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How we can reform the politician

April 15, 2009 16:48 IST
Abraham Lincoln, who coined the evergreen definition of democracy -- government of the people, by the people, for the people -- during his 1863 Gettysburg address, had famously forecast: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Given the mind-rending pre-election political shenanigans, it seems Indian politicians have it in them to prove his prophecy wrong by fooling all of the people all of the time!

Politics, a cesspit

Politicians are not just turning the tables on their allies but seem to be slamming their former bedfellows hard with it. The country obviously needs to brace up for the customary post-poll horse-trading and for digesting the 'doctrines of necessity or compulsion' unashamedly put forward by the self-serving power-hankerers to justify their alignment with the new ruling political formation.

Power is the glue that adheres the disparate political parties to cohabit as coalition partners, not high principles. Any such post-poll alliance is plain cheating of the electorate, but does anyone care?

Regrettably, the ongoing political discourse has been reduced to the pots calling the kettles black, and vice versa. Clearly, the sheer weight of the accumulated sins of every political party has crushed it, with little uprightness left to lift it out of the moral morass. More regrettably, the voter is offered Tweedledum or Tweedledee, Criminal X or Criminal Y, Scion S or Dynast D, Tainted Celebrity T or Disgraced Celebrity D, to choose from.

Even more regrettably, not one among the myriad prime ministerial aspirants strutting the pollscape has elucidated his or her vision for the twenty-first-century India, how he or she intends to helm our way through the shoals, nor has anyone unsheathed his or her blueprint to fight corruption and to cleave the conjoined twins politics and corruption.

When I see the arrogant air of political chieftains and queen bees, I cannot but bewail at Benito Mussolini's snide 'democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings' coming true in India too. Our political satraps are actually modern kings, no more the humble neta of the great unwashed they pretend to be.

Another quotesmith and wartime British Premier Winston Churchill once admitted that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter. No wonder cynicism continues to chip away at the foundations of democracy. People are disenchanted with befouled politics, so much so the word politician has assumed a pejorative connotation. But no democracy can exist without political parties, and politicians have become, well, 'a necessary evil', if you may. Like it or lump it.

Democracy, the enfant terrible

The first seeds of representative democracy were sown in Ancient Greece in the middle of the 5th-4th century BC in Athens and other city-States, the outcome of a popular uprising. Centuries later, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke tried to refine it into 'popular sovereignty' or genuine 'sovereignty of the people'. Without avail.

The foremost infirmity of representative democracy is that the contract is congenitally lopsided, too much in favour of the representatives; more so in India as the elected gentry become eligible to be ministers or occupy other seats of power. Since this bunch was empowered to legislate and rule, since they would not want to dilute their dominance, they love status quo and would never even up the scales.

Though the people were the raison d'etre of democracy, they have been fobbed off and sidelined as sideshow (marking his or her suffrage periodically, booting an incompetent neta out and voting another in, like an automaton). It is still not too late for the electorate to reclaim their centrality in democracy through an equitable contract.

The selfsame Churchill I quoted above had conceded, 'No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'

In short, democracy is imperfect. Likewise, the solutions to its ills too seem imperfect. Sans democracy, the polysemic soul of India will lose its vitality and wither away. We cannot let cynicism emasculate democracy; we simply have to iron out the several kinks to make it truly responsive and accountable to the average voter.

A glaring trouble spot of the Indian electoral system is the 'first past the post' method to elect our representatives. For instance, given the multi-cornered contests, a candidate obtaining mere 20 percent of the votes polled in a constituency can snatch majority and get elected. Though 80 percent of the voters were not in his favour, he would represent them nonetheless!

Our opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of this frailty of the FPTP system; since they know they need no more than a certain percentage of the votes to pocket a constituency, they prefer letting loose divisive politics to cultivate captive vote banks by shrewdly manipulating the innate schisms rather than sweating day in, day out, to broaden their political appeal.

The fight back to redress the balance

The Constitution Review Commission headed by Justice M N Venkatachaliah had proposed the method of 'run-off election' to exorcise the evils bedevilling our FPTP electoral system. As early as December 2001, the Election Commission of India had proposed having an extra button ('none of the above') on the electronic voting machine to reject all candidates.

I am afraid, the former proposal would only usher in cosmetic procedural alterations and the latter would only empower the voter to vent his frustration, but neither would reform the politician, which is the need of the hour.

One seemingly efficacious remedy is to empower the elector with the 'right to recall'. But given the propensity of our opposition parties to paint the ruling dispensation and the sitting member in pitch-black from day one, evolving a fair 'recall' process will be trickier than reforming the Indian politician.

In 2004, the People's Union for Civil Liberties followed up the Election Commission's prompting by moving the Supreme Court for seeking an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to introduce the 'none of the above' button on the EVM.

