Let us be proud.
Five states went to the polls last month.
The voter turnout was extraordinary. That of women voters, specially so.
All these facts are not only well-known by now; they are axioms.
But stand them against facts that have come in from another election.
Compare those results with the reports of the presidential election in Russia. At Precinct 451, Vladimir Putin got 1,482 votes, Gennady Zyuganov 1. Statistically improbable, the result became even more controversial when it turned out that more people had voted than there were registered voters in that segment. There was a voter turnout of 107%. The turnout in Chechnya was 99.59%, with 99.82% of voters voting for Putin, 0.04% for Zyuganov, the runner-up.
I would like to believe the Russian elections were free and fair.
I would really like to, for I believe Putin’s Russia is not Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
We do remember the 2000 presidential elections in the US. We particularly remember how Florida voted, how the Florida Supreme Court ordered a third re-count, which the US Supreme Court reversed. The world has not forgotten that although he received 543,895 fewer individual votes than Al Gore nationwide, George Bush was declared elected president of the United States of America.
We can be proud.
The voters have won, voting has won.
But the ‘man of the match’ is the Election Commission (EC) of India.
The EC represented principally by the Chief Election Commissioner, SY Quraishi, and the team of officials working without fear or favour — and with fervour — under the EC’s umbrella, delivered transparently clean elections in this theatre of violence and intrigue. They are not just winners, but heroes. But we cannot gloat. And there is a reason why we cannot.
For there is a side player in our elections of whom we cannot be proud. Of whom we are to be ashamed. And ‘he’ is that perfect scalawag called illegal money or black money. Victories as emphatic as the Congress’ in Manipur, the SP’s in UP and the BJP’s in Goa are not won by money, white or black. They are won by voter-opinion. But the scalawag called black money has been around candidates, hovering round them, sometimes being waved off, but ever so often settling on them. According to one estimate, till February 5 in UP alone, the EC nabbed Rs 32 crore of unaccounted cash, Rs 12.3 crore from Punjab, R1.35 crore from Uttarakhand, R47 lakh from Manipur and R36 lakh from Goa.
Elections now do not mean the spending of crores, but of multiples of crores.
When I read those figures, I was reminded of an election episode in UP of 75 years ago.
It has been recounted by Lal Bahadur Shastri in a 1959 tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru:
“The general elections under the new Government of India Act took place in 1937; they were of great significance. In these elections Nehru played a very important role. I remember his visit to the district of Allahabad. It was about 8.30 pm when he finished his speech… Nehru had taken no tea in the afternoon and… he was feeling very hungry. He asked me whether there was any restaurant in the city… I remembered the railway station where some tea could be got. He said: “Let us go there.” We motored to the railway station and went to the railway restaurant… After having taken the tea we were asked to pay the bill. Everyone of us searched his pockets and found that none of us carried sufficient money. Between us we could collect about R2.50. Nehru had about a R1.25. Purnima Banerjee another rupee and I gave the few annas to complete the full amount required. How awkward would it have been if we had failed to make up the amount among ourselves!” Seventy-five years is not all that long ago. That is, we are not talking of the 1800s. And we are talking of people whose names are invoked in today’s election campaigns.
Money played a part in elections even then, but by and large it was licit money, modest money. It was money, not the monster called black money.
In 1957, Tata Iron & Steel Co wanted to change their Memoranda of Association in order to allow the company to make contributions to political parties. The matter went to court. Justices MC Chagla and ST Desai ruled in the Bombay High Court allowing the change but with weighty obiter. Their comments are memorable. They said (and I quote): “The very basis of democracy is the voter and when in India we are dealing with adult suffrage it’s even more important than elsewhere… that the integrity of the voter is also safeguarded… Before parting with this case, we think it our duty to draw the attention of Parliament to the great danger inherent in permitting companies to make contributions to the funds of political parties. It is a danger which may grow apace and which may ultimately overwhelm and even throttle democracy in this country. Therefore, it is desirable for Parliament to consider under what circumstances and under what limitations companies should be permitted to make these contributions.”
The late Indrajit Gupta chaired a committee to study the impact of company donations on elections. The time for another study — and action — has come. Black money from elsewhere, with a drugs and arms nexus, not company donations, is now the culprit. Such an initiative led by someone of the stature of Fali Nariman or NR Narayana Murthy is urgently needed.
Among many lasting images of the elections just concluded will be that of two earnest young men straining every nerve to win the people’ confidence in UP, of women queueing up to vote, freely, fairly and, hopefully, independently of their husbands. And of voters in Manipur defying blockades and insurgency to vote. They do us proud.
That known depredator, ‘KD’ or ‘kala dhan’, must not let shame sickly over this pride.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor.
The views expressed by the author are personal.