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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 16, April 4, 2009

The Way We Conduct Elections In Our Country

Thursday 9 April 2009, by Shree Shankar Sharan

There are several features of the coming Lok Sabha elections that jar and need to change.

Elections with Police Force

The first is the heavy deployment of force for conducting elections. One of the grave consequences of heavy deployment of force is to spread out the election process to two, three or four stages. This is how it has happened this time. This not only paralyses governance, because staff from all departments along with the local collectorate, subdivisional and block staff are drafted in the election process. The economy is also paralysed for two months or so because all trucks that normally carry goods to most parts of the country, the railway coverage being thin, are either seized or hide themselves for fear of being seized for election duty therby pushing up shortages and prices. Most development work also gets suspended. A more major upset is caused by the ban on decision- making while the model conduct rules operate on a matter of policy while the poll notification is in force. The country’s progress, an economic right of the people is sacrificed at the altar of a political right which is avoidable.

Another consequence is the holding up of results till the last stage has been completed. Election results of poll by polling machines should be out the very day of the poll or the next to maximise its credibility.

Elections both on principle and to combat criminal disruption should be held on the same date in the country. If it thins out force in cons-tuencies, if force deployment is considered necessary, it will also thin out criminal presence and lower the risk of disruption.

Besides the two ideas of elections being popular and having to be protected by armed force to be peaceful do not mix and reflect poorly on our commitment to democracy. Elections as the popular expression of people’s aspirations should be free from the presence of the police force, the most visible and often distasteful symbol of the government as an instrument of coercion which underpin non-democratic governments. We should not encourage our elected leaders to associate power with police. Of course, police presence cannot be avoided in insurgency threatened areas.

There is no precedent of other countries holding elections under a similar dispensation, certainly not the older democracies. In England, an outsider would not know an election was on. May be police kept a watch on elections in the former Soviet Union. But as we know, the Soviet elections were not free elections. Police also guards over elections in the split and warring tribes in Africa. But our social situation is far from being anywhere as tense and our competing political rivals being as lustful of power and intolerant of the electoral verdict as in Africa.

The presence of the police in India, far from giving a sense of security to voters, lends a sense of insecurity by raising apprehension of an imminent threat to peace. That is the way the police is regarded in India as the external symbols of a disturbed situation. Elections ought to be surrounded by a spirit of bonhomie between the bitterest rivals who fight their electoral war peacefully. The presence of the police force fails to create this image.

Never, even in the first election in the country, still embittered by the memory of the partition and its horrific carnage, was the deployment of force so heavy. The deployment has got heavier with each election with a growing trend to induct muscle men to rig polls, earlier rigged by bogus votes of absentee voters and use of guns and bombs to disturb elections.But the way to tackle it is by effective preventive action like preventive rounding up and by surprise raids on suspects before polls, regardless of party affiliation.

The worst miscreants are often from the ruling party. The Election Commission has to have a list of fearless policemen who will not be browbeaten by political intimidation or threat and make them operate under its own supervision. The EC has enough clout to free these officers of fear of intimidation by political bosses.

In a young democracy the attempt should be to make democratic institutions stronger, rid people of fear rather than reinforce fear by multiplying police presence. Besides it has to educate the people to value democracy enough to take a reasonable risk to nurture it. A police presence, even if necessary, should be camouflaged in mufti (plain clothes). As trained and armed men, not easy to identify, they can be more effective than uniformed police whose watch can be more easily evaded by cunning diversionary tactics.

Diktats of Election Commission

Having every candidate declare his assets at the instance of the Election Commission, highlighting both crorepati candidates and the unholy alliance between parties and crorepatis as well as the crores amassed by leaders while in power have all been eye-openers of the truth of Indian politics behind its aam aadmi mask. Democracy will face a serious threat if its leadership leaves no space for the aam aadmi. The law regarding the limit on election expenses needs more rigorous enforcement and a clubbing of party and a candidate’s expenditure

What jars is the enormous amounts spent by contesting parties on hiring private planes and helicopters and and space for long ads in newspapers, TV and mobiles. They only highlight the worst feature of democracy all the world over to be coming under the influence of big money or the rise of political corruption and misdemeanour. It is these major issues that should engage the exalted body of the Election Commission rather than petty ones. Costly elections should not become a reason or excuse for promoting or accepting corruption.

