TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner, who ensured the ECI became a powerful poll regulator rather than a mere organiser, in a picture clicked on 07 August, 1996.(HT Photo)
TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner, who ensured the ECI became a powerful poll regulator rather than a mere organiser, in a picture clicked on 07 August, 1996.(HT Photo)

Review: The Great March of Democracy edited by SY Quraishi

As cynical sections scorn a pliable electoral system, The Great March of Democracy, Seven Decades of India’s Elections edited by former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi seeks to strike a celebratory note
By Zia Haq | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON APR 26, 2019 05:37 PM IST
296pp, Rs 699; Penguin
296pp, Rs 699; Penguin

During the first war of Indian independence, leaders of the uprising secretly reached out to a defunct Mughal king, urging him to summon courage and take control of his lost empire in a desperate attempt to expel the British.

When India finally gained freedom in 1947, nobody was looking for a monarch anymore. India was birthed right into the lap of modernity. The country, “having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”, was born a liberal democracy, with quinquennial elections and universal adult suffrage from day one.

In contrast, the West was woefully late in deepening democracy, granting the right to vote to the non-propertied class and women only in the late 19th and 20th centuries. French women were able to vote in 1944; Swiss women only in 1971.

The allotment of symbols to political parties, which figure in our ballots, was our own ingenious way of overcoming the shortcomings of an illiterate electorate. If the masses couldn’t read the names of candidates, they could at least vote the symbol. Sukumar Sen, the first chief election commissioner, thought this would be a temporary measure since it wouldn’t be necessary once literacy levels went up in the promising, foreseeable future.

Have our elections served our democracy well? The Great March of Democracy, Seven Decades of India’s Elections, a collection of essays by some renowned experts and edited by the former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi is out at a time when the nation is in the middle of a keenly fought general election.

As cynical sections scorn an eminently pliable electoral system, this new book seeks to strike a celebratory note and highlight the challenges of keeping India democratic, at least in a formal sense.

Elections alone, however, do not a democracy make. Not long after he crafted a thoroughly modern Constitution that provided for an Election Commission of India (ECI) under Article 324, Dr BR Ambedkar struck a cautionary note in an interview to a BBC journalist. It’s available on YouTube and is instructive to say the least. Excerpts:

BBC journalist: Dr Ambedkar, do you think democracy is going to work in India?

Dr Ambedkar (unhesitatingly): No. Except in a formal sense… I mean the paraphernalia of democracy, quinquennial elections, prime ministers and so on.

BBC journalist: But elections are important.

Dr Ambedkar: No. Elections are important, provided they produce really good men… people have no consciousness of our electoral system… And democracy will not work for the simple reason we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy… In America, yes, I agree you see democracy works and I don’t think there ever would be Communism in America. I have just come from that country.

BBC journalist: What alternative do you see?

Dr Ambedkar: The alternative as I think is some kind of Communism.

It isn’t difficult to see Dr Ambedkar’s point. Elections, useful though for peaceful change of governments, will not work when the masses have no consciousness of their duties in a society where casteist social structures can easily trump democracy itself. Villages for Ambedkar were no Gandhian havens but a “den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”.

As Alan Ryan pointed out in On Politics, ancient Athenian democracy, which sought equal political power (every eligible citizen must have an equal share of power), modern electoral suffrage, along with accompanying democratic structures, is designed to give equal consideration to everyone’s interests.

Many of these ideals rest on India being a democracy. But Ambedkar’s point was that an enlightened electorate is the sine qua non of a functioning democracy.

Quraishi’s book, with contributions from a stellar cast, including Pranab Mukherjee, TN Seshan, Bhikhu Parekh, Paul Wallace, Yogendra Yadav and Milan Vaishnav etc, gives an overview of the institutional, organisational and geographical challenges of the early years faced by the ECI. It also talks about a worrying set of emergent challenges of money, funding and other corrupting influences. We are not even talking of the sheer ineffectiveness of India’s poll administrator in tackling the new hydra-headed monster of fake news.

A graver challenge has now been revealed in the degree to which political parties, the Supreme Court and the intelligentsia have found the ECI seriously wanting.

It took the top court to comment this month that the “Election Commission has woken up to its powers” after it acted belatedly on notable political leaders making controversial speeches.

India’s poll administrator derives its powers and functions directly from the Constitution. Yet, in an astounding lack of institutional memory as to its own powers, the ECI proclaimed before the Supreme Court this month that it was virtually toothless in enforcing the model code of conduct: “The power of the ECI in this behalf is very limited...we can issue notice and seek reply but we can’t de-recognise a party or disqualify a candidate,” the ECI stated.

