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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

Lok Sabha Election 2009: Emerging Trends in National Politics

Monday 18 May 2009, by Kamala Prasad


Three phases of the five-phase election are over. This extended period of suspense in ushering in a new government is a commentary on the deteriorating standard in political conduct. Barring areas seriously affected by extremism and cross-border terrorism there should hardly have been any need for large police deployment or deployment of Central observers. Political parties, their workers and even candidates have learnt to display conduct that has made elections an expensive exercise. Another change from the time when a simultaneous election for the Lok Sabha and the State assemblies was conducted in 1967 is the gradual disappearance of festive symbols and the spirit of democracy. Election is becoming a mobilisation of security forces rather than the electorate celebrating its right and showing its happiness. This is a sad commentary on the performance of political leaders and their tolerance for wrong-doing despite all the professions to the contrary.

With the completion of three phases, the bulk of the seats has sealed the choice. The result will, however, be known only on May 16, the date of counting for all. We can console ourselves that leaders and candidates have to undergo an extended period of gruelling campaign. But, the sad part is that parties take so long in deciding about their choice of candidates that the actual period of interface between the electorate and the candidate is dismally brief. Does it help the electorate in making a firm and consistent choice of a party? It is difficult to think so. If parties were to engage in electorate education and making their performance and future programme the primer for seeking support, the role of the relevant socio-economic and political ideology would have been advanced. The failure to do so has allowed the field to be opened for a palpably negative and distracting exercise. As some foreign journals have been commenting for a decade or so, India should be ashamed of its leaders but proud of its electorate for still keeping the participation and percentage of voting high.

To confine only to the more eminent contributors, the Prime Minister refers to events from the pre-independence period to castigate the Communists. He omits the stability support that the CPI gave to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency of the seventies. He brought in the Ayodhya demolition to answer the BJP and Advani’s tirade against him as a “weak” Prime Minister. He omits, however, the engineered riots against the Sikhs earlier during the decade of the eighties. The BJP has much to answer for. The Gujarat riots of 2002 and the sordid role of the government under Modi in closing its eyes to investigate and punish the guilty cannot be condoned in our democracy. That is relevant since it is still under the judicial lens. Modi has, on the other hand, been let loose on the whole country since the BJP is so much lacking in worthwhile leadership. And to counter its opponent, the BJP further let loose a “Gandhi” without any briefing or training in leadership just to spite the dynastic mystique of the ruling Congress party. It must be said, though, that Rahul has behaved in an exemplary manner and is learning the lessons in focusing on priorities for the future. How sad then that the voting percentage in his own constituency is reported to have been a lowly 40 per cent despite sister Priyanka doing all to keep the family flag high in this pocketborough!

Partners in Electoral Performance

There is a need to look at electoral performance in terms of the roles played by the participants. There are three principal partners and two supporting ones. The principal partners consist of the electoral administration within the executive domain; the political parties; and the electorate. The task of administration starts with the recording of voters accurately, its revision according to the schedules designed by the Election Commission and preparation of electoral rolls. The primary role is at the grassroots and its accuracy and credibility depends on the political workers, civil society groups and the supervisory administrative structure. Consciousness about accurate projection of the voting population has increased but occasional challenge to its accuracy still persists. The actual conduct of polling has improved in its credibility and credit has to go to the activist role of the Commission as well as of the media in taking significant interest in monitoring this role. An exaggerated role has, however, been taken by the security forces. Persistence of complaints of voters among the vulnerable groups, continuing/increasing power of musclemen/ criminals and the support they receive from political elements shows how politics of the people has deteriorated into devious and undesirable means of garnering votes. Obviously, the strength of civil society groups is not adequate so far to challenge elements that have no concern for the sanctity of the vote.

