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Saturday, October 11, 2003

This week’s recall election in California shows us how dysfunctional the democratic process can become even in a great democracy like the United States.  In spite of its spectacular advances in communications and technology and the presence of a vibrant media, Californians fell prey to the distortions of the democratic process. As a result an actor known only for his brawn and nothing else is elected as the chief executive of the largest state in the US, which also happens to be the 5th largest economy in the world. Whatever be the faults of Gray Davis, he was thrown out of power on flimsy grounds through unfair means. While he needed a majority of the votes polled to stay in the office, his opponent had to secure only a plurality of the vote to win. This episode offers three valuable lessons for all of us:

First, many educated Indians who are frustrated with the politicians tend to think that “recall” is a wonderful instrument by which the ills of the political system can be cured. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While, politicians can be impeached for specific crimes, temporary unpopularity cannot be the grounds for either impeachment or recall.  It would be a mockery of democratic process. It is always easy to unite against an incumbent, particularly in a plural and caste-ridden society like ours. Therefore, recall must be a rare weapon to be sparingly used and can only be applied in local governments – that too with safeguards.

Second, this episode has exposed the cynical nature of modern media. While they shrilly describe the nature of the problem, they are silent in offering solutions. As a result, frustration and despair about the democratic process are taking root, and people tend to view both politics and politicians in a negative light. Nothing could be more harmful for democracy in the long run than this negative portrayal of the political process.

Third, traditional politicians are indulging in abuse of each other and are increasingly resorting to mudslinging as a way of campaigning.  This is only turning off people and making them more cynical. Healthy respect for political opponents, and cordiality in public discourse are critical for furthering democratic culture.

The situation in India is not that different. The media routinely vilify the politicians and pontificate on the nature of our problems without offering even a hint of a solution. Our colourful politicians merrily engage in belittling their opponents. When they lose, most of our politicians don’t even have the grace to accept the people’s verdict and instead tend to portray the opponent’s victory as a sad day for democracy!

Most of the educated and the middle classes are completely turned off from the political process and have a cynical view of democracy. Many think that if only they have a dictator like Musharraf, everything will be fine. It is not only wishful but dangerous thinking. What ever could be the ills   of democracy, the cure lies only in more and better democracy.

The onus is on every section of the society to restore people’s faith in the democratic process. The media should learn to behave more responsibly and instead of focusing on attention grabbers and sensation-mongers, should focus on issues that make a difference to the people like education, health care, infrastructure, quality of justice and rule of law.  In these troubled times, the media are the only tool citizens have. Happily, our media are largely free, fearless and creative. It is the strength of media, which defended our liberty and sustained our democracy. But the media do need to take a leading role in changing the nature of our public discourse.

Similarly, the politicians should refrain from negative campaigning solely focused on telling the voters how bad the opponent is and instead engage people on substantive issues. Ultimately, they have to win the people’s minds and hearts through a positive message based on a citizen-centered agenda.

And finally, the people themselves should stop shunning the political process. Only when the thinking citizens start taking an active role in public affairs can the health of the democracy be restored. This is the only route to restoring the faith in the democratic process, and improving the quality of governance.

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