There is an attempt, in the book, to highlight the essentiality of the ECI. Indeed, it is the only institution of its kind we have. But elections aren’t a sufficient, if a necessary, condition for a thriving democracy. Democracy consists of elections, public deliberations and protests, writes Parekh, setting out some normative arguments in the book. He notes that the “last two components have suffered a decline”. Indeed, as he writes, elections have become detached from democratic institutions and this has given rise to authoritarianism.

Yadav holds that some of the reasons why democracies often neglect the poor aren’t true of India. There are too many veto points, he argues, that work to ensure that “floor-securing social policies” (for instance, Congress’s basic minimum income scheme NYAY and the Modi government’s PM-KISAN) are implemented.

It is the populist nature of politics itself that actually works to the advantage of our poor. Yadav advocates greater decentralization of political power, stronger institutions and measures to reduce asymmetry of information (with a genuine public broadcaster, he says) to ensure elections serve their purpose.

Former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the editor of this volume, SY Quraishi (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the editor of this volume, SY Quraishi (Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Seshan, the legendary chief election commissioner who ensured the ECI became a powerful poll regulator rather than a mere organiser, recalls that the 1990s were the “toughest time”. Not only were governments uninterested in strengthening the ECI, the bureaucracy too resisted the ECI’s mandate, he writes. He warns that the “scope of the executive to play mischief still exists”.

Chistrophe Jaffrelot’s chapter on TN Seshan is the centrepiece. As criminalisation of Indian elections reached alarming levels in the 1980s and 1990s, the “Seshan effect” famously instilled the rule of law necessary for free and fair polls. How did he do it?

Read more: A 900-million strong electorate makes Elections 2019 the biggest ever

Seshan simply acted with a lot of zeal to enforce the model code of conduct, the same one that the current ECI claimed has very “limited powers”. He suspended polling in a Madhya Pradesh seat where a sitting Governor campaigned for his son. In Uttar Pradesh, he forced a minister to quit the dais since the campaigning time was over.

Seshan’s story, as Jaffrelot argues, shows that the effectiveness of institutions depends on the personalities that run them. As aspersions continue to be cast on the ECI now, the poll body doesn’t need a new mandate. What it requires is a new resolve to save its own face.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)
As the warming world faces raging forest fires, rising seas and increasingly erratic weather, the United States has seen a boom in books about climate change.(Unsplash)

Worried about climate change? There's a book for that.

Reuters
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 07:24 PM IST
Books titled “Trees in Trouble” and “How We’re F—ing Up Our Planet” scream out from the shelves of Barnes and Noble’s nature and wildlife section between reassuring tomes on hummingbirds and wildflowers.
Close
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)
Ira Mukhoty at Bada Imambara on her recent visit to Lucknow (Sourced photo)

Ira Mukhoty: I want to talk about strong women of Nawabi era

By Deep Saxena
UPDATED ON MAR 04, 2021 02:43 PM IST
Author Ira Mukhoty is researching her first book on Awadh. Having penned ‘Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History’, ‘Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire’ and ‘Akbar: The Great Mughal’, the Delhite spent about a week in Lucknow hunting down facts for her book.
Close
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021). (Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons)

Essay: The importance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

By Chintan Girish Modi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 02, 2021 05:38 PM IST
The courtroom drama around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), that focussed on the defence of free expression, provides a case study for contemporary writers, filmmakers, and stand-up comedians in other parts of the world facing censorship
Close
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)
The story of that Indian-origin barrister, George Edalji, has now been dug up in detail and brought to life in a new book by London-based historian-author Shrabani Basu(Amazon)

New book uncovers Indian mystery probed by Sherlock Holmes author

PTI, London
PUBLISHED ON FEB 28, 2021 10:27 AM IST
Arthur Conan Doyle was drawn to investigate just one real-life crime during his lifetime and it involved a British Indian man wrongly accused of a series of mysterious crimes in an English village in the early 20th century.
Close
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)
On this week’s reading list: a portrayal of the publishing world in India, lessons from the unusual career of a civil servant, and a critique of illiberalism and violence in Indian politics. (HT Team)

HT Picks; New Reads

By HT Team
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:46 PM IST
This week’s list of interesting reads includes a satire on the Indian publishing scene, insights from the career trajectory of an atypical bureaucrat, and a critique of the illiberal forces that dominate our lives
Close
Author Sharanya Manivannan (Catriona Mitchell)
Author Sharanya Manivannan (Catriona Mitchell)

Interview: Sharanya Manivannan, author, Mermaids in the Moonlight

By Chintan Girish Modi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:30 PM IST
The Chennai-based author makes her debut as an illustrator with Mermaids in the Moonlight, a picture book for children drenched in folklore, magic and the history of the civil war in Sri Lanka
Close
A farmer ploughs his fields under the relentless sun. (Shutterstock)
A farmer ploughs his fields under the relentless sun. (Shutterstock)

