Poll reforms must to save democracy
In order to root out corruption and the menace of black money, it is highly imperative to bring in electoral reforms urgently or else our democracy is in peril. Corruption and black money have seeped in at the grassroots of our democratic process, leaving dedicated and honest people redundant and out of electoral politics.
They have been replaced with industrialists, criminals, mafia and people who have loads of black money and muscle power at their command. A close perusal of the 2012 Punjab assembly elections would substantiate my argument.
Being a second-generation politician, I have witnessed four assembly elections fought by my father, late Sukhjinder Singh, former education minister, and contested four myself. After graduation, I was the election incharge of my father's last poll in 1985 from the Bholath (Kapurthala) assembly constituency.
The total expense of this election was less than Rs 5 lakh, requiring vehicles to be hired, a reasonable expenditure on advertisement, a few odd political meetings, other miscellaneous expenses etc. Till then, no votes were purchased, no liquor was distributed, paid news was unheard of, and no inducement of any form was given to voters. We heard of this malaise then, only from a couple of assembly constituencies in Malwa, contested by the two powerful feudal families.
Earlier this year, I contested my fourth election from the same constituency, requiring more than 100 times the amount, which I could not muster and so the election's outcome could not be on my side. It was during and after this election that I realised that notwithstanding one's performance as a legislator inside or outside the Vidhan Sabha, it is money power which matters the most for winning an election. A candidate who never uttered a word in the Vidhan Sabha for five years (2007-12), romped home from my neighbouring seat. By now, the rules of the game had changed. Despite a strict vigil by the Election Commission (EC), money, drugs, liquor, muscle power and paid news were on display.
Rich industrialists-turned-politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, including sugar barons, realtors, liquor mafia, potato kings, etc. had made their entry. Although a few seats, including the reserved ones, may have gone with a lesser budget, but wherever the neo-rich fought, the cost of an election in Punjab zoomed to anything between Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore. If you have this kind of money, all you have to do is to manage and plan your elections well.
Management, in other words, means to run politics on corporate lines. During the elections, your zone incharges (private army) descend upon villages to distribute liquor, drugs and other items such as utensils and clothes. The trump card to win an election, of course, is hard cash. The rate in the 2012 Punjab elections ranged from Rs 1,000 to Rs 10,000 per vote, depending upon the contestant's capacity. On an average, there are about 10% voters on sale in every assembly constituency.
This 10% is so poor and their living conditions are so pitiable that for them, every election is an opportunity to earn. They are least concerned about education, health care, employment, etc., as all these luxuries are out of reach for them. The average margin of victory being less than 10,000 votes, your job is done if you have the budget.
Earlier, service to society, party loyalty and integrity were the hallmarks for getting a party nomination, whereas now it is your financial capacity, sycophantic behaviour and connections with the high command that make all the difference.
The failure of Manpreet Badal-led People's Party of Punjab (PPP) also indicates that money power is one of the crucial factors to run a party and win an election. As a result, a poor political class sans ideology, honesty and wisdom has entered the political arena, slowly replacing the sincere old guard.
The magnificent quote of legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill fits in aptly here, "The difference between politicians and statesmen is that while politicians think about the next election, a statesman thinks about the next generation." Presently, our money-oriented electoral system has only thrown up profit-seeking politicians thinking how to win the elections, not statesmen.
Electoral reforms are even more important than the meaningful demand of jan lokpal, raised by civil society members such as Anna Hazare. The lokpal bill will deal only with bureaucratic corruption, while stringent electoral reforms can prevent our society from becoming corrupt.
Solutions need to be debated upon, such as more powers to the Election Commission, disqualification of unethical contestants during elections, state funding, candidates to seek nominations from an electoral college, instead of dictator-like presidents of political parties, and enforcement of other electoral laws forcefully.
The ball needs to be set rolling urgently to save our democracy, lest we end up being governed by leaders who are autocrats, despots and dictators in the garb of elected representatives, having very cleverly mastered the art to purchase democracy.
The writer is a former MLA.