To keep criminals out of politics the People’s Representation Act has to be made stricter ruling out all candidates against whom charges have been framed or conviction orders passed without waiting for appeals unless the conviction or charge has been stayed.

Too many diktats by the Election Commission also jar. They do not add to the dignity and political image of the country. Filing FIRs at the merest breach of a model conduct rule, like using more than three cars, seems puerile. Bigger groups and more vehicles are needed in unsafe zones to ensure safety. The model conduct rules, if at all it is necessary to frame them beyond the normal laws of the country, should be framed in consultation with political parties rather than people who have no experience of fighting elections. Elections have been a major and joyful event in the country as they bring with them new bounties to poor people. We needn’t try to force all joy and festivity out of it and turn it into dry give-and-take exercise

Dangers to Democracy

Democracy faces multiple dangers of turning into, autocracy, aristocracy, mobocracy or hypocrisy. Each requires vigilance both by the Election Commission and the sovereign people. So far we have not succeeded in eradicating any of the dangers except perhaps autocracy after the decisive defeat of Mrs Gandhi in 1977 that decisively rejected the Emergency and elected the Janata Party, cobbled by JP, as the culmination of his Total Revolution movement. Aristocracy was contained by mobocracy, based on identity politics, by the sheer weight of numbers which prevailed for a while but has been contained by the voter’s shift from promise to performance. Aristocracy has reasserted itself by the sheer power of its wealth and the power of dynastic tradition which still counts in our tradition-loving country. Hypocrisy can be handy both to mobocracy and aristocracy but can be contained by voters by linking promise with performance. The trend has been set and has to continue.Yet there will continue to be space for identity politics as long social disparities in the country are so glaring. Economic disparities are also a serious challenge to democracy. The Election Commission, rather than be a one-way communi-cation institution, may consider interacting with MPs and MLAs to raise these issues.

Lack of Policy

But a more serious issue for the new elections is the choice of priorities between the poor, left to the mercies of the trickle-down effect, and a growing middle class that aspires to a higher class mobility by a heartless policy of modernisation. May wisdom dawn on our voters and the leaders of the deprived groups who have to learn to lead not with identity based mobocracy but with a more discerning choice of policy priorities.

Yet policy no longer seems an issue in the coming elections and has been replaced by populist declarations. The margin of a clear choice of the shape of our future and the means to achieve it is getting eroded. Niether the Mumbai terrorist attack nor the nuclear deal or the threat of pseudo-secularism are the most crucial issues for a Parliament election. They won’t lift us from poverty, nor raise wages nor lower prices or create jobs. This election most prominently appears a status quo election with minor variations in modality. It should be a cause of worry for social thinkers and political parties that hope to lead future generations. We must cease to live in the past and frame more contemporary issues like tackling recession or global warming or free trade versus protectionism.

There is a new emphasis on inducting the youth without feeding them with new ideas or programmes or a new agenda. The parties should set up leadership schools to train young leaders. They should initiate more studies on how policies have worked rather be swayed by uninformed opinion or emotive propaganda.

We at present have become victims of recession, an economic crisis not of our making but that of the USA, its unbridled capitalism and market economy and falling standards of integrity among managers and regulators. Wily nily all countries which follow comparable market practices have also become victims, because most financial institutions today operate globally and shocks suffered in one country easily transmit to another. India too is a victim because she has opted for globalisation and export led growth rather than depend on its huge domestic market. There was much greater stability in the Gandhian prescription of swadeshi, of producing with local resources for the local market before we venture out. Unfortunately we have become technology mad and mad to be rich.

Deng Xiao Peng, the Chinese Communist leader, before joining the race for riches, had said it was glorious to be rich. Gandhi, our nation’s tallest leader, had said on the contrary that the world had enough for everybody’s need but not enough for one man’s greed. Meeting needs rather than greed should be India’s guiding economic philosophy and the leitmotif of one of our principal parties. n

The author is the Convenor of Lok Paksh, Patna/Delhi. He can be contacted on e-mail at -shankarsharan77@gmail.com

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