. Flaws in the current voting system of first-past-the-post (FPTP) have contributed to a dangerous sense that British voters have too little sway over those who govern them. We would, therefore, support a change to a better voting system. Unfortunately, the one on offer isn’t.

The way things are

The current system has virtues, as well as flaws. One is simplicity: voters place a cross next to one name on the ballot, the candidate who secures the most crosses wins. It allows for ideological clarity, and thus accountability. Historically, FPTP has favoured the election of majority governments, able to defend a clear programme or face ejection at the next election. In much of Europe, where coalitions are the norm, political compromise is seen as a virtue. The very word has an unhappy ring in Britain: just now, lots of Lib Dem voters feel compromised by coalition with the Tories, and not in a good way.

Yet more than half the current MPs hold seats deemed “very safe” or “ultra safe”, leaving millions of citizens feeling that their votes change nothing. And, with support for the Conservatives and Labour falling, the number of MPs elected by a minority of votes cast in their seat has risen. Above all, FPTP is not very representative, disproportionately rewarding parties whose support is geographically concentrated. That makes Britain look more divided than it really is. Today’s rules punish Conservative supporters in the north, Labour voters in the south, and Lib Dems everywhere. At the general election Britain’s third party picked up nearly a quarter of all votes but fewer than one in ten seats: small wonder that the Lib Dems loathe FPTP, and made a referendum on ditching it a key demand before joining the Tories in a coalition.

What Lib Dems really want is a system that would give them seats in proportion to their votes. That would leave them with a good chance of playing kingmaker in an endless series of left-leaning or right-leaning coalition governments. But because Conservatives fear that they would not win an outright majority in a proportional representation (PR) system, the Lib Dems could secure only a more modest prize: a referendum on keeping FPTP or adopting the alternative vote (AV).

Under AV voters would be invited to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. If after a first round no candidate had more than 50% of the votes cast, the votes of the least popular candidate would be redistributed, following the second preferences indicated by supporters of that eliminated candidate. Rounds of redistribution continue, using third, fourth or lower preferences if needed, until someone crosses the 50% line. Along with the Lib Dems, the Labour leader Ed Miliband and affable celebrities such as Colin Firth want AV; the Conservatives and many Labour MPs oppose it.

The experience in Australia, which has used AV since 1918, suggests that it would not be a disaster. The system is not widely disliked; indeed, it is not an issue. But Yes campaigners make greater claims for AV than that. They say it would force “lazy” politicians to “work harder” by reducing the number of safe seats. Because politicians would need to seek more than 50% of votes to win, they would become less tribal.

They are right that AV would probably favour consensus-seeking, centrist candidates. A University of Essex study estimates that the Lib Dems would have scooped 32 more seats if AV rules had applied at the general election. But there would still be lots of safe seats under AV. It is not a PR system (the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, used to call it a “miserable little compromise”). Indeed, in a landslide, AV can exaggerate the swing to the winning party. Many MPs would still be elected by a minority of votes cast, because the version on offer allows voters to give their favourite a “1” and stop there, turning AV into a messy version of FPTP. What’s more, if there is a run-off, a carefully considered first preference carries the same weight as more tepid second or even third choices. And it encourages voters to flirt with extremists, knowing they can make centrist parties their second preference. AV is not an improvement.

Our first preference

Some Yes campaigners admit that AV has flaws but argue that changing the system once will make future changes easier. Perhaps, but not certainly so. It might exhaust the national appetite for reform. And so large a change should be undertaken only for a system that can be defended on its own merits.

For this newspaper, that system would have to be genuinely more proportional than the current one. We would not support undiluted PR, which often means party barons choose who forms a government, and (as in Israel and Germany) hands too much power to small parties. But a dose of PR, to elect, say, a fifth of MPs, would go a long way towards correcting the current system’s unfairness—especially if the top-up MPs were selected on a regional basis. In Scotland, where over 40% of the seats are chosen this way, there has been a string of minority or coalition governments. We would stick with FPTP for all but 20% of the seats to increase the likelihood of strong, accountable governments. Call the combination “FPTP Plus”.

For supporters of constitutional reform, such as this newspaper, these are good times. The previous government introduced a freedom of information act. An overhaul of the House of Lords is under way. But this referendum is a disappointment. AV would not be a disaster, but it would not be an improvement either; and although we are reformers by instinct, we do not believe in change for change’s sake. The Economist would therefore vote No.

Economist, 28 April 2011