Electoral Reforms: Who will bell the cat, anyway? – Part II
(This article is in continuation to the first part of Prof Rana Nayar’s essay with the same title)
Often, when we talk of the electoral reforms, we interpret them in a very narrow sense. We think of them in the sense of ameliorative measures that could streamline the election process, improve the functioning, not of our democratic institutions, but of the elections, and thus help in containing, to some extent, the widespread and ever growing systemic rot. By thus focussing our attention on the electoral process, we often miss the woods for the trees. We forget that the electoral process is only a very small component of our political culture, and unless efforts are made to change this diseased and defunct culture, electoral reforms, of whatever nature, substance or content, shall fail to make the necessary difference on the ground.
First of all, we must look into the way the political parties function in our country. There was a time when ideology was considered to be the main bulwark of a political party and often the ideological constrains impacted not only the public policy making but also the governance. Nehru-Lohia debate is a case in point. Now, it is no longer so. Today, it is difficult to identify even a single political party in our country that would be prepared to sacrifice power for the sake of ideology. In relentless pursuit of naked power, often ideology is the most common casualty. Party positions depend not so much upon the ideological grounds as on the contingent factors that govern the rough and tumble of everyday politics. It might be argued that politics is, in the best or the worst of times, an art of managing contradictions and so why must we expect the impossible from it?
My point is that if the ideology can guide the work-a-day politics in the developed countries, why can’t it do so in the developing nations? In the absence of clearly defined ideological positions, most of the political parties, at least, in terms of their practices and functioning, seem to have lost their distinctive character and are beginning to look more and more like each other. In our context, ring-wing, left-wing and centrist positions keep shifting, depending upon the individual whims/convenience and/or political expediency, thus making utter mockery of the ideology or its role in the public affairs. Moreover, in the era of globalization and economic liberalization, all that the political parties can do is to hitch their band wagon to the economic reforms, with the ‘pace of the reforms’ being the only barometer of their political positioning.
Corruption may be as much a part of political culture in the developed nations as it is in the developing ones, but in the developed world it is mostly restricted to the highest echelons of power. It certainly doesn’t take on the form of horse-trading, floor-crossing or shifting gears mid-stream by way of changing party affiliations, the way it happens out here? Out there in the West, a candidate may not be born into an ideology, but s/he certainly is initiated into one, and having been initiated once, prefers to go along with the party ideology, refusing to swerve from the chosen path every now and then. Besides, candidates are not hand-picked to join a particular political outfit or represent a particular constituency, as it often happens in our country, but are invariably men of proven public service record, who have already worked at the grassroots level for a number of years, before being inducted into the party or given a party ticket to contest the elections. True democracy demands that the individuals who wish to be the people’s representatives must have prior consent of the people and also a particular brand of political culture of a party whose ideology has nurtured them. Intra-party democracy, which is virtually unknown in our country, is almost a norm in most of the Western democracies.
So long as the money and muscle power continue to play an all-important role both in the selection and the election of the candidates, all talk of electoral reforms shall only be a form of empty rhetoric. In order to contain the role of money in the elections, apart from imposing an embargo on poll expenses (as the other initiative about the declaration of personal assets has been a non-starter of sorts), it is necessary to strengthen the institutions that help in the restoration of grassroots democracy. If a candidate has no known record of public service of minimum ten years, s/he should not be considered eligible for the party ticket of any political party. And if s/he is given a ticket in violation of this principle, the Election Commission should have the right to reject her/his candidature.
This would certainly be much better than prescribing minimum educational qualifications for our legislators, where the illiteracy rates are still very high among our politicians and the majority of those who enter politics are not necessarily university graduates. This would also discourage the perpetuation of dynastic rule in democracy, and compel people to undertake social service prior to taking a plunge into politics. No candidate should be given a party ticket unless he has won the confidence of the people in his/her constituency. Once we manage to do away with the practice of doling out party tickets, the highest bidders for the party tickets shall be discouraged, and prior acceptability of the candidates among the people shall further restrict the buying and selling of votes or voters at the time of elections.
This would also ensure that only candidates with a clean record enter the public life and criminals are not able to hold the entire electoral system to ransom, as they often tend to do in our context. As in this case, the responsibility of selecting the candidates shall rest with the people and not with the party, should they choose an individual with a criminal background, they would only have themselves to blame, not the party or the political culture. Besides, this would also inject into our political culture, the system of direct accountability of the leader towards his/her constituents and that of the people towards their leader. It is absence of this principle of direct accountability that has resulted in the virtual breakdown of dialogue between the political elite and the ruled public, and has also created a situation where the principle of accountability has surreptitiously been replaced by a more pernicious system of patronage and mai–baap culture.
There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled and also put the rulers in a tight spot where they are left with no choice but to follow the principle of accountability. Restoration of accountability would further act as a deterrent to the unbridled and unabashed misuse of power, position and authority by those who wield it. The real question is: are our politicians ready for this principle of accountability? Are they prepared to bring in the legislation that will ultimately curb their illegal and unlawful manipulation of the levers of power? Or to put it differently, is anyone ready to bell the cat or conversely, is the cat ready to bell itself?
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