Is the world’s largest democracy undertaking the magnificent ritual of electing its rulers? The prevailing atmosphere is funereal and deathly quiet. The only hulla gulla is seen on TV, where cameras are zooming in, like thirsty pilgrims at an oasis, to some signs of life, some signs of enthusiasm, at party offices or the rallies. Meanwhile, the role of cash in elections seems to be growing. Bagfuls of notes, indeed suitcases full of notes are emerging. Every day there is one more notice from the Election Commission (EC) for violating the Model Code of Conduct. The code looms like a dictatorial manual, converting what was once the world’s most colourful rumbustious election process into an eerily quiet dictator’s dream. Silent underground tactics have replaced the overground riotous bargaining of our desi democracy.
Is the well-intentioned EC paradoxically striking at the very roots of our democracy? Surely, corruption in the electoral process is far too serious an issue to be trivialised by slapping notices for paying musicians or handing out Rs 100 during holi milan. Let’s look at the ways the Code may be harming electioneering.
In America, presidential campaigns last for a year and a half. Here the statutory time allotted to campaign by the EC is 12-15 days after filing of nomination. ‘Unofficial’ campaigning, of course, begins earlier. Since it is almost impossible for a candidate to reach all his voters (an average Lok Sabha constituency consists of 15 lakh voters) in 12 days, what is the option that a candidate invariably takes? He opts for money power of course. To get the largest number of votes in the shortest possible time, it is most efficient to simply contact a village pradhan and pay him Rs 5 lakh for 3,000 votes.
When a 150 mile-long constituency must be covered in 15 days, only a helicopter will do for transport. Since helicopters
cost far more money than cars or jeeps, once again there arises a need to raise greater amounts of money.
The EC has disallowed cheap traditional ways of electioneering. Dholaks cannot be used for fear that they cause ‘noise pollution’. Noise pollution? In India? The dhol is part of our way of life, our street culture, an integral part of our festive spirit. To deny a dhol to India is like denying mehndi at weddings. Flags, posters, cut-outs, buntings are all banned. The visually fantastic display of folk art that elections once showcased has been legislated away, so we are now left with an election that has been reduced to a pathetic imitation of an election in a cold European country. In some states, rallies are banned after 10 pm, in some banned after 8 pm. When elections are taking place in scorching heat would electioneering not be better served by allowing rallies a few more hours after the sun has set?
What are the more serious consequences of banning cheaper forms of campaigning? Without recourse to flags and buntings to propagate his message, the candidate must now spend an enormous amount of money for expensive advertising in TV channels and newspapers. These, in turn, given the high demand for their space, jack up their rates. So once again the candidate must use money power.
Of course, none of this is to devalue the credibility of the EC and its contribution. The EC has always been, and continues to be, staffed by individuals of outstanding personal integrity. Putting an end to “booth capturing” that long-standing evil, for example, has been one of the greatest successes of the EC. The EC’s moral and ethical observations on hate speech have reminded candidates that democracy doesn’t work through abusive language. The EC has also taken a tough line on ruling parties misusing official machinery for campaigning.
Yet the ‘sab neta chor hain’ mindset that seems to animate the code and which is echoed by many in civil society, is a frighteningly elitist mindset that can convert us into another Pakistan where the discrediting of politicians has led to army rule. For the many netas who are criminal and unworthy of public life, there are an equally large number who slave at their constituencies and who are often the only buffers between the poor and the system. Its always open house at an MP’s home. Meals are served for whoever cares to eat and rooms function as dharamshalas. Yet the code betrays a blanket contempt for politicians and even a condescension towards the voter. After all, is it not an insult to the Indian voter to assume that he is willing to vote for whoever offers him cash? If it was so easy to bribe voters then nobody would ever lose elections.
To tackle corruption, serious steps are needed, not cosmetic sensational ones like banning dholaks and giving notices to holi milans. First, there is urgent need to ensure that no liquor is distributed among the poor on election eve. Second, permission must be given to low-cost traditional ways of campaigning (whatever happened to the good old autorickshaw with a loudspeaker?). Third and most importantly, steps must be taken to make election funding transparent. Several suggestions exist to ensure this. One of these suggestions is state funding of elections and giving tax breaks to corporates who want to fund a political party of their choice. Let’s accept that democracy needs money and let’s try to ensure the money comes from legitimate sources like the State and private sector, and not from illegitimate interests. If State funding ensures a cleaner election and a better functioning democracy then surely this is a worthwhile expense for the exchequer.
Today, it’s fashionable to hate established politicians. Yet if we begin to hate politicians, we will begin to hate democracy and the electioneering process itself. Instead of hating the election process, we must zealously safeguard it and strive to improve it. Improving it does not mean robbing elections of the unique electioneering styles of India, but instead cleansing the process of its serious corruption. At the moment, the EC, by trying to over-regulate, has unintentionally boosted corruption. Elections are, ultimately, about celebrating democracy, not stifling it.
(Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor CNN-IBN)