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Crux of the matter

PTI | ByAnand K. Sahay
May 08, 2004 02:33 PM IST

The whole business of exit polls has a fairly forgettable track record in India.

The whole business of exit polls has a fairly forgettable track record in our country, and yet it is extraordinary the kind of magnetic hold these have exerted on our minds this election season.

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HT Image

A good deal of the credit must go to the medium of television — if it so desires, the dynamic screen can make most things look exciting, plausible or palatable. And television companies have gone all the way with these surveys this particular election.

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But there is certainly one other reason why exit polls have held us in thrall this time round, and that is that the 2004 general election is not a one-horse race. A Bangladesh-Australia cricketing tie simply cannot be packaged as a must-watch show, no matter how hard you may try. But India-Australia!

Now that is exactly what’s going on out there in the political arena, and the exit poll-wallahs were the first to grasp the reality. They weren’t fooled for long by the propaganda that the government side was scooping it all up. Once they figured what was afoot, they were only too happy to keep up the ‘see-saw’ effect through their so-called ‘predictions’.

But in all this brouhaha we appear to have lost sight of a key element of Westminster-style democracy — that if a ruling party or coalition fails in a general election to win back at least 50 per cent of the seats in the House (which it naturally held before), it will be deemed to have been voted out of power. Hence, there is simply no room to speculate whether the NDA can return to office even if it wins, say, only 250 seats instead of the required 272. The presumption, of course, is it will be able to lure some of its former opponents to cross over.

Quite simply, in the event of the eclipse of the rulers, the invitation to mount the effort to form a new government must be extended to those who had sat in the opposition. Naturally, the biggest among such parties will have the first claim to government-making. Only if it fails can other options be explored.

Excluding those from the reckoning who have lost power on account of being rejected at the hustings is, indeed, a basic requirement of democracy. Its beauty emanates from the fact that it springs from the principle or requirement of accountability to the people. If this rule is trifled with, the democracy that we take pride in  stands diminished. Indeed, it may become indistinguishable from, say, Bonapartism.

It is necessary to note that even if a constituent of the ruling alliance — say, the BJP in the present context — emerges as the single biggest party but falls short of a simple majority, its leader cannot claim an opportunity to form government. That would be a travesty, for the BJP was the engine of the alliance that ruled

before the election. After the 1989 election, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress was the single biggest party but it didn’t ask for a chance at government-making because it was defeated in the polls. That is the crux of the matter.

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