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A flawed election

May 17, 2014 23:22 IST

B R Ambedkar's fears about personality cults in politics and money power in elections seem to be coming true, says Nitin Desai

The 2014 Lok Sabha election process has transformed the nature of Indian politics.

In terms of logistics, the actual process of the election is a matter of pride. That so huge a task involving 800 million (80 crore) voters, more than 10 million (1 cr) election officers, observers and security personnel manning 930,000 polling booths was conducted with only a few mishaps is truly extraordinary.

So is the vigour with which the Election Commission enforced the code of conduct. There were some rough patches in this ride, particularly the inaccuracies in the electoral rolls. But despite some protests about fairness by the contesting parties, the election machinery has earned the faith of the electorate, who participated in record numbers in the process. One must also note the role of the Aam Aadmi Party in restoring voters' faith in the election process through its focus on volunteering and transparent methods of fund-raising.

But a process that allows universal suffrage to be exercised freely and fairly is not enough. The capacity of the political system to provide voters with real choices is as important. This time the voters were not given much to choose from in terms of policies. The policy space revealed by the manifestos is crowded in the middle, with everyone offering managed capitalism and soft welfarism as the recipe for progress. Each party, in effect, says that we will do what they will do -- but more effectively. We will govern better -- but not differently.

The nature of the debate between the parties was even less substantive, since the airtime was being taken over largely by invective and over-dramatised exposures of wrongdoing. After some time, one just gave up trying to follow a debate that degenerated into what in Hindi we call a "tu-tu mein-mein" level. The media lapped up this scandal-mongering and added its own "scoops" and "exclusives" to this farrago of reputation-bashing.

Part of the reason for this is the presidential nature of the campaign: the Bharatiya Janata Party projecting Narendra Modi and the Congress countering with Rahul Gandhi. The other parties, with the exception of the two communist parties, have been oriented towards personalities in any case. They appeal to the voters in the name of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Chandrababu Naidu, J Jayalalithaa, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar, Raj Thackeray and so on.

Personality-oriented politics inevitably leads to personality-centred debates that we have seen in this election.

In some ways, this attempt by party leaders to neutralise all alternative power centres within their party is a reflection of their own sense of insecurity.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt secure in his position, could work comfortably with other party leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Azad, Govind Ballabh Pant or Bidhan Chandra Roy, who were virtually his coequals in their role in the party.

With the exception of the two communist parties -- quite marginal now in national politics -- all parties have fallen under the sway of this centralisation of power in a personality or a family. It seems the BJP, which did have a capacity for shared leadership, is going the way of other parties and becoming a vehicle for the political ambitions of one man. Even the protest party, the AAP, is showing signs of falling prey to a personality cult.

This is a dangerous trend, as leaders inevitably personalise sectarian interests of a caste or a region, or reflect the policy predilections of one social group. In a country as diverse as India, the outcome of politics must synthesise the varying interests of different regions and social groups.

Party structures that allow these coalitions of interests to come together within the party are more effective and lead to more stable governance than those that try to secure this blending of interests in coalition governments. Worse still, personality-centred parties may lead to a more strident articulation of sectarian interests, which makes coalition compromises even more difficult.

Another seriously disquieting trend was the scale of spending by the major parties, which estimates suggest may exceed Rs 30,000 crore -- second only to the last American presidential election in scale.

Even though the Representation of the People Act imposes constraints on individual spending, there is no legal limit on what parties can spend on general propaganda -- although they are supposed to report and account for their expenditure.

This time around, the media expenditure alone may be more than Rs 10,000 crore. There are also many stories of cash, liquor and so on being distributed, with such seizures by the Election Commission exceeding Rs 1,000 crore -- probably it is just a small part of actual spending.

The power of money in elections always comes with a price. Where did this money come from? What are the obligations that have been incurred in obtaining this? Will this not reinforce the tendency to use the discretionary powers of the government to mobilise funds for parties in the ruling coalition? Will this not make it even more difficult to address the issues of corruption and criminalisation of politics that have exercised the media and parts of the electorate?

The personality-oriented debates, the heavy media spending, the mud-slinging and the use of exposes to unnerve the Opposition are crowding policy debates out of the political process and leading to the steady erosion of our parliamentary system. All the fears about the Bhakti cult in politics and the power of money that B R Ambedkar had the prescience to warn us about seem to be coming to pass.

Those who care for democracy in India must move beyond party affiliations to demand constraints on spending by parties and related front organisations; effective monitoring of party finances; full disclosure and accountability for party expenditures; rules on inner-party democracy; stronger constituency organisations and a greater role for them in candidate choice; and other measures to liberate party organisations from the power of some single individual and his or her family members.

What we need is a law governing all recognised parties imposing standards of governance, disclosure and accountability, akin to what we have for corporations in the Companies Act.

Nitin Desai in New Delhi