Election Time Laments
Posted on 1-May-2007
Because of my personal circumstances, I had not been able to vote in any Indian election until the 2004 election to India's federal parliament. A little less than three weeks ago, I went to vote again in the election for the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with a population larger than that of the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or Japan. What happens in Uttar Pradesh cannot be described as atypical of India; quite to the contrary, whatever happens in Uttar Pradesh has great significance for the rest of the country.
In the booth to which we were guided there was no waiting queue of voters. Roughly two hours after the opening of polls and before that April day became intolerably hot my wife and I were the seventieth and sixty-ninth persons to vote. As I was about to be signalled ahead by the man who had checked my identity paper, I said to him in Hindi of common speech that if he did not daub my left forefinger with indelible ink I would come back and vote again. He answered in the same spirit that it was gratifying that someone like me came to vote, otherwise educated people hardly voted these days--I do not know what he found in my clearly unpatrician appearance and bearing to decide that I was "educated".
Such a chance remark by a junior functionary manning a polling booth stayed in my mind because it echoed sentiments of apathy, despair and cynicism about India's political class expressed not only in fashionable discussions in private or in the numerous seminars, symposia or television talk shows organised by the "educated" classes of urban India but also in innumerable conversations in public spaces among the not so educated, common folk, snatches of which can be easily picked up in passing by anyone with open ears and an open mind. Likewise, I find it difficult to accept uncritically an observation--so patently for the intellectually dishonest purpose of finding arguments in support of conclusions already arrived at--by an American politicologue of Indian origin in a recent magazine article that very few of the educated, urban elites in India voted while the ordinary rural people and the urban poor, people whom he calls the plebs, did so in large numbers. Non-participation in elections is much more widely spread than is suggested by this gentleman and it seems to be growing.
Voting in Uttar Pradesh started on 7th April and will continue till the first week of May. It is taking place on seven different days in seven different groups of constituencies. Till the end of April people have voted in five of the seven groups of constituencies. In other words, in three fourths of the constituencies people have already voted . On the five days of polling the percentage of the electorate voting was between 44 and 48. The leader of one of the main political parties blamed the low turn out on the "strictness" imposed on the voting process by India's election commission. I do not know if any of this person's advisers has explained to him the probably unintended implication of his remark that had the election commission been less "strict", his party could have strong-armed more people to come and vote. At least one newspaper editorialist commended the election commission for organising elections in Uttar Pradesh in such a manner that the dalits who had far too often and in far too many places been forcefully prevented from voting were able to vote in large numbers this time. The leader of another political party which claims to speak for the dalits has also praised the election commission for conducting free and fair elections. Yet voter participation has been low in spite of the conditions of fearlessness and fairness.
If less then half the electorate votes, it is obvious that whichever combination of political parties eventually forms the next government of Uttar Pradesh will have the positive approval of no more than 30% of the electorate. Different pollsters have probably accurately predicted that no single political party will have a majority in the next Legislative Assembly. Two of the three political parties likely to come out as the largest in the Assembly have said they would not form a government in coalition with any of the other two. In these conditions, if the main political party in power in the federal government does not successfully manoeuvre to install a government by the unelected governor--who is an appointee of the federal government-- the next government in Uttar Pradesh will likely be a child of a marriage of convenience between even ideologically opposed political formations brought about by political operators and other backroom manipulators ever so full of narcissistic regard for their skills. Whatever spin is given about such a government's promises and programmes or about its popular mandate, it cannot have democratic legitimacy.
Progress of democracy in the European and American democracies in the first half of the twentieth century meant among other things the gradual extension, in response to popular pressure and demands, of voting rights to newer sections of society. The Republic of India, which promulgated its constitution after all the western struggles for the extension of voting rights had been waged and won, has allowed universal adult suffrage from the beginning, lowering the minimum voting age, in course of time, to eighteen years. If universal adult suffrage, by allowing the largest possible number of citizens to express or deny their consent to government by a given group of individuals, is meant to give legitimacy to a government, non-participation by a large number of citizens--half the electorate is too large a number--in the electoral process takes that same legitimacy away. No argument about the virtues of stable government can effectively deal with this problem of legitimacy.
