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Friday, December 5, 2003

dir="ltr">With elections over in the four Hindi-speaking states, curtains have been drawn on one great media entertainment for the time being. The media have always treated our elections as a great game. The use of the expression “semifinal” is symbolic. But one thing is certain. There is no ‘semifinal’ or ‘final’ in a democracy. This is a continuing saga which will never attain finality, and history will never end.

The notion of ‘final’ has two fatal flaws. First, it assumes that the end goals of politics are Lok Sabha election and prime ministership. Increasingly, control of the Union has no bearing on people’s lives. States are where the action is, as most things that matter are determined there. The media’s obsession with power games in Delhi is somewhat anachronistic. Second, ‘final’ is ominously reminiscent of Hitler’s ‘final solution’! No matter who occupies South Block, our democratic process will continue to evolve, and no party or coalition can exercise a monopoly of power.

In the immediate context, the verdicts in these states mean three things. First, the NDA government has been further strengthened. The overwhelming victory of BJP in Madhya Pradesh and confortable majorities in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh give the Union government a lot more room for manoevere. Second, anti-incumbency continues to be a strong factor in most states. Delhi is an exception for a variety of reasons; and it is too small and atypical to count. MP also shows how the gulf between style and substance is punished by voters. Third, there will be great pressure on the prime minister to seek dissolution of Lok Sabha immediately. While the temptation is understandable, one should remember that the four states which went to polls together account for only 72 Lok Sabha seats. The real contention will in AP, where BJP's ally TDP is fighting against anti-incumbency, and in UP where BJP is not well-placed. These two states account for 123 MPs.

These elections have reinforced several messages about our democracy. As seen repeatedly before, people’s verdicts cannot be predicted until the polling is over. And there are no national verdicts, or great waves. Women leaders are accepted increasingly in their own right. Until the 70’s, Nandini Satpathy was the only major woman leader who rose to high office without dynastic politics or male patronage. Now Uma Bharati and Mamata Banerjee are leaders in their own right. Even Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sheila Dixit and Vasundhara Raje, while they owe their political careers to family connections or male patronage, have established themselves as mass leaders.

One important outcome is that growth and governance have become electoral issues in a big way. There are no serious ideological differences between major parties in terms of economic management. Therefore competence in delivery has become the central issue. Politics has become increasingly plebiscitary. Despite the Westminster model, our elections and campaigns are centered around the leaders. Therefore Shiela Dixit, Madanlal Khurana, Ashok Gehlot, Vasundhara Raje, Digvijay Singh, Uma Bharati, and Ajit Jogi have become the issues, often disregarding their party labels. Party labels have anyway become unimportant as all major parties adopt the same policies. And almost any candidate of either party could be in the other camp!

In general, anti-establishment feelings still dominate voters’ responses. Half the incumbent legislators are not returned to office, no matter which party wins. And parties in power generally are at a disadvantage. This shows the voters’ deep disenchantment with the nature of politics and their yearning for change. Parties have not yet come to terms with this volatility of voting behaviour, and have not developed a constructive and sane response to people’s urges. That is why, even when legislators are unseated and governments change, we get more of the same. There is only a change of players, and no change in the rules of the game.

Some of the recent scams illustrate this unhappy feature of our politics. The Telgi stamp scam has once again established the links between politics, bureaucracy, crime and corruption. The Judeo sting operation again showed graphically the links between political power and money. The CAT question paper leakage by Ranjit Singh is another classic illustration of our political and governance malaise. News reports indicate that he made about Rs.100 crores a year, and more pertinently, his desire was to become a MP! Had he not been caught fortuitously, he almost certainly would have found patronage of a major party and fulfilled his ambition.

These scams once again remind us that there is inexhaustible appetite for illegitimate funds in our political process. With economic liberalization, some of the traditional avenues of corruption have been closed. But as the demand continued unabated, newer and more dangerous avenues are opened. That is why the nexus between crime, big money and politics is stronger today than ever before. Politics has become big business demanding huge, illegitimate investments and the system can only be sustained with multiple returns by abusing public office and subverting all institutions and crime investigation. The recent political funding reforms can only address the needs for legitimate campaign by increasing supply of accountable funds. But the illegitimate funds and corruption cannot be curbed until we curb the demand itself. This demand side management requires a redefinition of victory and changes in the electoral rules of the game.

In our first-past-the-post system of election, the candidate who manages to obtain more votes than any other rival is elected. All other votes have no value. Given that definition of victory, parties and candidates are compelled to resort to all tricks of the trade – vote buying, muscle power, polling irregularities – to somehow ‘win’. Since decent candidates not resorting to these tricks rarely win, parties increasingly attract undesirable candidates. That is why while the overall verdict in a state may appear stunning, and does usually reflect the broad public opinion, the picture at the constituency level is dismal. No matter who is elected locally, people are certain that things will not really change. There cannot be good governance as long as crooked means and undesirable candidates are the inevitable methods deployed for maximizing the constituency vote. That is why despite increasing talk of good governance, parties are failing to deliver on their promises.

That is what our elections increasingly presage. As long as victory is dependent upon a plurality of votes in a constituency, politics will be captive to crime, big money and local fiefdoms. Parties are helpless in breaking this nexus, and honest and honorable people shun politics or find it difficult to survive. We need alternative modes of representation, which can cleanse our politics and bring about real change with elections. Politics as plunder has reached a dead end.



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