So, despite all the protestations, the legitimacy of verdicts and ethical claims of major political parties will continue to be under challenge. This phenomenon springs from their lack of a stable organisation base at the grassroots. The emerging situation has led to the debate about introducing the choice of negative vote to the electors. There is also the proposal espoused last by the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee to introduce the right to recall a representative by the electors. Promotion of money power; mobilisation of muscle power; patronage to criminal elements; the welcome offered to candidates defying mandates regarding candidacy; subordination of the party platform and agenda to engage in negative campaigning are reminders of past historical acts displaying the poverty of focusing on the future place in question of the legitimacy of the overall mandate. This is important as democracy has turned just into a game of numbers assembled by means, fair or foul. This hurt to electoral democracy is more damaging than the occasional call for boycott by radicals of various persuasions. Ideological radicalism has some cause to bring to public notice. Organised parties that have claims on forming government have none for the way they conduct their affairs. These are a legitimate part of the democratic process. And yet, violence has been much less than anticipated. The electorate has done well. The electoral administration has tried its best to ensure free and fair elections to the extent feasible under these constraints. Organised political parties, claiming the right to mandate, have much to answer for. They are nibbling at the roots of a more vibrant electoral democracy.

Centralising Party Structure under
Federal Constitution

One significant development is the centralisation of party leadership and power. This has enthroned the power to nominate and resort to collection of funds. Candidates look to this central fund rather than their strength with the electorate based on sustained political work and delivery of welfare. The media has rightly focused on bribing voters in cash and in the open. Welfare does not consist in just focusing on government schemes. That is leading to increasing dependence of voters on outside help for amelioration. This needs to engineer local support for area and vulnerable group welfare leading to self-reliance. What is being strengthened in the process is further bureaucratisation of development and welfare in which the really vulnerable are neglected. Two consequences follow. First, there is gross discrimination in distributing public resources for general welfare. Large tracts of the country remain human wasteland and seats of disaffection. The current trend is to gloss over such a development. The second consequence is to turn people not into questioning masters for the rulers’ acts of omission and commission but downright sycophants of the Central nominees. Taking the analogy of the Satyam capitalist fraud, this “pyramid structure” is at the root of increasing inequality, intensifying wealth-discrimination and sustaining a system that does not deliver up to its potential. We are not trying to develop a spirit of democracy in individuals with political socialisation in work ethics. The electorate has, then, to choose among the non-eligibles. A Hindi saying explains it best: “a one-eyed man is the ruler among the visually impaired lot”. The functioning of the party structure is strengthening this trend. This was visible in the distribution of tickets on considerations that had nothing to do with political performance but just lobbying involving other considerations. Naturally, candidates had to be decided at the last moment and no real contest has taken place to choose a deserving person in a large number of cases. The same logic applies subsequently in choosing Ministers. We are just promoting a system of hangers-on!

This has far deeper consequences for governance of a quasi-federal constitutional scheme. States are made increasingly more dependent. Some State governments make it the ground for squandering resources. The Union has proved powerless in charting a course that broadbases policy and strategies of development. It is losing its moral authority that legitimately belongs to it. Why is this so? How are the party structures of command culpable? The practice of misusing the power to temporarily supercede State governments was initiated under Congress hegemony. This was a clear recognition of the deterioration in party structure. A centralising party was no guarantee that a State would be persuaded to develop a strong State party structure for improved governance and delivery of development and equity, sub-regional and social. Rather than a pragmatic course to allow the elective principle to settle the leadership question, a practice of nomination by the Central leadership started. So, the growth of lobbies received further boost. The saying in Bihar used to be that the route to the Chief Minister’s post had to pass through Delhi. During the 1980s that State had Ministries changing with dull regularity. Another saying came up: an election entitled a leader a five-year tenure but like the fate of the five-yearly development plan the practice of annual plan grew. All Chief Ministers were imposed from Delhi and none except one was a member of the State legislature. What was good for the Congress was good for the other national formations, especially the BJP that is competing with the Congress. It has been imitative in its leadership ethos and structure. Even the current crop consists mostly nominees of the Central leadership and based on Central perception and lobbying. It would be a worthwhile study to analyse this development as a major cause for poor governance in the States.

