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Saturday, August 16, 2003

One of the great challenges in a democracy is how to reconcile the long term public good with the short term political price to be paid. Most major public policy decisions have a slow rate of social pay off, and involve instant political losses.  Leadership is essentially the ability to persuade people to accept the temporary pain for long term gain.  While there is no substitute to visionary and inspiring leadership, the political culture of a society and electoral system have a  profound  impact  on this ability to reconcile public good with political costs.

The recent debate on simultaneous elections to State Assemblies and Lok Sabha brings this issue to the fore.  It does not require great constitutional wisdom to recognize that our westminister model of parliamentary executive, combined with federal system can never guarantee simultaneous polls for long.  Even if we overcome  the short-term problems and synchronise the elections at state and national levels, mid-term polls can never be ruled out with certainty.

It is axiomatic in the westminster model that the head of the government can, at any time, seek dissolution of the House and approach the people for a fresh mandate.  Over the past century, the British monarch never denied the Prime Minister the dissolution of Parliament.  Traditionally, even a prime minister who lost majority in the Commons had his way whenever mid-term polls were recommended. British  constitutional scholars  are unanimous that the right of a government to go back to people is integral to popular sovereignty, and is non-negotiable.  Only in India we have somehow convinced ourselves that everything should be done to ensure that the legislature lasts its full term, and the head of state must  dissolve the House only as a last resort!  Despise this propensity, it is clear that we cannot foreclose forever the option of mid-term polls at state or national levels.  Evidently simultaneous polls for all legislatures is infeasible within the framework of the westminster model.


But the remark of chief election commissioner Lyngdoh that simultaneous polls cannot be held because of security concerns is a severe indictment of our democratic process.  That we have come to a stage over the past two decades when vast armies of security personnel have to be moved from place at place of enormous expense and effort in order to  maintain peace and order during polling in several states is a testimony to the distortions that crept into our system.  The issue is not whether we can spare over a million policemen to conduct elections. Can democracy be meaningful if habitual use of force, terror, deceit and inducement determines the outcome of elections?

Clearly the past two decades have witnessed heightened political contention and dramatic rise in violence and illegitimate money power in elections.  Our democracy is alive and kicking.  There is genuine political competition; ruling parties and powerful candidates often lose the elections; there is constant change of players with half the incumbents being unseated in every election; the verdict broadly refects public opinion; and there is constant political churning   But a closer look at our electoral scene reveals disturbing trends of violence, criminalization, money power and deceit. And yet our democracy is resilent.  A system of compensatory errors ensures that the malpractices of a candidate are neutralised by his rival!  Added to that, the strength of Election Commission, neutrality of public officials, and a tradition of governments not to interfering in electoral process have ensured some sanity in our politics.

But the fact is politics has become big business.  Often individuals and families with abnormal money power acquired through political patronage  or corruption are unassailable in the electoral arena.  In many constituencies there modern fiefdoms hold sway with money power, political contacts, caste mobilization and criminal links.  All major parties are forced to depend on such individuals to enhance their chance of success in the first-past-the-post-system. Once such persons are elected, they seek multiple returns on investment through influence peddling, state patronage and control over public purse.  Parliamentary debate, rational public discourse and sensible policies are rendered largely irrelevant.

While simultaneous election at all levels may not be feasible within westminster model,  we can no longer ignore certain serious questions plaguing our polity.  We have to address these important issues on the basis of what is said; not deflect them on grounds of who said it.  We need to recognize the genuine problems of governance, and evolve mechanisms which do not allow public good to be hold hostage to the short-term quest for power and patronage.  We need to make power work for people, and not for private aggrandizement. The political parties are not unmindful of the crisis, but their responses only address the symptoms and are ineffectual.  Changes in the Rajya Sabha election procedures, 10 percent cap on council of ministers, and strengthening anti-defection provisions at the cost of silencing all dissent and stifling debate are all good illustrations of such well-meaning, but knee-jerk responses.

What, then, needs to be done?  First, it is possible to fill casual vacancies to legislative office through election by local government representatives instead of by-elections.  Simple changes can accomplish this, and avoid the need for expensive by-elections which distract attention from governance

Second, the real problem of governance is in states.  Honesty and survival in power are increasingly incompatible in our parliamentary executive model.  The executive is captive in the hands of legislators whose primary concern is with patronage and spoils of office.  We need clear separation of powers and direct election of the head of government.  Once it is certain that power cannot be divorced from people’s mandate, the nature of government will undergo a transformation.  The legislature will be elected directly, and will control the budget, lawmaking and key appointments, and will exercise oversight functions.  Today government’s accountability to legislature is but a myth. A government with a captive majority is unassailable, and there is an unholy alliance between the executive and legislature.  A directly elected executive in states can always be kept under check by the union government and constitutional functionaries. Such separation of powers at the union level is both unnecessary and undesirable.  Fears of majoritarian domination and genuine concerns about authoritarian tendencies of a directly elected head of state at national level who is also the supreme commander of armed forces cannot be dismissed lightly. The semi authoritarian witnessed during the infamous emergency between 1975 and 77 taught us never to underestimate the authoritarian   impulses of the union executive.

Third, the union executive can be made more stable by introducing the practice of constructive no confidence motion, whereby a government can be voted out only if an alternative is in place.  Article 67 of the German Basic Law can be the model we can adopt.  This does not guarantee fixed term of the House, since a government without majority support cannot get bills passed or budget approved.  However, it will curb impulsive no-confidence motions.

Finally, we need to break the stranglehold of  semi-feudal fiefdoms on our polity.  Good and honorable candidates must have realistic chances of success at the polls.  Scattered minorities must get fair representation.  For this, we need to adopt a model of mixed proportional representation whereby a party will gain legislative presence in proportion to its vote.  In order to prevent fragmentation of our polity, a reasonable threshold, say 10% vote in a major state, should be imposed for gaining representation.  Internal party democracy, and nomination of candidates through secret ballot are the essential pre-requites of a proportional system of election.

Given foresight and good will, these reforms are well within our reach.  The crisis of governance which has become the hall mark of our polity can be effectively addressed only if we embark on these sensible reforms quickly.  Short term, knee-jerk responses will only camouflage the crisis, and  further retard our democratic evolution and economic growth.


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