When ballot papers were in vogue, one could easily make one's vote invalid but with the advent of EVMs, this resort is not possible. According to media reports, the petitioner PUCL submitted that under the existing provision of the RPA, a voter who does not want to cast his vote once inside the polling booth has to inform the presiding officer of his intention to not vote, who in turn would make an entry in the register of electors (Form 17A) after taking the signature of the said voter.

PUCL argued that such a provision was violative of the constitutional provisions guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and Article 21 (Right to Liberty) and violated the secret ballot concept as a conniving presiding officer could leave the voter vulnerable to intimidation and harassment by 'muscular' candidates.

The Centre countered that the concept of secret ballot was relevant only to the presidential election. (Here is another oddity; in any vigorous democracy, the only secret ballot must be that of the people when they elect their representatives; as the elected representative is presumed to vote on behalf of his people, his voting should be made public, not kept under wraps.)

This February, the two-judge bench felt that an authoritative exposition of law by a larger bench was needed on this matter. So it placed the issue before the Chief Justice of India for appropriate orders.

It was not possible to ascertain from the PUCL Web site whether they wish to go the whole hog to seek the overturning of the election if the 'none of the above' tally outnumbered the total votes secured by the candidates.

Why would any voter want to punch the 'none of the above' button? Simple: The voter finds the menu of candidates distasteful, and therefore undesirable. Here is my problem with the above negative voting philosophy: Even if thousands register their protest, the system is so designed to ensure one 'undesirable' getting through to represent them! The solution therefore lies in preventing any 'undesirable' from being elected. But how?

Food for thought

Band Aid dressings for lethal haemorrhages would continue to bleed our country. Our current political and electoral ailments call for the prescription of a potent antidote. Though only a reverie, I have an antidotal pill to forcibly purge the lot of politicians and convert our sham democracy into a better one: Declare the election in a constituency null and void if the total votes polled in it are less than 66.67 percent of the strength of the electorate.

Prima facie, this simple step appears to be deficient in firepower, but believe me it packs a punch and cuts both ways. If two-thirds of the voters in the constituency do not exercise their franchise then they will not have a representative in the Lok Sabha. Therefore, this rule would be an incentive for people to cast their votes to have a representative, thereby spurring larger participation in the elections.

As for the neta, if he does not work for the constituency or has felonious proclivities, then the voters can absent themselves to get the election annulled and give a hard kick to the neta where it hurts him most painfully -- depriving him of a seat in the Lok Sabha would curb his power of patronage and would prevent him from partaking of the spoils of power. Once this happens, the neta would have no alternative but to refine and reform himself expeditiously -- to bring the voters back to the polling booths.

Fair contract, isn't it?

Let the Lok Sabha be unrepresented by the constituencies that have opted not to have its members. And the present practice of government formation by the majority can be continued.

However, in the eventuality of the Lok Sabha being populated by less than 20 percent of its strength, let us have a provision in the statute for President's Rule in the Centre for two years. (The President should be empowered to appoint apolitical citizens of repute and those with administrative experience to the council of ministers.) Less than 20 percent indicates how little confidence or expectation the electorate has in the candidates/politicos; hence a spell of President's Rule endorses the mandate of the people.

This two-year interregnum would compel the menage of netas to cool their heels en bloc and present themselves again to the electorate after ridding their indifference and avarice.

My scheme will indirectly achieve the objective of having a 'none of the above' button on the EVM. Since the politicians need larger share of the votes from a constituency, they will be impelled to woo more sections of the electorate thereby making them more inclusive and egalitarian. This will take care of a major vulnerability in the FPTP system.

Of course, the above dose can be prescribed to the state legislatures and local bodies too.

Any takers?

Epilogue

The primaries and caucuses that precede the US presidential election epitomise a truly democratic process. Since Indian parties are 'high-command' or 'high-priest' driven, we cannot aspire to see an Obama-like Titan emerging from the political undergrowth; only a fair process like the US primaries can inspire such a galvanic transformation. If only we could replicate the US primaries, its lite version mind you, in every parliamentary constituency.

With the 15th general election under way, with the squeaky system crying for purgation, the time is ripe to resume the debate on electoral reforms, seriously, not as pastime, and to infuse a self-sustaining momentum to the quest for an equitable polity.

I am no political pundit, but as a concerned citizen, I have broached the above outline to add few decibels to the clamour for an unclouded democracy. I am sure there are geniuses at large with avant-garde and revolutionary ideas to reform Indian democracy.

Since I began by a quote comprising the word fool, as verb, it will not be inappropriate to conclude this essay with another quote featuring fool, but as noun. To Bertrand Russell, 'The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.'

Lest we squander, it is time for those who call themselves wise to raise their sane voices above the electoral cacophony, and be heard.

M P Anil Kumar, a former fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force, is a frequent and distinguished contributor to these columns.

M P Anil Kumar