The current election provides ample indication that this trend will get strengthened. And that is bad news for India. Despite claims to the contrary, development policy is facing a debacle. Multiple mutinies around the country are its strong demonstration. There is natural grievance, for instance, when SEZs are planned to divert the people’s share of resources in tax foregone, in financial concessions, in concentration of growth regimes and the like. Infrastructure is touted but one mild financial crisis makes the government change several contract terms to benefit the private party favoured for executing large projects on terms that were almost dictated by them. Have all States benefited equitably? Liberalisation is as much centralisation of economic and financial power as the so touted socialist regime ever was. Regional disparities so boosted lead to growth of regional sentiments. Policy and politics of ‘connectivity’ so advertised has made no positive difference to it. Liberalisation without decentralisation and micro-management of the economy will continue to breed regional political formations. The two major parties came into clash with their coalition partners and thought they would fight alone and improve their fortunes. By now they are talking of merely 150 seats each, plus-minus a variable number. This development is a clear indication that the regional political trend will get strengthened further.

Regionalism and Centralism in Politics

One thing seems certain. The coalition system will not fade away soon despite the two major parties’ wishes in which they have the support of the country’s corporate industry. The two largest parties with national sway have to shed their emotional antagonism of regional parties. This election is tending to show prospects for further fragmentation of the mandate in terms not of the percentage of vote-share and winning candidates but also the number of parties trying for a share in the Central power-pie. It may foreshadow a more trying period for organising and running a coalition. Will the trend of disintegrating coalition instead of consolidating coalition be further reinforced? It looks like so.

This is a natural outgrowth from the centralising tendency in politics among political formations of all denominations. They are becoming leader-based parties rather than the other way round. Politics of ego and vanity can only generate fissiparous tendencies. There has been no leader after Gandhi who could overcome this phenomenon. This large country needs a large number of local leaders for mobilisation and growth of healthy democratic political traditions. In fact, there is a need for a new culture of politics not based on depredatory competition but on qualities of character, vision and foresight suited to the area and population and the cultural segment it is working for. This task continues to be neglected.

There has to be an acknowledgement that regional parties as well as ideologically radical parties have policies to which their constituents are attached. Their persistence has by now spanned almost four-five decades. Every election has seen the emergence of one or two new parties espousing regional grievances. West Bengal’s Communist Government claimed its success in eliminating the Naxal groups. We see its re-emergence there and spread in larger areas elsewhere after the launch of policies and politics around the liberalisation tag. This should imply that regional or radical groups emerge on localised agenda and they sustain the popular constituency on the strength of that agenda. Union governments have failed to address genuine regional/local issues meaningfully and through democratic dialogue and means. As in the strategy of development so in the political domain the bureaucracy is depended on to find solutions. This divergence between national policy and politics and regional politics over the long term should mean that its logic lies in failure of the pursuit of national policies in the domestic sphere. Even the current phase of globalisation is now seen as a means of suppressing this natural growth by other means. It continues, therefore, under stress in the domestic political discourse. This election process shows that this trend will proceed without much restraint. There does not seem to be any reserve of political will or courage of leadership to change the style of working of major parties through needed reforms. It is significant that some marginal political reforms have been pushed by the Election Commission or the judiciary and not by the ruling political parties.

Growing Strength of Plutocracy

One of the principal reasons for stagnating politics is seen in the growing hold of moneybags on how politics is conducted. The number of ‘crorepatis’ seeking election is only a fringe of the reality. Candidates paying to buy the ticket of a party; a party flaunting big corporate houses to lure its constituency; corporate leaders flocking to praise leaders of their choice as ideal for occupying the top ruling space, and assuring fund flow to make contesting elections more expensive have respectability by now. The government policies to attract foreign capital by diluting norms frequently; inaction to pursue vigilance for restraining flight of Indian capital to global tax havens; relaxing rules for retention of foreign exchange earned in trade outside for prolonged periods also contribute to such migration of legitimate earnings in anonymous accounts. These are means to produce billionaires but is this good for democracy in a country that has the bulk of its people in poverty by global standards?

