September 6, 2002


 Search the Internet

E-Mail this column to a friend

Print this page
Recent Columns
The real public servants
The office and
     its holder
The beginnings of
     informed citizenship
The people vs the
Justice without

Ashwin Mahesh

Ticketless travel, destination Parliament

Which of the following people do you think should be your next member of Parliament?

  • Lata Mangeshkar
  • Nawaz Sharif
  • Rahul Bajaj
  • Me :-)

Fear not, none of the above named individuals is likely to actually be your next legislator, least of all yours truly. Still, I assure you, there is method to the madness, especially if you are inclined to believe the evidence that abounds.

Authority in India is vested mostly in three classes of people -- those who have specific economic gains to be made from influencing government policy, others whose talents clearly lie elsewhere than in government, and finally, in some who are apparently at war with Indian public interests! Against this, there are countless regular people who can plainly see that government needs reform of every kind, and even have ideas on where to begin, but whose input is invariably not sought, whatever its merit. The above list could just as easily have included Kirti Azad, Russi Modi, Vaiko and you; at least three of those four will have passed the existing thresholds for entry into government! Put that way, my choices don't look terribly far-fetched.

Still, that isn't the thrust of this opinion. Beyond the make-believe multiple choice offered here lies a distressing similarity to the real world. Whatever their distinctive accomplishments or failures, most incumbents have one thing in common with the next set of names that you will encounter on the ballot. In a representative democracy, this similarity should be unthinkable, but we have become so inured to the process that we rarely pause to consider a startling fact -- very few candidates are nominated by ordinary citizens within their own constituency. Instead, your average contestant at the polls has reached the ballot by securing a 'ticket.'

At each round of elections to state legislatures, the politics of personalities and their arbitrary whims reigns. While the recognisable visages of prominent politicians are everywhere, other candidates may as well not be in the races. Why, in Tamil Nadu, an ineligible Jayalalithaa nonetheless wielded sufficient power and visibility to override any and all other images of the AIADMK and is now ensconced as the chief minister! The role of individual MLAs from the various constituencies is little more than to appear as servile stand-ins for the political objectives set by the few masters. And, to curry this favor, they line up by the multitudes, seeking 'tickets' to office.

To the political bigwigs, this arrangement is perfection itself. They preside as lords over the obsequious followers, who in turn sacrifice a fair degree of self-respect and esteem for the privilege of attaining public office, wherefrom to themselves rule as lords over the teeming millions! A veritable food chain of exploitation has replaced the development and pursuit of objectives by consensus among the people themselves. And, by virtue of some meager and often polarising choices along this abyss of public service the Digvijay Singhs and Chandrababu Naidus find themselves on the covers of leading publications, hailed as heroes.

This may be government, but it surely isn't democracy.

The sensible alternative cannot have escaped the attention of our many politicians. A political organisation should have a basis in common ideology, and should draw its strength from the favor such ideology finds among the various communities of the state. By nomination and from discourse, those communities should select by consensus or choice a few individuals who then seek acceptance from the entire constituency. The socio-economic and political ideas that receive the greatest backing at election-time then acquire the force needed to be infused into state policy, subject to ongoing opposition from those whose ideas were found less acceptable.

Compare that to what actually passes for representative government. A few people at the top hold all the cards, and deign to pass them out to others for the usual political favors -- loyalty and mutual non-interference. Even the Communists, allegedly cadre-based, are reduced to this charade when it comes to choosing candidates. The CPI-M, for example, included a slew of new faces among its nominees to the Kerala legislature, with the public statement that the voters may have become tired of old stalwarts who simply haven't delivered. On the face of it, well-intentioned and sound. But clearly second to the direct approach -- letting party cadres in each constituency nominate and select their preferred candidate.

This results from the way power and money are shared. The federal framework has always intended Delhi to be stronger than Shimla, so bigwigs seek the central throne. From there, they appoint vassals to regional offices, often without the consent of the local populace. Revenue sharing between the Union government and the states, and also between the state governments and local administrations, reinforce the big-brother approach to governance. Specific laws, and even constitutional amendments enacted to allegedly correct this imbalance are mostly not worth the paper they're recorded on. Either authority is transferred without resources, or vice-versa; the local administration that truly responds only to its community is simply non-existent.

We voters are ourselves partly to blame. In electoral battle, asking questions is often more valuable than making choices, for it promotes the candidacies of those who have sought answers rather than merely professed loyalty to a p/matriarch. Even a single question will suffice, never mind how informed or otherwise it may appear. An Election Commission notwithstanding, voters themselves are the proper guardians of democracy. The least of political novices among us can nonetheless help find the answers, simply by posing questions. Without the fear of examining voters who demand to see that the ticket to high office has been properly issued, many MPs and MLAs serve little but their own self-interest.

The Election Commission is finally veering around to a more responsive role, and this helps. Prodded by the Supreme Court and shamed by public interest groups, the commission has begun vetting nominations per some minimal guidelines, and is actively engaged along with the courts in improving these standards. The politicians themselves attempt only to thwart this process, but in the last decade or so beginning with T N Seshan, the election commissioners have partly redeemed some of the character previously lost in four decades of negligence. The momentum of electoral and political reform will ensure greater transparency and accountability in the voting process in the coming months and years.

Ten electoral battles -- nine to the state assemblies and one to Parliament -- lie ahead, beginning roughly at the end of this year. By choosing to vote only for local candidates, ordinary citizens can begin to retake the political spaces now lost to the distant figureheads of the various parties. It is time for the people themselves to punch the tickets of those who seek admission to our elected offices.

Ashwin Mahesh

Tell us what you think of this column