The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What are elections but a lot of expensive fuss'

Perhaps the most telling comment on the current electoral exercise was BBC television’s decision to simultaneously beam a series of interviews with Indians who, in the corporation’s view, really matter. The three I saw were a flamboyant johnny-come-lately businessman, a Bollywood star who is regarded as India’s top heart throb and an ace cricketer with a sitting room like a Hindi film set. Whether or not they matter, the programme clearly implied that the politicians strutting the stage of this vast three-week upsurge of staggered elections do not.

That is true only up to a point. The election will not make any difference to life because, as a multinational CEO put it, “governments may change but the system which is already in place is not likely to change.” Our Lok Sabha aspirants and Rajya Sabha incumbents are not blest with any profound political philosophy or administrative vision. Nor will many subscribe to the touching faith of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Sitaram Yechury in elections as the instrument of “social change”. But even members of parliament who are innocent of any public obligation acquire considerable weight as members of the power structure in a land that runs on privilege and patronage. A parliamentarian’s formal role may be limited, but he fully rivals the businessman, actor and sportsman on whom the BBC focussed, when it comes to exercising informal authority and influence.

This distortion of the democratic process goes hand in hand with the smug boast that not only is the world’s largest democracy again renewing itself but that polling here commands more sophisticated technology than in even the United States of America. The statistical evidence has always been awesome. With 675 million voters, 543 constituencies, 5,435 candidates and some 700,000 polling stations, this is the greatest political show on earth.

But overwhelming numbers create their own problems. Even without that drawback, it must be asked what purpose is served by a massive dislocation costing hundreds of crores of rupees while such governance as still survives grinds to a halt. Amidst a legacy of intensified bitterness, the gains are individual, not national.

What is worst of all is that no one even expects alternative agendas. No one bothers with manifestoes. Most mainstream parties support the peace process with Pakistan, improved relations with China and economic reform. The Congress and the National Democratic Alliance differ slightly on relations with the US, and more on the US role in Iraq. More vociferous on both counts, the CPI(M) still wants a denuclearized south Asia. But who cares' Personalities hold the limelight. And the more glamorous they are, the greater their appeal. No wonder Lal Krishna Advani seeks compensation in careering about the countryside in ostentatious yatra. Pop religion apart, he needs to appeal to hoi-polloi’s love of spectacle.

Educated India’s cynicism was confirmed for me when I overheard someone saying in New Delhi that Pranab Mukherjee and Mamata Banerjee had to be close allies. Asked why, the man explained that Mukherjee would not otherwise have fielded Nafisa Ali against Banerjee. I have no idea whether there is any truth in the allegation. The point is that it can be made in matter-of-fact tones and accepted as perfectly ordinary. Such situations and speculation abound all over the country. Conspiracy is run of the mill for few candidates are identified with a cause. The entire exercise is viewed only in terms of strategy. Advertising gimmicks, caste affiliations, vote banks, patronage, critical alliances, stellar campaigners, lineage and, of course, money and muscle are all that matter. Sonia Gandhi’s Italian birth and keeping the Congress out of a “secular” coalition are about the only “issues”. I have yet to come across a major policy speech at the hustings. The concern is with tactics. Exit polls add further excitement to the unabashed tamasha of the numbers game.

Even a campaign highlight like Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Deshapriya Park rally cannot actually have persuaded any uncommitted voter to switch to the Bharatiya Janata Party or Trinamool Congress. It is most unlikely that a veteran campaigner like Vajpayee even harboured such an ambition. But it was necessary for him to show the flag in Calcutta to demonstrate that he stands four square by the NDA, and that he regards Mamata Banerjee as an important member of it. Her critics and rivals in the Trinamool Congress have been warned that the leader is not to be trifled with. She herself has been warned not to think of playing footsy with the real Congress.

Of course, American elections are showbiz happenings with voters having to choose between two images, when a partisan judiciary doesn’t do the choosing for them. But some years ago a British MP quit on the grounds that “modern society needs fewer politicians, not more” and that Britain in its heyday was able to “run an empire on a great deal fewer” MPs than today. He favoured the corporatism of Peter Drucker’s knowledge society, though for most of us it is as difficult to think of governance without politicians as it is of war without armies.

Here, electoral ritual seems even more important than elections. The Election Commission’s ceaseless flow of directives, orders by the Supreme Court and sundry high courts, observer activism, polling complaints, police transfers and invocations of the Representation of the People Act dominate the fray. The fine line the Act drew between money that a candidate spent and money that the sponsoring party spent on his behalf drove coach and horses through the law on ceilings. We have seen how human ingenuity makes a mockery of a statutory requirement like filing a declaration of assets. A jailbird can’t vote but can contest.

Such abuses and absurdities characterize every activity here. Even the violence that marks the current elections is a feature of life. But beyond both, we need to ask ourselves why men like Pappu Yadav or Mohammed Shahabuddin should suddenly take it into their heads to sit in the Lok Sabha.

The answer, as suggested earlier, is that democracy has created a new elite with a vested interest in the parliamentary system. The more it is debased and distorted, the better for this new elite. How else would all manner of riff-raff have at their disposal a full Rs 2 crore to spend virtually as they like (or not spend!) every year' Leave aside the telephone connections, gas cylinders, free travel and other perquisites that they can enjoy and sell; leave aside the parliamentary accommodation that they sublet for a tidy sum; leave aside, too, the favours they earn for services to their party bosses and to industrialists. The spending allowance is hard cash. What career on earth could offer such quick and lavish rewards' Judging by the drift of the committee on MPs’ local area development scheme, the next government might increase this largesse and throw in a vehicle as well, especially if all this talk of a hung parliament turns out to be true.

Much depends on voting figures, for a government with a slender majority is always more anxious to feed the greed of those who can prop it up or bring it down. The markets might be nervous of an indecisive outcome but it would be a godsend to many small parties and individual MPs.

Someone said that democracy is the worst system of government until you look at the others. They must be bad indeed if our system vindicates Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government”. But it’s not democracy that is under discussion so much as its modus operandi. In spite of the many unkind things that have been said of elections, there may be societies where they are necessary to promote participative government. The purpose here is to legitimize governance for the next few years. It’s a lot of expensive fuss for that technicality.

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