For many years national election used to be an utsav in India. Times have changed. It is no more playful. It has even ceased to be a time to debate issues. Election Commission has imposed many restrictions on free speech. We have suddenly become too serious, very business like. So, all television debates, even before the second round of polling was over, were on how the next government would be formed. Our concern is the government, not what people want. Or what they would be thinking. For the studio hounds, invariably so, the known devil is the best devil.
People have, however, reposed their faith in the democratic process in the country. Despite a gruelling schedule, unusually high temperature and often overzealous imposition of the model code of conduct, dispiriting and depriving the laity of their share of celebration, the people have come out in large numbers and cast their franchise. The voting percentage is encouraging; the same as that of 2004, another election held during the summer months. Largely, the polls this time were peaceful. The death toll in poll-related violence was fewer compared to the previous elections. Of particular relief is that the states prone to poll violence like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala were comparatively peaceful this time but for stray incidents mainly the Maoist instigated.
Overall, the Election Commission has reasons to pat itself on the back in completing a task with a high degree of competence and fair play.
The dull and listless electioneering provoked many intrepid but interesting thoughts on the manner in which polls are held in India. It is a pride possession of Indian democracy that the largest number of people participate in Indian elections. One billion voters are the highest for any democracy in the world. Every country has its peculiarities. The US, for instance, has a year-long presidential election schedule. For India, however, the eight-week-long staggered election schedule has become rather too monotonous. Especially because we were used to one-day election till 1984. In the days of ballot paper, the general elections were a more gripping affair. There was more involvement of the people in the electioneering process. Party units and workers formed the backbone of the political process. Banners, posters, street corner meetings and loudspeaker announcements made poll season a celebration for the common man. Flags, decorations, wall paintings and kiosks made polls the real dance of democracy.
Polls have now become highly professionalised. Party workers are fast adapting to the new style. It is a hi-tech job handled essentially by computer-savvy whiz-kids. Nothing wrong there. But political parties have also outsourced their brain trust making poll campaign less of a party affair and more of a corporate-style management. With most routine campaign-related duties outsourced to event-management-agencies, party workers are not in great demand. So the activists immediately end up as aspirants for tickets and tickets go to the highest bidder.
Only the national parties and the Left parties still retain some level of genuine selection process. In most regional and personality-oriented parties money and winnability are the only criteria for ticket distribution. In this caste arithmetic also plays a major role. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh a large number of BSP and SP candidates were deserters from other parties. Similarly, when the Congress decided to contest all seats in Bihar and UP it allowed defectors from other parties a free run on the party. The ticket distribution in Andhra Pradesh by Chiranjeevi for his Praja Rajyam Party became a huge scandal. It was not ideological commitment or personal loyalty to the leadership, but sheer opportunism and money and muscle power that determined the award of tickets.
All this has taken the sheen out of the poll campaign. The tough ideological debates have given way to soap and sophistry. In place of small donations corporate black money ruled the roost. As part of the poll reform at one time there was a suggestion to make political donations transparent. The BJP at one time even announced to accept donations only through cheques. With globalisation, electioneering profile has undergone a sea change. Is there some way to reclaim the fun and frolic of Indian election? The model code of conduct should not become a kill joy or an impediment to governance. There is no need for such an artificially staggered poll schedule. Even if the country is taken as four convenient zones for transport of security forces, the schedule can be reworked. There is already a widespread demand for a single-day election for the entire country. Another consensus is on holding polls during the winter months. Studies have shown that if the polls are held during winter the turnout is better. The curb on poll spending has not really made elections more people friendly. Only that money does not come as a trickle. It is now being spent through transnational advertisers, media houses, transporters and hiring agencies. Electoral reforms should involve a mechanism to return the spirit of electioneering to the voter, i.e. the common man. Only that will strengthen democracy, ensure higher poll percentage.