In a few weeks from now, the nation will go to the polls to elect the 16th Lok Sabha. Elections to the legislative assemblies of Sikkim, Odisha and the soon-to- be-bifurcated state of Andhra Pradesh will also be held simultaneously. There is little doubt that the 2014 elections will qualitatively be different from the preceding elections. The electoral landscape has undergone far-reaching changes over the last few years, and the pace of change appears to be accelerating.

In the first place, a vigilant and assertive civil society has succeeded in securing the right to be consulted in the formation of public policy and legislation. The political establishment no longer has the prerogative to frame in splendid isolation policies and laws impinging on the life of the common man. They are wary of disregarding the public opinion as articulated by formal and informal civil society organizations. This recognition is beginning to have a perceptible impact on the election manifestoes of political parties, which now talk of core governance issues such as police reforms and judicial reforms. Celebrities from the world of arts and letters have come forward to lend their support to the civil society campaign to cleanse the Augean stables of electoral politics.

Secondly, the electorate has shaken off its lethargy as evidenced by the last round of state elections, when the newly enfranchised youth and the urban middle class, which had traditionally kept aloof from the hurly-burly of politics, turned up in large numbers to exercise their franchise. There are welcome indications that the tried and tested strategies of accentuating the active and the latent fault lines in society and exploiting the insecurities of various minorities for electoral gains have lost much of their efficacy. The electorate is much better informed today, thanks to the continuing information explosion and a tightening of the disclosure norms for candidates. The rampaging epidemic of paid news has been checked by the potent antibiotic of public exposure and its purveyors and vectors are on their guard. Responsible sections of the media have shown an inclination to join the offensive to counter the pernicious influence of paid news on electoral outcomes.

Thirdly, the political establishment has been rattled by the rude shock administered by the elections in Delhi held in December 2013. The advent of the Aam Aadmi Party and its counterintuitive politics and unconventional methods have ensured that the established political parties will not be able to carry on business as usual, whatever be the electoral fortunes of this new kid on the block. A disruptive technology has been introduced into the market, and the market leaders, whose outmoded products have held sway for long, far too long, are running scared. Who would have thought that the Grand Old Party of India, which holds the copyright to the High Command model of decision-making and contemptuously dismisses the subversive idea of inner party democracy, would deign to hold primaries to choose its candidates, even if the experiment was half-hearted and limited to a few inconsequential constituencies?

Finally, and most significantly, there has been a sea change in the attitude of the judiciary and the regulatory institutions which, against heavy odds, have manfully endeavoured to keep the Indian democracy on track. To the consternation of the political establishment, the Election Commission of India and its counterparts in the states, and the Central Information Commission as well, have assumed a proactive role and gone beyond the ritual of making recommendations after recommendations to the executive and issuing plaintive appeals and advisories to political parties for ensuring the purity and integrity of the electoral process. The Election Commission, for instance, has come down with a heavy hand on the tendency to fudge the accounts of election expenses, going to the extent of unseating an elected member of state legislature for her failure to include a disguised newspaper advertisement in her expense account. The Central Information Commission has also struck a blow for transparency of democratic institutions by bringing the political parties within the purview of the Right to Information Act on the ground that they have been recipients of substantial government funding by way of subsidized land and accommodation.

The mightiest blows for democracy have, as is to be expected, been struck by the judiciary. A flurry of landmark judgments delivered by the apex court in the recent past has shaken the political establishment to its core. The July 2013 verdict in Lily Thomas held as unconstitutional the provision of the Representation of the People Act that allowed convicted legislators to complete their terms simply by filing an appeal or review petition within three months of their conviction. The judgment led to the immediate disqualification of three members of Parliament, including the formidable Laloo Prasad Yadav. Significantly, this order went against the grain of the Court's earlier pronouncement on the issue, which was more respectful of the boundary presumed to separate the judicial domain from the executive and legislative domains.

Likewise, in a PIL filed by Common Cause in association with Public Interest Foundation and two other civil society organizations, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court has passed an interim order for expeditious disposal of pending criminal cases against members of Parliament and state legislatures. The Bench has taken care not to fall foul of an earlier Constitutional Bench judgment against setting time limits for completion of criminal trials. The remaining prayer in this petition is for the disqualification of persons charged with the commission of serious offences from elections to Parliament and state legislatures. The Court has effectively foiled the dilatory tactics adopted by the Union of India by ensuring that the Law Commission, to which the government had in a bid to buy time made a rambling reference on the totality of the Election Commission's proposals on electoral reforms, submitted its recommendations on the subject with dispatch. It appears that the symbiotic relationship between politicians and criminal elements is in serious jeopardy.

The proactive stance of the apex court is in evidence in the July 2013 Subramaniam judgment, which held that Article 324 of the Constitution empowers the Election commission to issue a directive to political parties even before the model code of conduct comes into play that they must maintain a level playing field by refraining from promising freebies and other inducements in their election manifestoes. In the same category would fall the September 2013 order in Resurgence India enabling Returning Officers to reject the nomination papers of candidates who fail to furnish full and correct personal information in their affidavits filed for the general information of the electorate.

These welcome developments will, however, not be sufficient to ensure that the electoral outcomes truly reflect the popular will. As the Election Commission of India has emphasized in a first of its kind appeal, the individual voter is ultimately responsible for safeguarding his agency and autonomy, spurning candidates with criminal antecedents as well as those who employ corrupt means or divisive ideologies to secure a popular mandate, and choosing the best candidate in the field. And if there is no worthy candidate in the field, the NOTA option has now become available.

January March 2014