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Democracy's biggest hurdle

March 23, 2004

There are some political issues that belong to an earlier generation. My experience of interacting with the political class suggests that issues concerning either the Constitution or electoral reforms preoccupy the minds of those who cut their teeth in the bad old days of Indira Gandhi.

Those who came into the political limelight after 1984 have other priorities. This is surprising because many of them served their apprenticeship in the JP movement when the slogan of Total Revolution was recurrent.

Last week, in the course of his Yatra, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani once again raised the issue of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. His reasons were simple and refreshingly honest. The election season, he seemed to suggest, puts enormous pressure on politicians to compromise good governance for short-term populism. If this happens once every five years, the system can bear the burden. But, if there is some major state assembly election every year, as has become the norm, serious distortions take place. And the cumulative effects of these distortions are felt during the general election.

It is tempting to contest Advani's suggestion on the ground of practicality. While simultaneous elections are a good idea from the cost point of view, both for the state exchequer and the political parties, there are legitimate worries over its implementation. Since different assemblies have different dates when their term expires, some state governments must be given extended terms while others must have their life truncated.

Second, simultaneous state and national polls imply that legislatures must have a fixed tenure. Again, this is a good idea in theory. But what if the electoral outcome results in a horribly hung legislature where no coalition is workable? Is the state or the nation to persist with endemic instability for a full five years? What will be the effect of this on good governance?

Past experience suggests that, barring Uttar Pradesh where society is horribly fractured, the collapse of a hung legislature results in a decisive mandate the next time. It would be wrong to deny the Indian voter the chance to say sorry periodically.

In a society where indulgences are frowned upon, elections have become an affordable luxury. They take a toll on good governance but they also enhance the accountability of politicians. Perhaps our growth rate will be higher if democracy was less messy but in the search for discipline we will be extinguishing a spark that makes India a great place.

Actually, the problem with electoral reforms is that they focus on the big idea. Perhaps it was sheer familiarity and a British inheritance that made our founding fathers choose the Westminster model over the presidential system and infuriatingly complex French system. But we have grown familiar with its workings and changing it would be too cumbersome.

As for proportional representation, an idea that often finds favour with smaller parties, it is a recipe for fragmentation, instability and political blackmail. It will encourage the process of disaggregation and promote the growth of narrow, single-caste parties. Proportional representation is something that sane people should oppose unreservedly.

The focus, it seems to me, should be on little things. The most important task in a democracy is to ensure that there is a high turnout. That is the only way to ensure the verdict is credible and the government is truly representative.

This is where the Election Commission has a role. The EC was granted autonomy to ensure the purity of the democratic process. By and large it has done its job. I think the days of rigged elections, as was witnessed in West Bengal in 1972 or Jammu and Kashmir in 1987, are a thing of the past. Today, there will be a huge outcry if something similar happens. The EC certainly will not countenance it.

However, while ensuring the sanctity of the process the EC has been less mindful of ensuring maximum participation. Indeed, many of its moves suggest a conscious bid to minimise involvement and participation. Why else would the EC choose the height of summer as polling days? Why else would it impose a 10 pm curfew for summer polls when electioneering is virtually in the afternoons?

In any case, the EC seems reasonably powerless to deal with violations of the curfew. Advani, during his Yatra, is insistent that the EC guidelines be followed in both letter and spirit. Consequently, unless the local organisers have a written permission to extend meetings by an hour, the 10 pm curfew is observed both in letter and spirit. Yet, I met a former BJP minister in Maharashtra who says he routinely violates the guidelines and holds meetings till midnight. No one, he boasted proudly, has ever taken action against him.

The EC, to cite another example, has banned political adevertising on television. But one party has circumvented this through surrogate advertising. The law, in this case, has turned out to be an ass.

The EC's emphasis seems to be on tokenism. Proceeding on the assumption that the political class is inherently deviant, it focuses on precisely those features that give bureaucrats a brief chance to get their own back on their political masters. Take the mandatory filing of personal and financial details of all candidates. It was projected as a revolutionary step. Certainly, I know politicians who are offended at the prospect of disclosing details of their personal assets. But that is because they happen to be those who entered politics after a successful career elsewhere. Those politicians who are known for their lack of financial integrity are not bothered. Their ill-gotten wealth is invariably parked with anonymous bag men who don't contest polls.

Nor is this the only piece of tokenism. The EC has expended a huge amount of energy in preventing the misuse of official machinery by the ruling party. This is a noble endeavour. But in actual terms this means policing trivial matters like denying politicians the right to use circuit houses for political meetings and covering the hoardings of the Golden Quadrilateral because the prime minister's photograph could influence the mind of the voter. Maharashtra BJP president Gopinath Munde recounted the tale of a 100 year-old foundation in Nandurbar that has been covered by the EC because it is shaped like a lotus -- the party's symbol!

Going by this logic I recommend that statues and busts of national leaders be also covered during elections. Aren't Mahatma Gandhi, Shivaji, Ambedkar, Annadurai, Indira Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose repeatedly invoked by the parties?

Voters have to be motivated into taking sides. That motivation calls for mobilisation, and mobilising millions of people necessarily involves noise and some chaos. Despite the best intentions of idealists, democracy will always be messy. It is that mess that makes India shine. The EC is turning out to be the biggest hurdle in the popularisation of democracy. Last week, it banned Narendra Modi from taking out a yatra on the Narmada issue. Will it now ban Medha Patkar from conducting her anti-Narmada campaign? Does the EC believe that elections should be delinked from politics?

It is about time some questions are posed to the superannuated luminaries in Nirvachan Sadan.

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Swapan Dasgupta

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