Saturday, April 21, 2012

Electoral Reforms in India: Who will bell the cat, anyway? By Rana Nayar

For a long time now, there has been a talk of electoral reforms in India, but unfortunately, very little has been done on the ground to ensure their effective implementation. Over the years, several commissions have been set up and a plethora of changes recommended, but often the successive governments, and even the opposition parties, drag their feet over these changes. No wonder, we have moved ever so slowly over the process of electoral reforms and consequently, our political culture has slipped into one logjam after another, virtually bringing the process of policy making and governance to a screeching halt.

Today, we find ourselves in an unenviable situation as far as our political culture is concerned. In the name of political debate, often charges are traded and abuses exchanged on the national television. In the Parliament, the most hallowed forum for public debate, business is rarely ever conducted with the kind of seriousness it often demands. Either the party in power bulldozes its way to manufacture consent it so desperately needs, or the opposition simply digs in its heels, regardless of the merits of the specific case and/or the supervening national interest. No wonder, our legislative assemblies and the parliament only demonstrate the proverbial ‘death’ of the public debate in our political culture.  

Of course, there are other serious questions about the style of functioning of our political masters, both in and outside power. For almost three and a half decades, West Bengal was ruled and governed by the CPM led front. After a great deal of hesitation and reluctance, the people of West Bengal voted for a change. The way in which Mamta-led TMC government in West Bengal is now tearing all pretence to democratic norms to shreds is already making the people wonder if they have made a grave mistake in doing what they have done. Ironically, only the political parties are voted in and out of power in our country, as our tenacious political culture, impervious to all changes, continues to stink, more than ever before.   

With the increasing trend towards criminalization of politics, it has now become almost a compulsion for most of the political parties, national as well as regional, to field candidates with dubious background, even criminal record. In the recent elections in UP, though Akhilesh Yadav came into power riding on the promise of development, performance and of ushering in a radically new political culture, he has miserably failed to resist the pressure of inducting legislators with known criminal background into his Cabinet. Despite all the efforts of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections, at all possible levels of people’s participation, from the village panchayats to the municipal corporations, from the State Assemblies to the National Parliament, the vital questions about the fairness of elections remain hopelessly unanswered. With the introduction of the electronic voting machines, booth-capturing and rigging may have been reduced substantively, but the use of money and muscle power is still so flagrant and widespread that even the Election Commission, with all its paraphernalia, finds itself completely helpless in containing it.   

Governance and policy making in India have increasingly become an insulated process, in which public participation, at best, remains notionally minimal. During the recent Anna Hazare movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill, the manner in which the role of the civil society was repeatedly questioned by the political parties of all shades and hues is a case in point. Never in the history of the parliamentary democracy in Independent India have the political parties across the ideological spectrum shown as much solidarity and unanimity as they did over the question of how the right of the parliament to legislate laws was being usurped by the ‘so-called’ civil society. The only time, the political parties wake up to the existence of the ‘civil society’ or that of the people is during the election season, and then, too, people are seen less as people, and more as members of different castes or communities, in short, the much desirable and sought after ‘vote banks.’

To put it another way, it appears to be really a hopeless situation. One wonders if there is some way out of this morass, some way of protecting our democracy, some way of arresting this precipitous decline in our polity. Often, when we talk of the electoral reforms, we interpret them in a very narrow sense. We think of them in the sense of ameliorative measures that could streamline the election process, improve the functioning, not of our democratic institutions, but of the elections, and thus help in containing, to some extent, the widespread and ever growing systemic rot. By thus focussing our attention on the electoral process, we often miss the woods for the trees. We forget that the electoral process is only a very small component of our political culture, and unless efforts are made to change this diseased and defunct culture, electoral reforms, of whatever nature, substance or content, shall fail to make the necessary difference on the ground.

First of all, we must look into the way the political parties function in our country. There was a time when ideology was considered to be the main bulwark of a political party and often the ideological constrains impacted not only the public policy making but also the governance. Nehru-Lohia debate is a case in point. Now, it is no longer so. Today, it is difficult to identify even a single political party in our country that would be prepared to sacrifice power for the sake of ideology. In relentless pursuit of naked power, often ideology is the most common casualty. Party positions depend not so much upon the ideological grounds as on the contingent factors that govern the rough and tumble of everyday politics. It might be argued that politics is, in the best or the worst of times, an art of managing contradictions and so why must we expect the impossible from it?

