Alienating people from elections

No takers for campaign-ware… The involvement of common people in elections is a must in ensuring a proper participatory democracy in a country such as India.

The Election Commission’s zeal to enforce the code of conduct may make for discipline and rigour in the conduct of polls, but it has put a host of small traders out of business. R. VAIDYANATHAN argues that this not only keeps people in the dark about the candidates but also alienates the very people who make up the democracy.

Elections are festivals of our democracy. It is time to celebrate the power of the ordinary and the importance of the lowest of the low. It is a time for the commoner to rejoice. Assembly elections are to be held in a few days in Karnataka. But travel the length and breadth of Bangalore, the State capital, and you will find no trace of the coming elections. No cut-outs, no banners, no buntings, no posters, no graffiti, no flags and no street-corner meetings or processions of urchins.

It is so clean and antiseptic that one begins to wonder if there is an election at all. The Election Commission has been very serious about imposing the code, as well as discipline and rigour in conducting these elections. Incidentally, this is the first election to be conducted post-delimitation of constituencies.

A flower-seller was bemoaning that, normally, during elections he sells up to a thousand rupees worth of flowers in a day, as there is usually a big demand for flower strings to decorate pandals and garland the leaders. Now, he is not even able to sell for a hundred rupees. The same is the case with the lighting providers, stage decorators, shamiyana and rented chair hirers, and printers. Actually, there are more than 60 categories of self-employed groups that are bearing the brunt of such puritan-style elections.

Newspaper reports suggest that the officials of the Commission have seized saris and utensils meant for distribution to the voters by some of the candidates.

That is considered as ‘bribing to get votes’. But if the same candidate or his political party promised to provide every individual with free saris or TVs or power, that is seen as an electoral manifesto.

In other words, the system accepts and encourages bribes to be given from the public exchequer but not from private initiatives and wealth. Also, future bribes seem to be preferable to present bribes, according to the Code. A slum-dweller would be more happy to receive some utensil or sari at the door-step today than get it later through leaky and slow governmental processes. It is also wrong to presume that the gift of a sari or a vessel automatically gets translated into votes.

Elections versus inflation

The constituency of this author — Bommanahalli — has a Congress candidate who has declared assets of Rs 180 crore and, in the adjacent constituency of BTM lay-out, a BJP candidate has declared assets worth Rs 300 crore. Elections in India are the opposite of inflation. Inflation shifts incomes from poorer segments to richer ones, whereas elections shift income from richer sections to poorer ones.

When so many freebies can be promised and offered from the public treasury by political parties, why not encourage free gifts from candidates. Maybe it can be done in a transparent way, if that is the issue. A register or log-book can be maintained about the donations of an individual candidate. And, anyhow, the voting process is secret.

It is not the same as bribing some MLAs or MP to support or oppose a motion of confidence in the Assembly or Parliament. Why deny the poorer segments their due during this “festival” called elections.

Not only that, the Election Commission has also taken some bizarre steps, such as preventing the CPI(M) from campaigning in constituencies where they are not contesting (The Hindu, May 5).

Every political party or individual should have the right to campaign in any constituency, for or against any candidate. This decision of the Commission can really be a major constraint for parties that do not field candidates everywhere.

The Commission has also censored by a beep the TV advertisement (in Kannada) of Ms Sushma Swaraj of the BJP, wherein she mentions the Congress and the UPA as being responsible for inflation. But, when she asks people to vote against the Congress, that has not been censored. It implies that you cannot accuse them of inflation but you can still ask for them to be voted out!

Ignorant about candidates

The sanitised electoral process has some negative aspects that require a national debate. The names of the candidate are not known to many common people belonging to the poorer segments. In the past, supporters used to shout in a coarse voice (from an auto-rickshaw, and using a mounted microphone and speakers) the names of the candidate and sing songs to praise his achievements while requesting voters to consider his case.

There used to be hand-bills and other types of information. Now all of these have dried up. The candidate is expected to spend Rs 10 lakh in an Assembly constituency. Many of the constituencies require substantially larger outlays by the candidate to make them known.

The involvement of common people is a must in ensuring a proper participatory democracy in a country such as India. We often read of officials talking about information being available on the Internet, etc., in a State where the literacy rate is average and computers are used by a minuscule minority.

Some of the constituencies are very large, particularly in northern Karnataka. Bangalore Urban has just 28 constituencies of the 234 in the State, and nearly 35 per cent of the constituencies are in the urban category. It is sometimes more difficult to reach the urban electorate than the rural, as in the rural areas the candidate may be better known due to some of his good or otherwise activities.

In such a situation it is important that the candidate as well as his bio-data is known to all the electors, particularly those who do not have access to newspapers or TV.

Even on such media, one rarely finds any weighty discussion on the merits of a candidate other than in party terms.

Already, some political parties have an internal democracy deficit in terms of elections to various positions, many of which are filled by diktats from the high command. If State or general elections are also held under such draconian conditions, the public interest in the electoral process will decline and, slowly, the common citizenry will become alienated from the voting system.

The alternatives

The amount to be spent can be modified based on area, population, etc. It is generally agreed by all that the amount needs to be increased substantially from the current Rs 10 lakh, given the fact that two idlis and a coffee in a small road-side restaurant in Bangalore costs nearly Rs 15. And the proverbial army of followers does not march on empty stomachs.

One alternative could be to allow the State to fund the cost of elections and another might be to have differential limits for individuals and parties. In any case, the importance of elections in our country is to re-instate and re-establish the organic links between the have-nots and the process of democracy. By over-stressing the Anglo-Saxon model of behaviour we are possibly throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

The excesses by political parties during the 1980s and the 1990s were condemned by all and, as a reaction, a regulatory system was put in place. But the pendulum ought not to swing to the other extreme so that people are alienated from the process itself. If a small ‘incentive’ makes the commoner committed to the democratic process and reinforces its legitimacy, then let it be paid.

Let us not have a large disconnect between the common people and participatory democracy, where we strip participation down to a mechanical visit to the polling booths.

Let us bring back the festive zeal of the multi-hued sound, fury and chaos of the road-side shows. That is the thriving democracy among the poor but dignified people.

Let us not try to impose artificial European-type elections with a funereal atmosphere on the noisy but joyful and colourful Indian public. Our elections ought to be like a kumbha mela with all its pomp and revelry and free food, and not like a dark-suited solemn procession behind a carved casket.


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