Monday, December 1, 2003

The Looming Mandate

The Looming Mandate
by Narendra Luther

In our system of democracy we are assured of election at least once in five years or more often. So, we have the circus going on virtually all through the year some where or the other.

Earlier, in December we had elections in five states of Nagaland, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. The results belied the opinion poll predictions of experts and the media -- except in the case of Delhi. Various theories were touted up to foretell the results. One was the good old ‘anti-incumbency’ premise which puts the ruling party a disadvantage. This however has been belied repeatedly in West Bengal. It was refuted in Andhra Pradesh in the last elections when Chandrababu Naidu won a second term. The same happened this time in Delhi. Another hypothesis was that of the ‘fatigue factor’ of the ruling party. The defeat of Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh was attributed to his ‘fatigue’ for having ruled for ten years. That however did not apply to in the case of West Bengal. Psephologists have been shown up to be false oracles time and again. They are no better than astrologers whose predictions also come true rarely and that too by accident.

The Bindi Belt

If Mulayam Singh had not dislodged the Dalit ki beti in Uttar Pradesh sometime ago, the recent elections would have converted the conventional Hindi belt into a Bindi belt. Another interesting feature of the recent elections was that ruling women represent all the possible situations in their ‘status’ One is a ‘bachelor’, another, (Rabri Devi) is married, one is separated from her husband, and the fourth is a widow. So it seems that the you cannot put them down in any situation. That is why men are reluctant to give them reservation.

The voter tries to throw out the ruling party in the hope of getting a better deal from the other. The other party is the same old one with new vows. Therein lies the tragedy of the electorate. They have to elect from one party or the other. They do not have the simple prerogative of the housewife of rejecting the entire lot of vegetables as not being good enough. Tall promises are routinely made and forgotten. The one repeated vow about eradication of corruption is fulfilled in its flagrant breach by the leaders themselves. Over the years corruption has only increased. One post-election phenomenon is that of – with due apologies to that noble creature --‘horse trading’. Ajit Jogi's attempt at that was exposed while many others have escaped undetected.

The Electoral Process

In many cases, candidates get elected with a minority of votes. It is a serious flaw in our system.

The second defect is that the electors do not have a choice of rubbishing all the candidates if they are not good enough. This has led some analyst and thinkers to suggest a two-fold reform in our electoral system. The first is that the successful candidate must get an absolute majority of votes. If he doesn’t in the first round, than a second or third round of the election should be held till one candidate gets absolute majority. This system is in vogue in a number of countries including France. Even some political parties have this system for their party elections. Readers will remember that John Major was elected leader of the Conservative Party of England in the second round. The second reform is to have what is called a ‘negative vote’. The elector should have the option of either electing or rejecting any or all the candidate. It will eliminate candidates with a criminal background and compel political parties to set up candidate with good credentials and public acceptance. The initiative taken by the Election Commission and upheld by the supreme court of candidates having to declare details about them including any criminal cases against them will reduce this to some extent. It is said that the proposed reform will necessitate re-elections in many cases. That is a price which we should be prepared to pay for a clean public life. It may be recalled that in the post World War II, De Gaulle had refused to participate in the elections. He stayed in his village and declared that he was available but would not contest. He was called by the people to take over the Presidency of France. Persons of that type can come to public life only if the system provides an avenue for them to walk in with their dignity.

The Crystal Ball

Now the Andhra Pradesh assembly has been dissolved and elections are due in the near future. The term of the Lok Sabha expires in September 2004. There is wide -spread speculation that it might be dissolved earlier and the election might be advanced. It is tempting therefore to look into the crystal ball to see the shape of things to come. As I mentioned no generalization can be advanced without providing for an exception. Since there is no likelihood of reform in the system in the near future, we have to look at the prospects in the light of the existing paradigm.

In Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu has taken a number of initiatives and is recognized as a most visionary and forward- looking chief minister in the country. He belied the anti- incumbency theory in the last elections. However his critics say that he has followed elitist programs and his attention has been urban -centered. It is said that Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh lost because he devoted his attention to rural areas at the cost of urban areas. The reverse might happen in the case of Chandrababu Naidu. However even his enemies concedes that his political shrewdness is acute. The sympathy factor because of the near-fatal attack on him would probably have spent itself by the time he goes to the polls. There in no doubt however it will be drummed up by his party. He cannot therefore be easily written off.

At the national level the picture is very confused. The main fight will be between the Congress and the BJP with other smaller parties joining one or the other. The stands of both the parties are well known. BJP will no doubt harp on its achievements particularly in the field of economic development as exhibited in the steep rise of the Sensex. The Congress and their possible allies will highlight the dents made in the secular image of the country by BJP and its supporting organizations. The position however is far from polarized. Some surprises may be sprung from either side. In the recent elections the score on the corruption side was equal on both sides. The parties will be more cautious lest they should be caught either red - handed.

Whatever happens, the caravan will go on. We will have either the same set of rulers or new ones, which, as George Orwell showed in his ‘Animal Farm’ is the same thing. ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same’!

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