Review: The Great March of Democracy edited by SY Quraishi
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.
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?
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.