Modern day liberal democratic polity is made functional by political parties. It is the political parties that represent peoples’ demands and aspirations, channelize support, and deliver on the promises of good governance. They form the government as well as the opposition thereby constituting both the legislature and the executive. Hence, undoubtedly, political parties are indispensable component of liberal representative democracies.
All political parties in India shall be compulsorily registered with the Election Commission. Political parties are registered under the ‘Elections Symbols Act,1968’. This Act empowers the Election Commission of India (ECI) to register and recognise political parties as state or national political parties. As per the ECI data, there are about 1761 registered political parties in India (as of September 2016), with 7 ‘recognised’ as “National parties” and 48 recognised as the “State parties.” Interestingly, during the first General election (1951-52) there were 14 National parties and 54 “Other State Parties”.
“Recognised” political parties have certain benefits
The parties that fulfil the electoral criterion laid down by the ECI are designated either as state or national political parties. The seven national political parties are – The Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janta Party, Communist party of India (Marxist), Communist party of India, Bahujan Samaj Party, Nationalist Congress Party and All India Trinamool Congress(latest entrant). These parties along with the state parties enjoy a variety of benefits.
For instance, the recognised political parties are given “Exclusive/reserved symbol” for contesting as well as running their political affairs while other candidates have to chose from a pool of free symbols announced by the ECI from time to time. In a country where still a large chunk of people cannot read and write, these symbols help easy identification of these parties. Over a period of time it had been observed that all the major parties are recognised by people not by their name but by their symbols. People come to feel a special affinity to these symbols.
In addition, these parties are also given free air time on Prasar Bharti and its various channels. While this may sound as a trivial benefit to the majority of the urban readers, it must be kept in mind that channels such as Doordarshan etc still have a broad viewership in rural India. One example could be the farmers watching Krishi Darshan. Along with this, they are also provided with two copies of electoral roll of each constituencies where their candidates contest elections. These above two economic benefits coupled with the fact that there is an expenditure ceiling on the amount of money a candidate can spend in elections, help the parties enormously during electoral campaign.
Furthermore, candidates nominated by these parties are arranged alphabetically and presented on top of the ballot paper in the official language of the state. This is followed by the alphabetically arranged list of candidates nominated by registered political parties which is followed by the alphabetically arranged list of independent candidates. This order may impact the psychology of certain less-informed voters who may chose to vote those whose name is listed on the top. Also, if a candidate nominated by a recognised political party dies before the polling begins then elections in that constituency are adjourned and postponed as the concerned party is given one week’s time to nominate a new candidate. If any other candidate dies, this delay does not take place.
Another benefit is that these parties are allowed to use up to 40 star campaigners while others can have only up to 20. The benefit of listing someone as a star campaigner is that his/her travel expense is not considered in the election expenditure of the candidate for whom he/she may come to campaign for.
Lastly, but most importantly, these political parties are provided with land and office accommodation by the centre and state governments at free or concessional rates in the national and state capitals. Given the sky-rocketing price of real estate in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore etc, this is a huge financial assistance. Apart from these benefits, under the proposed state funding of elections, financial assistance is provided only to the recognised political parties.
Justification and criticism
The aforementioned list of benefits provided to the recognised political parties is not an exhaustive list as more benefits can be added as and when desired by the ECI. The ECI has all powers to revise and add new benefits to this list. The logical question that then arises is that, in a democracy that seeks to promote ‘free and fair’ electoral contest with a level playing field for all, how far is it justified to provide such a wide array of benefits only to a handful of political parties. Why should they not be made to compete with other parties on an equal footing. The justification given for giving these benefits is that they are necessary to ensure the effective functioning of electoral system. For smooth functioning of any system it is essential that improving performance is incentivized and rewarded, too. By laying down an objective criterion to acquire the status of a “recognized” political party, the ECI incentivizes parties to work harder on ground. While the system may be criticized for being partial (in theory at least), when the justification is viewed in light of the practical situation, one can discern the fact that the rule is not unfair as it merely promotes healthy competition among smaller parties. The fact that the status of every political party is subject to review and is not permanent makes it a fair and reasonable system.
– Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh