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May 14, 2014

Governance & Politics

A Flawed Election

By Nitin Desai


In a days time we will know what the Indian electorate has decided. Opinion and exit polls, media pundits and armchair psephologists have been projecting their assessment of what the outcome will be. But whatever be the result the election process has transformed the nature of Indian politics.

In terms of logistics  the actual process of the election is a matter for pride. That so huge a task involving 800 million voters, more than ten  million election officers, observers and security personnel manning 930000 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 in inaccuracies in the electoral roles.  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 the faith of voters in the election process by their focus on volunteering and transparent methods for fundraising.

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 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 do it more effectively. We will govern better but not differently.

The  nature of the debate between the parties was even less substantive with the airspace being taken largely by invective and over-dramatised exposures of wrong-doing.  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 with the BJP projecting  Narendra Modi and the Congress countering with Rahul Gandhi. The other parties, with the exception of the two communist parties, are oriented around personalities in any case. They appeal to the voters in the name of Mulayam Yadav, Mayavati, Lallu Yadav, Nikhil Kumar, Mamta Bannerjee, Navin Pattnaik,  Jagan Reddy, Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalita, Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar, Thackeray and so on. Personality oriented politics inevitably leads to the personality centred debates that we saw 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. Pandit Nehru who felt secure in his position could work comfortably with other party leaders like Sardar 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, who however are quite marginal now in national politics, all parties are falling sway to this centralisation of power in a personality or a family. The BJP, which did have a capacity for shared leadership, looks like going the way of other parties and become a vehicle for the political ambitions of one man. Even the protest party, the Aam Aadmi Party, is showing signs of falling prey to a personality cult.

This is a dangerous trend as leaders inevitably personalise sectarian interests of a caste, 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 cone together within the party are more effective and lead to more stable governance  than trying 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.30000 crores a scale of spending second only to the last US presidential election. Even though the Representation of Peoples Act imposes constraints on individual spending there is no legal limit  on what parties can spend on general propaganda though they are supposed to report and account for their expenditure. This time the media expenditure alone may be more than Rs 10000 crores. There are also many stories of cash, liquor,etc. being distributed with seizures by the Election Commission exceeding Rs.1000 crores which probably is just a small part of actual spending.

The power of money in elections always comes with a price. Where did this money cone from? What are the obligations that have been incurred in obtaining this? Will this not reinforce the tendency to use the discretionary powers of 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 so 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 is 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 Dr. 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.

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