CLEANING UP DEMOCRACY - Bengal?s zeal to sanitize its public political arena

Read more below

By Partha Chatterjee The author is director and professor of political science, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
  • Published 16.03.06

There is little doubt that a robust and impartial Election Commission, even if not essential for a liberal electoral democracy, is a very useful institution. The lack of such an agency in the United States of America has been cited by many as a reason for the widespread allegations of fraud in the last two presidential elections in that country. Most European countries have some institution of this sort. Britain has, of course, managed without it, possibly because of its long-established tradition of a non-partisan civil service. In India, amidst mounting complaints about unfair electoral practices, the Election Commission has been given, in the last decade and a half, considerable powers to enforce regulations for conducting free and fair elections. The time has now come, I think, to ask if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and whether a trend is being encouraged that may be ultimately harmful for Indian democracy.

The question has arisen in the context of some of the unprecedented steps taken by the Election Commission for the forthcoming elections to the West Bengal assembly. No one can quarrel with its efforts to produce an error-free voters? list. Anyone who has the experience of working with these lists will know that at any given time they contain many more names than persons who are actually resident in a particular constituency. The reason is that whereas young voters and new residents in an area are promptly enlisted, whether at their own initiative or that of political parties, those who die or migrate, especially those who move out temporarily to study or work, remain on the list.

As a result, it is not uncommon at all for a person to be a voter in more than one constituency. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to West Bengal; it is true everywhere in the country. Election analysts have long known that the official voter turnout in India is always lower than what emerges in voter surveys, the reason being that the official voters? list overestimates the number of available voters in a constituency.

Needless to say, this creates an opportunity for voter impersonation, although, if there is a presence of local election agents of all major candidates in a polling booth, it is hard to see how such impersonation can succeed on a large scale. The reported effort of the Election Commission to remove from the rolls the names of those who do not have proof of citizenship is more controversial. There is always a possibility of this weapon being used unfairly. But at this moment, we do not know how extensive the revisions have been on this count, especially in the border districts. The decision to hold the elections in West Bengal in five phases over more than three weeks has drawn much criticism from the Left Front.

Unprecedented in the history of Indian elections, the decision seems to have been prompted by a desire to deploy a large body of armed forces in each group of constituencies on the day of polling. The chief election commissioner is reported to have said that it was necessary to establish ?area domination? to ensure undisturbed polling. His reasoning is unclear. Surely, there is no reason to believe that the law and order situation in West Bengal is worse than everywhere else in the country; the fact is that there has not been any major violence on election day in this state in many years.

Whether the sudden presence of large numbers of armed, and possibly overzealous, troops near polling stations will be a cause of reassurance or alarm remains to be seen. In the meantime, the prolonged period of elections has already caused major disturbances in examination schedules and academic calendars. It is feared that many students in West Bengal will lose a whole academic year because of the sudden postponement of examinations. The disruption in routine government work will be massive; one can easily predict that most government offices in the state will virtually cease to function for at least a month. And owners of motor vehicles beware: the threat of cars and buses being requisitioned for election duty will last for more than a month.

The steps that are most likely to disturb long-established practices of campaigning and mobilization are the ban on wall-writings, posters and banners, on the use of loudspeakers, and on rallies and processions except on holidays. Regardless of parties, posters and wall-writings have been the most important means of announcing one?s candidacy in an election in West Bengal. So ubiquitous are they that they could be described as the single most visible material sign of political activity in the state. Used and perfected over more than half a century, they have become essential aspects of West Bengal?s political culture, in the same way that giant cut-outs characterize the public political culture of Tamil Nadu. Specific codes and conventions have developed to regulate, through local negotiations, the control of particular walls by particular parties. There have been few instances in recent times of major disputes breaking out over this. True enough, the owners of buildings are never consulted in this matter. If this was the concern, the Election Commission should have insisted that the permission of the owner be secured before a wall was used for a poster or graffiti. Instead, it has taken the lazy, and utterly wooden-headed, option of a blanket ban.

It is being said that wall-writings cause ?visual pollution?. It would be interesting to see if the same argument would be levelled against cut-outs on the streets of Chennai. In any case, those who prefer the hasty daubs of whitewash applied under police supervision to the practised calligraphy of graffiti artists may boast of a high level of civic rectitude but little aesthetic judgment. It also appears that political parties are yet to realize the full implications of these huge changes in the ground rules of elections. It can be expected that the largest, most organized and most resourceful party will adapt the quickest to the new conditions and invent new techniques of reaching their constituents; the others may suffer from being denied the use of tried and tested methods.

But behind all this zeal to cleanse and sanitize the public political arena, there lurks a no-longer-secret desire. It is visible not only in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, but in the law courts, among business executives and professionals, and in the English language media. The desire is to rid the space of citizenship of all the noise, smell and gaudiness of a publicly mobilized plebeian culture that is now being seen as both an impediment to, and an embarrassment for, an India seeking to become a world power. The political space has to be demobilized. The act of voting must become the private act of private citizens. If the practices of Indian democracy have developed, in flagrant violation of the rules of Western democracy, on the assumption that the bourgeois individual, propertied and educated, is not the typical Indian voter, then those practices will now have to go. Election time is when this agenda can be promulgated, for those are the two months when the normal politics of politicians is held in suspension. It is a time of pure governance, unsullied by politics, when no questions can be asked and no explanations have to be given. It is no coincidence that the law against defacement of walls that has just been invoked in West Bengal was one that was enacted in 1976, in the darkest days of the Emergency, and long since forgotten.

Those who have marvelled at the ingenuity of Indian democracy in creating spaces for the struggle of the weak and the oppressed through the force of electoral mobilization will regard this as an alarming trend.