Review: Along with the Sun edited by Ki. Rajanarayanan

PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:13 PM IST
Caste, cattle and moneylenders decide the fate of the underclass in this anthology of 20 stories from the Karisal region of Tamil Nadu
Close
At the Charminar in Hyderabad, India. (Shutterstock)
At the Charminar in Hyderabad, India. (Shutterstock)

Excerpt: Born a Muslim by Ghazala Wahab

By Ghazala Wahab
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 10:04 PM IST
Ghazala Wahab’s new book looks at how the world’s second largest religion is practised in India. This exclusive first excerpt is from a chapter on the changing face of Muslim society in the country
Close
Flower power: A flower market in Bengaluru. (Shutterstock)
Flower power: A flower market in Bengaluru. (Shutterstock)

Review: Flower Shower by Alka Pande

By Subhashini Chandramani
UPDATED ON FEB 25, 2021 05:34 PM IST
Aesthetically designed and with an engaging narrative, each chapter of the book begins with a carefully chosen quote and every page is steeped in fascinating information. The rose, the lotus, the champa and the marigold are only some of the flowers that feature in this beautiful volume
Close
Usually, successful entrepreneurs share their life journeys through autobiographies, but Irfan Izhar has chosen poetry for this purpose. (Representational Image) (Unsplash)
Usually, successful entrepreneurs share their life journeys through autobiographies, but Irfan Izhar has chosen poetry for this purpose. (Representational Image) (Unsplash)

Dubai filmmaker Irfan Izhar unveils maiden book in Delhi

PTI
PUBLISHED ON FEB 24, 2021 09:27 PM IST
Irfan Izhar, packaging industry baron made a resounding debut as an author with the launch of 'Samundar Samne Hai', a compilation of his reverberating Urdu poems.
Close
The story follows a novice Secretary of State who has joined the administration of her rival, a president inaugurated after four years of American leadership that shrank from the world stage.(Wikimedia Commons )
The story follows a novice Secretary of State who has joined the administration of her rival, a president inaugurated after four years of American leadership that shrank from the world stage.(Wikimedia Commons )

Hillary to co-write thriller on 'State of Terror'

PTI, New York
PUBLISHED ON FEB 24, 2021 08:00 PM IST
Former US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her long-time friend Louise Penny will come out with a novel "State of Terror" which will be published on October 12 by Pan Macmillan India.
Close
Author Anuja Chauhan says she has attempted a whodunnit in her new book, Club You To Death, which is a mystery based in Delhi.
Author Anuja Chauhan says she has attempted a whodunnit in her new book, Club You To Death, which is a mystery based in Delhi.

Book is full of Bangalorean characters, hopefully no one comes to know: Anuja Chauhan

By Henna Rakheja, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON FEB 24, 2021 06:31 PM IST
Author Anuja Chauhan reminisces the time when she decided to settle in Bengaluru, and feels elated to have made the Garden City her home.
Close
The book, titled "India: A Scamster Born Every Minute", will be released under Penguin's Viking imprint in 2022, the publishing house said in a statement.(penguin.co.in)
The book, titled "India: A Scamster Born Every Minute", will be released under Penguin's Viking imprint in 2022, the publishing house said in a statement.(penguin.co.in)

Upcoming book by Snigdha Poonam to expose subculture of scams in India

PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 24, 2021 05:16 PM IST
Penguin Random House India on Wednesday announced the acquisition of a new book by award-winning journalist and author Snigdha Poonam that gives an insight into the subculture of scams, cons and frauds in the country.
Close
The first wonder written in the genre, this book brings together various YouTubers and their journeys on paper. (Representational Image) (Pixabay)
The first wonder written in the genre, this book brings together various YouTubers and their journeys on paper. (Representational Image) (Pixabay)

Ajitabha Bose pens journey of YouTubers in his book 'The Youtube Stars of India'

ANI, New Delhi [india]
PUBLISHED ON FEB 23, 2021 07:50 PM IST
The book holds soul-inspiring journeys of the most influential YouTubers penned by India's most popular pocketbook writer Ajitabha Bose which features Youtubers like CarryMinati, Ashish Chanchlani, Amit Bhadana, Harsh Beniwal, Prajakta Koli, Mortal and many more.
Close
"India's rich tapestry is woven together by her stories. These tales can be from the great epics and mythology, or from the ancient history of this rich land.(Unsplash)
"India's rich tapestry is woven together by her stories. These tales can be from the great epics and mythology, or from the ancient history of this rich land.(Unsplash)

HarperCollins, Amar Chitra Katha announce joint venture

PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 23, 2021 07:01 PM IST
Amar Chitra Katha has joined hands with HarperCollins India to bring the iconic folktales of India from its comic books in a new format for younger readers.
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP