A resurgent Republic can't eschew reform
By Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe
EVENTS in the recent past clearly manifest what can be described as the delivery deficit of democracy in India. Judiciary has raised the pitch of its activism. Civil society suddenly has become very articulate and assertive. A pro-active media — even in the days of its diminishing credibility — has suddenly started pointing fingers and conducting trial by itself. All these are the symptoms of a situation where most of the principal players continue to be clueless and yet pretend that they have some answers — answers to the all pervading in-efficacy of our model of democratic governance!
Forget mega challenges like corruption-free good governance, poverty, unemployment and national security. Has this republic been able to give potable water to everybody? What to speak about cities free from slums? Or, say footpaths without squatters? When we, all the taxpayers hope a safe and secure civic life, are we asking for moon?
Political scientists and observers believe that India has chosen stability of a sort over growth. India-born British economist Lord Meghnad Desai had once cryptically observed that to stay a peaceful and stable society India has to be a muddle and mess. While many will certainly differ with this observation, the fact remains that a country like India with a billion plus population, 28 states enjoying considerable autonomy, 33 major languages and 1650 dialects and six major religions, one of which is Islam followed by 13 per cent of people, understandably; has to put staying together above everything. As what the Economist had once observed we appear to be satisfied with remaining “a slow moving but flexible democracy” as if that “is the only way of holding all this together”. But still, questions remain unanswered. Was it really necessary to tolerate the lack of jeepable roads and schools sans teachers or live with power cuts and load shedding even 65 years after Independence?
However, with changing times, people have become restive, not happy with just “holding together” and are craving for change. Many believe that India requires both political and economic reforms together. There also appears a very strong opinion that unless either of the two major political parties has at least 200 plus seats and coalition government has a majority in the Lok Sabha, serious efforts for major reforms of any kind will continue to be neglected. One cannot find fault with Rahul Bajaj’s observation that what absorbs most of the energies of the Government are mainly “short-term political expediency and crisis management.”
Several others also have stressed the need for political reforms. After more than half a century of the attainment of Independence and having given the present Constitution a chance, it is worthwhile to ponder over as to where are we exactly heading. Let us accept the ground reality that ‘we the people’, have failed in achieving the goals set before by the makers of the Constitution and we all need to have a re-look at the present system. To say that the Constitution has not failed people in India but the latter have failed their own Constitution takes the discussion only little ahead. And even if people have failed the Constitution, what is essential is to study all those factors that have led to this situation. Many concur with this conclusion. Founder chairman of software giant, Infosys, NR Narayan Murthy, had once gone on record without mincing words. He had insisted that we require reforms since “our institutions—from parliament and legislatures to courts and distribution systems—have become pervaded with corruption.”
As a consequence, popular faith in democracy is fast on the wane. People, mainly those who have experienced the Emergency of 1975 do not say it in so many words. They understand what lack of democracy means. But what about others? Many who are socially conscious and ideologically committed rightly believe that to be cynic is a luxury. No wonder then the younger generation may want to ask “can you give us a single reason why one should not get frustrated with the non-functioning of the systems here?”
This depleting popular faith in democracy and the consequent tightening of the grip of all pervading cynicism on the minds of the people has resulted in an absolute lack of popular initiative. A sense of utter contempt, almost bordering on a deep-seated hatred, about the political class is visible when people voice their opinions. A glance at the excerpts of a letter written to the editor by some of the readers of a newspaper in Ahmedabad soon after the 1999 elections have been quoted by Jagdeep S Chhokar, a senior activist of Association of Democratic Reforms. Excerpts quoted by him read as follows—“Thank God! The verbal cacophony, throwing of abuses and trading of charges by political parties with each other is over…What democratic values this bunch of self-appointed leaders will propagate with such narrow-minded approaches. Our democracy ends the day we cast our vote…. No wonder people showed fatigue and displayed lack of enthusiasm in the type of democratic exercise now repeatedly held to elect the begging candidates so that on being elected they can sit in power and loot us, and amass wealth and power for their dynasties.”
A popular ballad-type folk song in Maharashtra originally sung by Shahir Sable in 1956 in a Marathi folk-theatre programme named Bapacha Bap ridicules the entire political class by narrating a story. The narrative suggests that god had once wrongfully sent a brain-less creature on the earth and how the same has become a political leader. These examples are a true reflection of public disdain and all pervading cynicism about the entire electoral process that has singularly occupied the centre-stage of our democracy.
Several Indian-observers abroad also believe that introducing reforms is the only way to retrieve the situation. Few years before when as a researcher, I interacted with some prominent political scientists in some foundations in UK and USA, they insisted that we in India essentially have to do away the populist character of parliamentary democracy by cleansing the entire body politic. Many of them further advocated that political parties in India must tighten the formal control and revitalise their organisations. Power brokers must not be given any patronage at all. If this is not done, the next generation will get more disillusioned.
Unfortunately, widespread disdain about politicians has acquired centrality in public discourse. In the April 2011 agitation led by Anna Hazare, ridiculing politicians had become a favourite pastime. While politicians have to seriously look into the reasons behind this widespread disdain, others must understand that mere disdain can take us nowhere. This situation has added to cynicism, the virus of which has generated a crisis of motivation as also a crisis of leadership practically at all levels. According to experiences narrated by a group of newly elected members of Municipal Corporations in Mumbai, Pune and Solapur, a noteworthy aspect of the 2007 elections for Municipal Corporations and District Councils (Zilla Parishads) in Maharashtra, political parties had to organise stage performances of beer bar-girls prior to the public meetings in several parts of districts like Ahmednagar in order to ensure people attending public meetings. Whereas in the 2007 elections to the municipal corporations in Maharashtra, in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Solapur, members of some housing societies collectively bargained with a brazen demand for sops in the form of taking care of the construction of compound wall, or payment of electricity charges against assured en-bloc voting of the society members. According to a sitting member of a Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, he had to outsmart his rival by actually completing the work of paver blocks in the courtyard of a housing society, which was his traditional stronghold; and where the voters were preparing to auction their votes en-bloc. These are all symptoms of the erosion of popular faith in democratic values and by implication, in the democratic system.
