On May 16 you and I will know which party has won the largest number of seats in the 16th Lok Sabha. We will know who, most likely, will be prime minister. Whoever that is will receive, before anyone else’s, felicitations and good wishes from Manmohan Singh. Doctorsahab, as he will now be known increasingly, is a gentleman fallen among...I leave it to the reader to fill in that last word. All of us should follow his example, and wish the new prime minister the satisfaction of selfless service to the Aawaam-e-Hind.
We will also know how many women have been elected to the 16th Lok Sabha, how many first-timers, how many crorepatis (lakhpatis being below counting), how many graduates, how many without any university degrees whatever, how many lawyers and how many facing criminal cases.
All of us have preferences and would like to see particular persons in. I would dearly like to see both Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj return to the new Lok Sabha. And I would like the following 10 ‘new’ candidates to enter it: Arvind Kejriwal, Rajmohan Gandhi, Nandan Nilekani, Yogendra Yadav, Medha Patkar, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Baichung Bhutia, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Subhashini Ali, and Sugata Bose. Each of these is one of 10 very distinct persons who will bring quality to the new House. They come from the vibgyor spectrum of our parties but it is not because of their parties that I want to see them in the House. I want to see them there because of who and what they are as human beings.
In his column in The Hindu a week ago, the author-musician TM Krishna made the following very pertinent observation: “If the candidate is to have a realistic chance to be elected to Parliament he or she needs to be a party candidate. But, curiously, the Constitution of India is only interested in the elected members of Parliament and not elected parties; in fact, until the anti-defection amendment, it did not even mention the term ‘political party’.”
That made me look out for another category of persons I want to see in the 16th Lok Sabha, namely, the Independent MP. ‘Independent MP? Forget it!’, I can hear the reader’s thought. ‘No Independent MP can have a hope in heaven or hell to win these elections with the behemoths putting their all into them. Independent candidates just take up everyone’s time and space. They are something we have to put up with in a democracy, but, basically, they just do not count.’
Frankly, I too doubt that any Independent candidate will win.
But this is not how it was.
There was a time when ‘Independents’ did win, and win handsomely, bringing real quality to the Lok Sabha. Since the first Lok Sabha (elected in 1952) to the present, there have been 208 Independent MPs, which makes an average of 13 per Lok Sabha. But the number has not been a steady 13 or thereabouts per Lok Sabha. The first Lok Sabha had 36 Independent MPs, the second 25, the third 20, the fourth 35, the fifth 15 and the sixth 17. From the seventh, which elected only four, their number has not crossed the single digit except for the 11th Lok Sabha, which fluked 11.
The reason for the sharp decline in Independent MPs is not that they are not contesting in large enough numbers; they are. In the 2004 elections, out of the 8,070 candidates contesting, 3,831 were Independents. In the present elections, out of a total of about 9,000 candidates, about 3,500 are Independents. So it is not that the Indian voter is short of independent options. The problem is Independent candidates are short of money and the infrastructural advantage that party candidates have. Little wonder that we do not find ‘big names’ among them.
Again, this is not how it was.
Consider these names of Independents who were elected to the early Lok Sabhas: Acharya JB Kripalani (twice, from different constituencies defeating Congress heavyweights), Harindranath Chattopadhyay (Sarojini Naidu’s gifted brother, from Vijayawada), the distinguished disciple of Lokmanya Tilak, MS Aney (Nagpur), the Independent Marxist and trade unionist SM Banerjee (Kanpur), VK Krishna Menon (twice, first from Midnapore, in West Bengal, after the INC denied him a ticket, and then from Trivandrum), the then still-Left leaning MR Masani (Ranchi), NC Chatterjee (Burdwan), the Hindu Mahasabhaite father of the future Marxist leader and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, the intrepid freedom fighter Annie Mascarene from Trivandrum, Maharaja Karni Singh of Bikaner, N Sivaraj, an outstanding Dalit leader from Madras, LM Singhvi (Jodhpur), GG Swell (Shillong), and Shameem Shameem (Srinagar). Even a simple research on their contributions to the debates of the Lok Sabha will show that these Independent MPs made a difference.
Acharya Kripalani, of course, towers above all of them, for having tabled the first-ever no-confidence motion against a government led as it then was by Jawaharlal Nehru. Shameem, who died at the unacceptable age of 41, was an exceptional orator and held the Lok Sabha in thrall whenever he spoke. Once when he spoke of elections in Kashmir having not been free and fair, a member rose and asked him how he could say that, considering he himself had been elected as an Independent, defeating a former chief minister. Shameem’s reply had the House in splits: “Sir,” he said, “if a plane crashed, and some persons escaped miraculously unharmed, would you deny that plane has crashed?”
Will the 16th Lok Sabha have even a fraction of these Independent gems? Are any men and women of stature contesting these elections as Independents at all?
Perhaps not, but then one may still hope that the ‘party MPs’ will, whenever the occasion calls for it, think of themselves as the people’s representatives and not as their party’s faceless, nameless and mindless robots. In other words, that they will function as conscience-driven, values-led independent-minded MPs , if not as the great Independent MPs of yore, the most obvious exemplar of that role being the incomparable Feroze Gandhi.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.