The question of a government's legitimacy is not merely theoretical. A government which in the eyes of large sections of people is not legitimate at the least lacks the moral authority so necessary for persuading people that its programmes, policies and actions serve their interest. Such a government sooner or later creates discontents which find their expression in violence, disruption of public order or subversion of society and institutions. It is for political parties and their leaders to consider what real action they must take in order to regain the trust of people. A body like the election commission can try to create conditions for free and fair elections. It can do nothing to ensure larger participation in elections, for non-participation in the electoral process by large numbers of people is like a vote against the entire class of politicians. By doing nothing about the abstention from voting, India's political class will ensure that India's democracy stays flawed.
The present election in Uttar Pradesh raises another set of troubling questions. India's election commission makes brave efforts to make sure that when voting takes place, there is no violence, coercion, capture of polling stations by political goons or other attempts at illegally fixing the outcome of the vote. For this it becomes necessary to deploy very large numbers of policemen and armed constabulary at election time and since the numbers of police and paramilitary personnel needed are very large, elections have to be staggered: seven different days over a period of one month in Uttar Pradesh; earlier in Bihar, five different days over a period of three and a half weeks and so on. At election time it looks as if the country is prepared as much for the free expression of popular will as for a large pacification campaign by its paramilitary forces. There is an evident danger in this association between elections and the deployment of policemen and other paramilitary personnel in large numbers, for the thin line dividing the use of such personnel for ensuring peaceful elections from their use for frightening and coercing voters can be erased very quickly, without anyone even noticing.
For years India's political parties have used hoodlums, goons and even assassins for election propaganda, for mobilising their supporters, for browbeating opponents, for herding voters to polling booths or for frightening other voters away and sometimes for even more bizarre exploits. To deal with such people India's election commission has had to deploy police and other armed personnel at polling stations in ever increasing numbers. What should have been a temporary expedient seems to have become a permanent feature in India's elections. The solution to the problem of real or possible violence at election time lies not in the deployment of the state's security services in ever larger numbers but in changing the behaviour of political parties and their leaders. "Criminalisation" of politics and the need for and the ways of "de-criminalising" it have been discussed in India for a long time. Reams of official reports have been written on the subject and solutions proposed and rejected or solutions proposed, accepted but not acted upon. Yet the phenomenon continues and is perhaps getting even more serious. The lead for curing this disease that should come from heads of political parties, who can begin by resolutely dissociating themselves and their parties from criminals and goons even at a cost for themselves, has not been coming. It does not seem that such leads will come except in the face of shocks. Perhaps it is a little too optimistic to think that such a shock will be delivered by a decreasing percentage of voter participation in elections.
Voter apathy denotes at the minimum the absence of a bond between the governors and the governed based on the belief that the government works for the benefit of the governed. Legitimacy of governments in our times comes from such a relationship of trust and in Indian democracy it is this legitimacy that seems to be waning away. It is possible even in a democratic society for free multi-party elections to throw up governments which are autocratic and tyrannical or those with leaders whose only aim after attaining political power by accident or design is to enjoy the fruits of that power as long as possible or those whose leaders' only interest after attaining political power is in enriching themselves and their clan with ill-gained wealth. The power of the executive in a modern government is such that political leaders who use their offices for personal aggrandisement of one kind or another can continue doing so for long periods without having to pay the price for the abuse of power. But India's fundamental social and economic problems can begin to be dealt with only by a kind of political leadership which is interested in something more than the calculus of attaining and preserving political power, a leadership capable of attaining political legitimacy of the kind I have mentioned above. If such a leadership cannot come up, India, like much of the poorer parts of the world, will still take halting, uncertain steps towards a better social and economic future, marking some successes which its elites will boast of, shutting their eyes on the many failures and shortcomings. But the country will remain far from becoming one of the great nations of the modern world which its elites say it is at the point of becoming. For that to happen Indian society and politics will need to be lifted out of the mire in which they are wallowing at the moment. In this season of elections it seems a beginning will have to be made with an overhaul of politics and political leadership.