Yet it is our poor that participate in large numbers to keep democracy sustained. They prize their democratic political rights more than any rich group would do. But how many of the poor get a respectable place in our democratic institutions? Reservation in local democratic institutions has lifted a disability. However, it does not allow the reserved category leaders to entitle them to seats in the upper chambers in legislatures or in ministerial positions. Those posts are reserved for nominees of leaders and political and corporate lobbies. The politics of representatives voicing grievances of the poor still leaves them powerless. What is needed is to empower them to raise their voice in their cause themselves. This is not the case so far in institutions of policy-making at the national or State levels. This need does not find place in the manifestos of parties. So, the divide between the rich and the poor is tending to widen. The divide between the urban and the rural areas, where the larger part of the poor resides, is also widening. Complaints about misuse of public funds for poverty alleviation abound. There is always a scare about empowering the poor to manage programmes floated for them. More resources are spent in paperwork involving audit, involving State/Central level bureaucratic monitoring which leaves problems intact. How one wishes it were so in respect of projects of the private sector that benefit from public funds including tax-breaks and fiscal concessions! But that is not to be. The private capital lobby is becoming powerful enough to stall any such move. The UPA Government struggled for five years to introduce reservation in jobs for certain categories of the poor. They were stalled for five long years. The feeling goes that in our democracy the government is the preserve of the rich and it has to assist in wealth creation to make them richer. There is an inbuilt tension on this score in our politics. There is no indication that this hold will be weakened.

Political Leadership Structures

Our leaders are being challenged without restraint. This is due to the way we choose our leadership. We have antiquated and stagnant leadership structures in all political parties. Some regional leaders or powerful State satraps of national parties do not allow any second or third leader even to share the podium in public rallies! How can such practices generate genuine leaders to come up after apprenticeship at the grassroots?

At the end of his tenure President Bush of the USA admired their system of choosing a leader. He noted that the gruelling one-year primary and final nomination provides the test of character and policies. Here parties do not even have the set practice of a leader by necessity seeking public mandate in popular contest. Under the Indian system, political leaders repeat the bureaucratic practice where everyone reaches his/her “level of incompetence” based on certificate rather than public mandate according to a settled process. So, our leaders lack in qualities to command; they are plodders. The system makes them such—not the parliamentary system but the system within parties in their search modules. There is no trend that any change can be expected if the show in the two major parties is any indication.

Policies are at a discount. The “agenda of governance” under Vajpayee and the NCMP under Manmohan Singh can be reviewed to see how much was tried. In fact, the party manifestos as well as the minimum coalition agenda have one or two line references. It would be hard to assemble a detailed strategy worked out to see how and in what time-span it would be feasible. The going joke is that after the V.P. Singh-sponsored reservation for OBCs there was some interest for a time in looking at party manifestos. Even that has vanished. Instead, we are fed on giveaways that are a negation of policies launched as “reform under liberalisation” while in power. Pranab Mukherjee spoke of competitive populism meaning that the BJP upgraded the giveaways after the Congress unfolded them. Maybe that is so. The fact remains, though, that there is no semblance of long-term or medium-term policies in them. As mentioned, even they were not debated at appropriate levels. Candidates went their way to means, fair and foul, to prove their ‘win-ability’. No wonder, with the passage of time they are deserving of less and less public respect and applause. Except for those sections that hope to benefit personally, most articulate opinion bemoans them.

All this is rather pessimistic. So, there is talk about poverty going down, per capita income going up, India is having a place at the global high table and the like. What are they worth without the strengthening and maturing of our democratic structure? A lot depends on our politics, national, State and at the grassroots. Unfortunately, there is no assessment how a stable and linear progress could be made and how larger masses could be involved in that undertaking.

The author, a distinguished administrator, is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar (now retired).

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