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Our Flawed Democracy


Monday 19 April 2004, by GILL*K.P.S.

Democracy in India has mistakenly been identified exclusively with the electoral process. Without effective constitutional governance across the length and breadth of the country, and without the iron rule of law, democracy is at best a legitimising charade for transient kleptocracies.

The world’s largest democracy is going to vote once more, and as the campaign gathers momentum, so do the reports of rising violence and intimidation in wide areas of the country affected by terrorism.

In Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), an attack on an election rally being addressed by Mehbooba Mufti, has killed 11 and injured over 50, including two State Ministers, on April 8, in the worst of a succession of high-profile attacks on politicians and political workers in the State. Terrorist groups in J&K have warned voters not to participate in the elections or ’suffer the consequences’- well-understood short hand for mutilation and murder; and their overground surrogates, the various factions of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), have faithfully echoed their call for a boycott.

Several groups in the Northeast have, similarly, issued calls for a poll boycott, backed with threats of violence against those who fail to fall in line. The worst affected among the states in this region, at present, is Manipur, where extremist dictates, define the actions of all political parties, and where a ’total ban’ has been announced on the electioneering process. On March 30, for instance, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) issued an ultimatum to the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), directing all members to resign from the party. The next day, the BJP state unit vice president, Dr. Naorem Tombi, was attacked, though he escaped unhurt. Tombi and a number of other State party leaders have now resigned from their posts and the primary membership of the BJP.

All along the Naxalite belt from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh in the East, similarly, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People’s War Group (PWG) have launched a series of terrorist strikes to disrupt the election process, including major strikes against security forces and assassinations of political leaders and grassroots level political workers. The worst among the recent incidents was the April 7 landmine attack by the MCC, in which some 26 policemen were killed in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand.?

In Andhra Pradesh, at least 15 Telugu Desam Party (TDP) workers have been killed by the PWG this year. On March 18, M. Venkataraju, a TDP official and the husband of the Tribal Welfare Minister, M. Mani Kumari, was shot dead at Paderu in Vishakhapatnam district. Significantly, after this incident, all the members of the TDP’s coordination committee for the Prattipadu Assembly Constituency, under which Paderu falls, resigned en masse from the Party.

But terrorism is not the only threat to the democratic process. The truth is, outside a few urban constituencies, much of the electoral process is distorted by the use or threat of criminal force, as almost all political parties nominate significant numbers of ’history sheeters’ as their candidates, or where candidates secure the support of local criminal elements to coerce particular patterns of voting. In some areas, specific caste groups are prevented from voting; in others, linguistic or religious minorities must exercise extraordinary courage if they are to venture to the polling booth. Such strong arm tactics make democracy virtually meaningless in much of rural India, as particular sections, especially of the poor, are terrorised to vote for particular candidates, or prevented from exercising their vote.

The fact is, the sphere of effective constitutional governance is being systematically eroded across the country, and particularly in rural areas and regions regarded as ’remote’ from the centre. ’Politics’, ’governance’ and ’democracy’, in the general perception, are only deemed to be ’threatened’ when a major incident occurs in the metropolis.

The rural areas—what is often described as the ’real India’ or Bharat—matter little, beyond the blind numbers they provide as malleable voters subjected to the entire spectrum of coercive practices, both by political parties and by those who reject democracy and openly embrace violence.

But if effective governance is increasingly confined to urban areas, and a large majority of citizens are left to the mercy of the rapacious lower bureaucracy, can one really condemn or contain the violence of the terrorist who carves out his own ’turf’ in areas of poor-or non-governance, and harvests his own ’taxes’ from a terrorised population? There is no doubt India has made great progress over the past decades, but this progress has benefited privileged sections of the population, and marginalised many. Governance cannot be assessed on a few localized and urban success stories—a ’cybercity’ in Hyderabad or Bangalore—while increasing areas and populations fall into disorder. If citizens, by and large, feel hurt in their interactions with the state, the limited benefits of governance will be lost.

Besides the endemic shadow of violence, the absence of an effective choice robs the electoral process of its meaning. The truth is, in past elections where governments have been toppled by the vote, the people, most often, have not voted the leaders of their preference; they have, rather, been so exasperated with the incumbents that they were simply beyond caring how bad the alternative was. Conversely, if governments are re-elected, it is less of a vote of confidence in the incumbents than it is a demonstration that the public considers the alternatives even more irredeemable.

This has produced an incumbency-anti-incumbency rotation, with more or less the same faces and political formations replacing each other in short or occasionally longer cycles, till the natural limitations of the human lifespan intervene. If the people had the right of recall or a ’none of the above’ option in the voting mechanism, the probabilities are that the whole present crop of politicians would be thrown out of the process.

The preponderance of negative voting patterns is, even in the current electoral contest, visible in the fact that, despite the utter disarray of the Congress-led Opposition, the BJP is nowhere near securing a clear majority for itself.

The difficulty is that democracy in India has mistakenly been identified exclusively with the electoral process.The truth is, without effective constitutional governance across the length and breadth of the country, and without the iron rule of law, democracy is at best a legitimising charade for transient kleptocracies.

Such regimes secure public support through the entire range of stratagems—legal and illegal—available to ideologically bankrupt political formations, including violence and intimidation, bribery, unprincipled alliances, the cult of personality, vicious communal and caste mobilisation, and illegal and unconstitutional arrangements with violent—often anti-national—political actors and forces. And as they succeed, they participate in, and actively engineer, continuous processes of institutional decay in the structures of democratic governance in the country.

The present election will be fought, unmistakably, within this ruinous political tradition, irrespective of the cosmetics of the Election Commission’s censorship of ’offensive’ political advertisements and the efficiency of electronic voting machines. It is, however, time to begin, at least, to articulate the necessary Constitutional and legislative changes that can help reverse this process in future; to look beyond the trivia of the current discourse on limiting election expenditure or monitoring electoral campaigns, to more effective measures that would impose public accountability on those who seek and secure elected public office.


in Outlook India, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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