Thursday, April 1, 2004

Hobson’s Choice – Not Mine

Hobson’s Choice – Not Mine
By Narendra Luther

The Roman statesman, Cicero advised rulers that if they could not give bread to people, let them give circus. The democratic equivalent of circus is elections – all the more so after Maneka Gandhi’s tirade against cruelty to animals resulted in a drastic reduction in the conventional circus shows. Of course cruelty to humans has been a dominant feature of all history and so there is no escape from it.

We had still some months before the nest elections were due. But Chandrababu Naidu in his punarajanama advanced the elections in Andhra Pradesh. What he does today, the rest of the country does tomorrow. So, the ruling coalition at the Centre also decided to seek punarajanama. Karnataka can’t remain behind Andhra Pradesh. Orissa also cried ‘me too’. So, now we are in for a mini-General Elections.

Face replaces Faith

Elections are a churning of the country. Political parties suddenly come alive and start reorganizing themselves. Persons who have been waiting for changing courses find it opportune to do so at the time of elections. Since politics of faith has lapsed, the politics of faces has emerged. In the new scheme of things there is a great demand for good–lookers. They are generally found in the world of films. So, actors and actresses are being recruited in a big way on all sides. Rumour has it that political parties are paying them hefty fees for joining parties unlike other ordinary mortals who have to pay to get a ticket. Of all the people from the worlds of acting, Shatrughan Sinha, put it aptly when he said, ‘Acting has glamour, politics has power. I have seen both. Power is better.’ It is an unfortunate trend. It demeans politics, that is, if there is any more scope to do so. Politics should be a civil war of ideologies. Now it is being transformed into beauty contests. Actors who deliver brave dialogues scripted by faceless writers, will now mouth inanities from open platforms. They have no understanding of, or interest in, any ideology. They will only go to add numbers to the membership of different political parties in the legislatures. We deserve better.

Slanging Match

Did Lord Tennyson have the Indian elections in mind when he said

‘…blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed
On all things, all day long’.

. Now the pre-election clamour and cacophony has started. There is excitement in the air-- and also depression. Excitement is for those who have hopes of coming into power; depression for those who have to make a choice without really having a choice!

Mind-boggling adjustments and alliances are being worked out. Parties, which swore at each other, are now swearing by common causes. Every morning in the papers and every hour on the electronic media the average citizen gets his dose of surprises. He has become immune to shocks. The endless shifts and emergence of new conglomerations amongst various groups defies common sense, logic and the sense of decency. That is because the parameters of individual behaviour are different from those of politics. In politics ends justify means – and on the eve of election, ends also justify being mean!

At the time of writing, manifestoes of different parties are being ‘crafted’ by way of a formality. The slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ has become stale and hence given up. Earlier, ‘Roti, Kapda and Makan’ has long been the triune slogan of shouting brigades. All these items are deemed to have been provided to the people. So, the new slogan is for Pani, Bijli and Sadak. This is so that people can drink enough water to be able to walk on roads in good light in search of better opportunities!

None of these

And we will be asked to exercise our ‘precious vote’ to elect our representatives. But what is the choice we have? We will have to pick up one or the other out of persons who are put up by various parties or cabals. They will include persons who are charge-sheeted or are under investigation and may be on bail on technical grounds. Yet our choice will have to be limited to these persons only. That is because the law as yet does not disqualify people who are charge-sheeted. And parties dare not ignore them because of their ‘winnability’.

There have been talks about barring ‘tainted’ people from contesting elections. But in the absence on any provision of law, that cannot be done. If there were, according to the election commissioner, Krishnamurthy, the Chief Election Commissioner, 40 persons with criminal record in the last parliament, chances are that there will be more this time. The Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh has released a list of 51 likely candidates with shady credentials.

Our so-called ‘precious right to vote’ loses all its value because it is limited to the slate on offer. Our freedom of choice therefore becomes meaningless because it cannot go beyond the panel.

What then is the voter to do? The right to elect logically implies a right to reject. Some political thinkers in our country, including the former Vice President, the late Krishan Kant advocated that right. But there is no likelihood of a legislation of that type being enacted. The Law Commission had suggested in 1999 the incorporation of this option by adding a button on the electronic voting machine. The Election Commission had supported this proposal. But the Government has spiked it on the pleas that it needs discussion amongst parties.

Absolute Majority

Coupled with that, there should be a law making it compulsory for a candidate to secure an absolute majority –not the maximum number of votes -- to get elected. That will compel parties to rise above religion, caste and community in the selection of candidates because none of them by itself can manage to secure an absolute majority. In an interesting satirical article in the Times of India on March 16, 2004 Jug Suraiya showed how a legislator elected by 23.75% votes rationalized his non-performance. He explained to his electors that he did 23.75% of every thing he was supposed to do. Come to think of it, a person elected on the basis of 23.75 % votes had 76. 25% of the electorate against him!

The requirement of absolute majority for election is prevalent in many countries – and even in elections within political parties.

These two reforms – of the elector’s a right to reject all the candidates, and the candidate’s obligation to secure an absolute majority of votes are necessary to make our elections meaningful.

However, it is unlikely that our legislators who are the beneficiaries of the present imperfect system will ever introduce these reforms. Till then we will continue to remain playthings in the hands of politicians. So, we must continue to protest. Maybe, who knows, the impossible might happen.

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