First the good news : Meera, Mona, Mallika and Gopinath are standing for the Lok Sabha elections as independents. Now the bad news: Meera, Mona, Mallika and Gopinath are standing for the Lok Sabha elections as independents.
Independents standing for elections is not a new thing: 2,000 or so enter the contest each time, most of them mavericks out to enjoy themselves, with no hope in hell of victory. In fact in 1996, as many as 10,636 were in the fray, and got just 0.08 per cent of the vote. In the current elections, too, there will be many of these ‘no-hopers’. For example, a party calling itself Krantakari Jai Hind Sena floated by a builder-developer from Gujarat plans to field candidates in as many as 543 seats.
But the good news this time around is that people of real substance have taken the plunge. There’s Captain K. Gopinath, founder of Deccan Airways who is taking on a former BJP minister of Bangalore (South), dancer-activist Mallika Sarabhai, standing against LK Advani in Gandhinagar, while Saiker Ghosh, a former Bhabha Atomic Research Centre scientist, is contesting from the Mumbai South Central constituency.
The Professional People’s Party of India is fielding two candidates: ophthalmic surgeon Mona Shah (Mumbai South) and chartered accountant Rajendra Thacker (Mumbai North). Meera Sanyal has received high-voltage media coverage, certainly more than most independents do, because of her glittering background: she is a senior banker, the India head of ABN Amro Bank (now Royal Bank of Scotland) who has taken a two-month sabbatical to contest the polls.
These candidates are certainly more qualified than many MPs now in the Lok Sabha. Although most of them do not have any political experience, most people would regard that as a plus, given the all-pervasive disgust with politicians after 26/11, the seminal event which, in fact, stirred most of them into political action. Besides being untainted by corruption, these independent spirits also bring with them a variety of skills, such as management expertise, professional attitudes, entrepreneurial ability as well as a record of social service.
So, then, why should their candidature also be bad news? The first reason is that in marginal constituencies, these independents will unwittingly play the role of spoilers. Take Mumbai South. Milind Deora, at 32 among the youngest politicians in the country, won the last time around for the Congress, but with the small majority of 10,000 votes. Since the constituency includes Mumbai’s most prosperous areas of Malabar Hill, Colaba, Cuffe Parade and Worli, it will have a lot of middle-class voters who would not vote for either the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Shiv Sena (the BJP is not contesting this seat). In short, the voters who opt for either Meera Sanyal or Mona Shah are the ones who would have voted for Deora. By taking part in the election, the two independents could well ensure Deora’s defeat in a close contest. We could have the same scenario in other constituencies, too, where worthwhile independents are contesting: they will always take away votes from the best candidate (of whichever party) and thus enable second or third best candidates to win.
Should people then not contest as independents at all? Most mature democracies have long ago moved towards a two-party system, with independents having no role to play on the political scene. You can see why: even if by some miracle, Sanyal, Gopinath and a few others manage to win, they would have no influence on policy at the national, or even local, level without party support. As it is, that miracle is unlikely, given that in the four elections held in the last 12 years, independents have won at most 2.4 per cent of the total votes polled.
Politics teaches us a simple truth: good intentions aren’t enough; pragmatism is what is needed. Pragmatism would tell you that it is pretty stupid for two good independents to stand from the same constituency. It would also tell you that it’s criminal to be the spoiler who causes the defeat of the best candidate in a constituency.
Perhaps these blunders come from a well-meaning middle-class naiveté. But that guilessness also contains a strange mix of middle-class arrogance. Why does a political novice, with zero experience in the field, expect to suddenly become an MP? A typical Lok Sabha seat has 1.5 million voters, which is a lot of people to appeal to. An Assembly seat is more manageable (250,000 voters) while to become a corporator you have to contend with only 40,000 voters. Yet the great middle-class rush to cleanse politics seems to involve only the Lok Sabha, while if you really wanted to change the system, you should start from the bottom.
Being an elected representative is also not the only way to play a vital role in national life. Political parties always welcome professionals who can work within the party frame-work in shaping ideas and formulating policy. This is a back-room slog, but it’s important work. So why is it that it’s not on anyone’s agenda? Is it because there’s no element of glamour in it?
Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based writer