Is ‘Forfeiture of Deposits’ limiting the participation in Indian rural elections?

Elections at the local level empower citizens to participate in decision-making that affects their daily lives and develop a sense of fraternity. Empowerment refers to the process of strengthening the voice of people to highlight their needs. It creates space for people to redefine and deepen the meaning of democracy. This adds more direct and empowered forms of spaces to governing structures enabling pro-poor developmental outcomes. The promise of democracy lies in the relative ease with which any person of the body polity can rise to power.  The fairness is upheld in the underpinning principle of an equal possibility for everyone to contest and provided with resources that allow a fair contest. The requirement of depositing a monetary sum in order to contest elections is the antithesis to fairness. 

Each state has different sets of rules and regulations to contest elections as Panchayat is a state subject. The security deposit varies from Rs. 200 to Rs. 4000 (and a half of these for SC/ST/Women candidates). Failing to get a minimum of one-sixth of the total votes polled, the deposit goes to the treasury. To prevent frivolous candidates, this rule was enacted almost 100 years ago. The deposit requirement is contested to be rationally connected to above-mentioned objectives. It happens to avoid  mushrooming of “non-serious” candidates who file their names to get  cash from parties to withdraw their nomination. Interestingly, there is no clear definition of what constitutes a non-serious candidate. Such norms can result in the exclusion of a large set of the population especially in the case of rural governance defeating the idea of decentralized democracy. There seems to be a dearth of research  by the SECs while conjuring up such a precondition especially in a country with 22 per cent of the population is BPL. Even if we were to consider such a means, it would not serve the end to limit participants with ‘malicious’ intent.

The law on forfeiting deposits exists in all or most Commonwealth nations and India has received it as a part of the colonial legacy. Erstwhile British colonies follow such norms for elections but this trend is seeing a reversal. On October 25, 2017, the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta rendered its decision by removing the $1000 deposit considering it to be the breach of the right of people to be a member of the House. In India, one needs to have similar freedom so that one can provide equal opportunity to everyone irrespective of their economic status. 

However, forfeiture of deposit discourages people from contesting, especially those who are not from the major political parties. The very idea of forfeiture seems to suggest some sort of failure on the part of those who do not get more than 16% of the vote, which is harsh, particularly in a large nation like India; which can also mean that the Election Commission considers that only 5-6 parties/candidates have good intention to contest. Exclusion of people limits the ideas and viewpoints to the boilerplate discourse of the major registered political parties.

It also punishes small groups, interests and coalitions and restricts the growth of democracy at the grassroots as it disincentivizes the enterprising candidates from lower class to participate in the elections. In rural India, a fair representation-where people can come forward to represent their community or group is the need of the hour; as it will help to strengthen and enforce democratic foundations.

A substantive critique can question the amount of money spent on campaigning for the elections but this could be the beginning of the larger reforms. Removing the security deposit norm in rural India will encourage the participation of the most marginalized. The circumstances leading to the success of independent candidates also need more attention for conducive policies to contest elections. Also, one needs to re-look at the existing laws and how political parties give their tickets to figure out the ways to mould such norms.

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