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Friday, April 2, 2004

dir="ltr">A glaring feature of this election is the large number of politicians switching party loyalties before the polls. In states where Assembly elections are held simultaneously, these pre-election defections are even more glaring. The ninety-seventh amendment to the Constitution, which became law only a few weeks ago, disqualifies all elected legislators who violate party whip irrespective of the size of the defecting faction. The earlier provision recognizing a ‘split’ if a third of the members defect has been repealed. But no law can prevent the pre-election defection. No member can be forced to stay in a party, and any such attempt will be violative of the freedom of association guaranteed in the Constitution. And yet, instinctively most of us feel that party-hopping is reprehensible. How do we deal with this problem?

The problem can be posed differently. The economic liberalization process initiated in 1991 is all about removal of entry barriers in the market, and offering greater choice to consumers. The resultant competition improved quality, gave choice, and stablized prices. As monopolies are broken and genuine competition is ushered in, firms became competitive, and productivity went up. But in the realm of politics, entry barriors remain, monopolies continue, and choices are denied to citizens.

Should we interpret greater choice in politics as license to defect at will? Obviously a lot of defections are self-serving, and voters are still denied choices. Today all mainstream parties are somewhat indistinguishable, notwithstanding their valiant efforts to differentiate themselves by symbolism and clever jargon. Therefore people feel cheated despite a ‘free’ and ‘fair’ poll. No genuine alternatives are offered to the electorate. Politicians too can cross fences with the ease of acrobats, as all major parties look and feel alike. Who will represent which party on a given day is a delightful guessing game. Except for a few top leaders of the major parties, almost anyone can switch loyalties any time. It is as simple as selling the shares of the company, and buying those of a new one. All that matters is anticipated returns, and short-term maximization.

Clearly, that is not the kind of ‘competition’, and ‘choice’ we seek in politics. Then how do we reconcile our notions of freedom, choice and competition with fairness, principles and public good? This question needs to be addressed, if we are to build a political system which we can trust and respect.

How can we then offer choices, encourage competition, generate opportunities, and promote freedom in the political arena? There are four complementary ways of addressing this question. First, we need internal democracy among political parties. The choice of candidates for elective offices is now left to the top leadership, which itself is often self-imposed. Members are denied choice, and there is no true or fair competition among contenders within a party in the only arena that matters – the market place of ideas. Look at the just concluded Democratic Party’s presidential primaries in the US. After months of a highly competitive, public, transparent process, the candidate has been chosen. Until the ballots were counted on super Tuesday, anyone could have been the candidate. Howard Dean, John Edwards, Joe Liberman, Dick Gephadt, Wesley Clark, and John Kerry – all had a chance. Finally the members chose in a fair and competitive election. None of the candidates can complain of having been sidelined by party bosses. The party is rejuvenated in the process, and a strong candidate who could unite all factions emerged. Most of all, new ideas and nuanced positions emerged, and the party platform could accommodate the many concerns of the people – global leadership, national security, jobs, health care, social security reform etc.

Second, the monopoly of power in state and national governments must end. People get better choices, and party workers get opportunities for leadership if local governments are truly empowered. In all of India, there are only 5000 elective offices of serious consequence today for a billion people. The jostling, and unseemly scramble for these limited slots is both repulsive and counterproductive. Political ambition is no sin. If we expand opportunities by making local governments meaningful, we can provide space to many ambitious politicians, and harness their talents for positive goals.  Right now, much of political energy is exhausted in check-mating each other.

Third, there are serious entry barriers in politics, promoting oligopolies. A party cannot be viable until it gets about 35% or more vote in a state. Realistically, there are only two major political parties in most states which can get legislators elected. Other parties are marginalized, and people are denied real choices. The election is often between Tweedledom and Tweedledee. There is also an entry barrier for candidates on account of high cost of elections, mostly for illegitimate purposes. And worst of all, in single-member territorial constituencies, the votes cast in favour of the losing candidates are ‘wasted’, and have no bearing on representation. A large number of people have no voice in this first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. Often the voters experience excruciating dilemmas between the candidate they like, and a party that best represents their views. FPTP system does not promote competition or choice. The answer lies in some form of Proportional Representation, by which the parties get candidates elected on the basis of their vote share in the state. This can be mixed with half the seats elected by FPTP system, so that the choice is wider, and the conflict between the candidate and party can be resolved. In order to prevent fragmentation, we can have a reasonable entry barrier – high enough to promote consolidation, and low enough to allow real competition in the form of a minimum vote share requirement for representation in legislatures.

Finally, our parliamentary executive model does not guarantee voice to citizens in choosing the leader. While the elections have become increasingly plebiscitary – Vajpayee vs Sonia Gandhi; Chandrababu Naidu vs Rajasekhar Reddy – there is no guarantee that the legislators will honour those choices finally. This problem is far more acute in states where a group of legislators can organise a midnight coup, and change leadership. The Jagadambica Pal episode in UP (1998), Nadendla Bhaskara Rao unseating NTR in AP (1984), and GM Shah displacing Farooq Abdulla in J&K (1984) are among the more dramatic illustrations of people’s choices being dishonoured. The solution lies in clear separation of powers in states, with the people electing the head of the government directly. Then government cannot be held captive by power brokers, and the legislature can exercise effective law making and oversight functions.

Our electoral and political system and the shenanigans of politicians are excellent examples of inadequate choices, entry barriers, monopolies and lack of opportunities. The principles of economic reform apply to politics as well. Competitive economy cannot thrive without truly competitive politics offering real choice, and promoting leadership.