My point is that if the ideology can guide the work-a-day politics in the developed countries, why can’t it do so in the developing nations? In the absence of clearly defined ideological positions, most of the political parties, at least, in terms of their practices and functioning, seem to have lost their distinctive character and are beginning to look more and more like each other. In our context, ring-wing, left-wing and centrist positions keep shifting, depending upon the individual whims/convenience and/or political expediency, thus making utter mockery of the ideology or its role in public affairs. Moreover, in the era of globalization and economic liberalization, all that the political parties can do is to hitch their band wagon to the economic reforms, with the ‘pace of the reforms’ being the only barometer of their political positioning.  

Corruption may be as much a part of political culture in the developed nations as it is in the developing ones, but in the developed world it is mostly restricted to the highest echelons of power. It certainly doesn’t take on the form of horse-trading, floor-crossing or shifting gears mid-stream by way of changing party affiliations, the way it happens out here? Out there in the West, a candidate may not be born into an ideology, but s/he certainly is initiated into one, and having been initiated once, prefers to go along with the party ideology, refusing to swerve from the chosen path every now and then. Besides, candidates are not hand-picked to join a particular political outfit or represent a particular constituency, as it often happens in our country, but are invariably men of proven public service record, who have already worked at the grassroots level for a number of years, before being inducted into the party or given a party ticket to contest the elections. True democracy demands that the individuals who wish to be the people’s representatives must have prior consent of the people and also a particular brand of political culture of a party whose ideology has nurtured them. Intra-party democracy, which is virtually unknown in our country, is almost a norm in most of the Western democracies.

So long as the money and muscle power continue to play an all-important role both in the selection and the election of the candidates, all talk of electoral reforms shall only be a form of empty rhetoric. In order to contain the role of money in the elections, apart from imposing an embargo on poll expenses (as the other initiative about the declaration of personal assets has been a non-starter of sorts), it is necessary to strengthen the institutions that help in the restoration of grassroots democracy. If a candidate has no known record of public service of minimum ten years, s/he should not be considered eligible for the party ticket of any political party. And if s/he is given a ticket in violation of this principle, the Election Commission should have the right to reject her/his candidature.

This would certainly be much better than prescribing minimum educational qualifications for our legislators, where the illiteracy rates are still very high among our politicians and the majority of those who enter politics are not necessarily university graduates. This would also discourage the perpetuation of dynastic rule in democracy, and compel people to undertake social service prior to taking a plunge into politics. No candidate should be given a party ticket unless he has won the confidence of the people in his/her constituency. Once we manage to do away with the practice of doling out party tickets, the highest bidders for the party tickets shall be discouraged, and prior acceptability of the candidates among the people shall further restrict the buying and selling of votes or voters at the time of elections.
This would also ensure that only candidates with a clean record enter the public life and criminals are not able to hold the entire electoral system to ransom, as they often tend to do in our context. As in this case, the responsibility of selecting the candidates shall rest with the people and not with the party, should they choose an individual with a criminal background, they would only have themselves to blame, not the party or the political culture. Besides, this would also inject into our political culture, the system of direct accountability of the leader towards his/her constituents and that of the people towards their leader. It is absence of this principle of direct accountability that has resulted in the virtual breakdown of dialogue between the political elite and the ruled public, and has also created a situation where the principle of accountability has surreptitiously been replaced by a more pernicious system of patronage and mai-baap culture.

There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled and also put the rulers in a tight spot where they are left with no choice but to follow the principle of accountability. Restoration of accountability would further act as a deterrent to the unbridled and unabashed misuse of power, position and authority by those who wield it. The real question is: are our politicians ready for this principle of accountability? Are they prepared to bring in the legislations that will ultimately curb their illegal and unlawful manipulation of the levers of power? Or to put it differently, is anyone ready to bell the cat or conversely, is the cat ready to bell itself?    

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