Discussion about political reforms in India is not new. Need for such reforms, has been felt by many for several years. Some of them also have articulated the same. Once, our former Vice President Shri Krishan Kant had correctly diagnosed what ails our electoral system. According to him, there was an urgent need “to break nexus between the individual and the constituency”, because of the fact that the present “election process has established and consolidated such individuals and interest groups all over the country.”
If a particular factor is to be held responsible for this, it is the gradual weakening of party organisations. In the case of several smaller political parties in India, the party organisation today is a loose alliance of such interest groups. Neither do they have any ideology nor a national programme. Any individual desirous of getting in elected has to succumb to some pressures. This has created an invisible divided in our polity. Dominant corrupt social and political elite on one side and the people on the other. There is now a complete alienation between the two. This has led to a decline in popular deterrence, giving fillip to unscrupulous politics. Uncontrolled corruption and growing social tension are the net results of all this.
Many political analysts, thinkers and several Constitution experts have squarely blamed First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system for the present day ills. To many, this system results in the election of candidates and of parties on a minority of votes cast making both unrepresentative. A Handbook for Electoral System Design, prepared by the Stockholm based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA) has clearly brought several disadvantages of the FPTP and one can easily conclude that India provides an example of how FPTP proves to be perilous. Some of the key disadvantages are:
1. Exclusion of minorities as well as women from fair representation.
2. Encouragement to the development of political parties based on clan, ethnicity or region, and
3. Exaggeration of “regional fiefdoms” where one party wins all the seats in a province.
Commenting upon the Indian experience of the FPTP, IIDEA handbook says: “The nature of the system meant that small changes in vote share often had a dramatic impact upon the shape of the resulting parliament.” Obviously then political parties often tend to influence small but guaranteed chunk of voters and lure the same by hook or by crook. To make this happen, mobilising monetary resources becomes essential and for that illicit money gathered through corrupt practices comes handy. This is how, electoral system or the voting system becomes central to the discussion as it is rightly deemed as the fountain head of corruption.
Several of the problems associated with democracy in India are in fact, products of the FPTP system. Domination of electability factor, pressure of electoral compulsions and the resultant competitive indulgence in electoral mal-practices, greater chances of victory of candidates despite being opposed by majority of the electorate thanks to an inbuilt mechanism facilitating strategic division of votes, ability to give over-representation to en-bloc voters’ community at the cost of numerically stronger but scattered communities, are widely recognised as systemic flaws of the FPTP.
Another serious factor that calls for a systemic change is the fact that the FPTP system also promotes fragmented politics. Consequently, caste and community loyalties become the foundations of parties. This also influences the politics of larger parties with a national appeal and they too give in to the pressures of caste considerations. All this has had a great impact upon voting behaviour of the people. Candidates are generally selected on caste lines and citizens vote on caste appeal. States like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu are already in the grip of caste politics and other states like Karnataka, Maharashtra or Rajasthan are not far behind. In a situation like this, the electoral system has been almost totally subverted by money power, muscle power and vote-bank considerations of caste and communities. As a result, caste considerations and communalism apparently weakening in social life, in fact are provided vitamins and nutrients through electoral process.
Although reforms are hard to come about, they are integral to any living society and polity. There are scores of examples of nations who have opted for a particular form of democracy and subsequently switched over to the other. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, several experiments were tried during the last three decades. Starting from majoritarian democracy at the time of Independence (1947) to executive presidency and proportional representation (1978) to the present combination of run-off and preferential voting for the election of a president, Sri Lanka has come a long way. In far off Australia too, parties and politicians have experimented with a variety of voting systems that they believed would advance popular democracy and pragmatic politics. Between 1911 and 1962, Australia introduced major reforms to the electoral systems. Compulsion in the enrolment of electors was introduced in 1911, while FPTP was replaced with preferential voting for the House in 1918 and for the senate in 1919. Again, in 1948, PR was introduced for the Senate. Similarly, New Zealand and South Africa too have experimented with changes in either forms of governments or the electoral systems, or even both.
One of the most crucial aspects of representative democracy—where elected officials make decisions on behalf of the people—is how these officials are being elected. This translation of the citizen’s votes into representative seats is performed through elections and by way of using an electoral system. When it comes to election, the strength of numbers comes into the play. Ideally, it is expected that an electoral system should reflect the strength of numbers without leaving any scope for distortions. Hence, electoral system is the most fundamental element of representative democracy.
As growing numbers of people are becoming alienated from the political process, the debate needs to focus on which electoral system can best empower voters by extending the range of political voices, by treating all voters equal, by offering an effective choice between parties and candidates, and by providing an incentive to vote. With just one act of voting, a voter elects a parliament and also chooses a government. Electoral systems have to be judged in terms of how democratically voters are able to perform each of these functions through equalising the value of the votes polled.
All this calls for a deeper thinking about and dispassionate review of the electoral system with which we are trying to make our democracy work. While debate must happen one cannot forget the fact that massive political reforms alone will make our republic a resurgent one!