Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 04, 2016
Excess of poll campaign-curbs affecting Indian democracy?

Now that two decades have passed since effective curbs on electoral malpractices began showing results, it’s time to re-visit the scheme as it exists today, to help adopt a focused approach for issue-specific goals. In the absence of such a review and correctives, the Election Commission as the protector of our poll democracy could end up being dubbed a predator.

The EC’s model code on poll-spending curbs is aimed at creating a level-playing field for all parties and independents in the fray. The down-sizing of campaign time from around two months to just two weeks speaks for efficiency and efficacy of the largest and toughest democratic electoral scheme on planet Earth.

Issues have cropped up, indirectly, without anyone noticing them. In the absence of adequate campaign time after respective party leaderships had cleared their names, individual candidates seldom have any time to even ‘introduce’ themselves to their constituents. The time-bar for ending daily campaign-time at 10 pm has not helped matters. Worse is the travails of candidates for Lok Sabha polls, with five or six assembly segments in each.

Well-enforced methods like wall-posters and caricature-writing, hoardings, flags and constant knocking at the doors of voters at least through the campaign period too have proved counter-productive. Assets-declaration by candidates, including leaders, has become farcical. In specific states in the country, the EC has shown vulnerabilities at not being able to arrest the ‘cash-for-vote’ campaign scheme of certain political parties.

Curry favours

The absence of adequate campaign-time for candidates has cut into the traditional need for each of them to bring in a certain percentage of votes for the party concerned. Over the past decade or so, this has contributed to excessive reliance of the candidate on the party symbol and leader’s charisma to bring in votes.

The candidates need to curry favours with the leadership for party nomination. They need not have to bother about the voters – before or after elections. This has had consequences for our elections and democracy. The leaders either win or lose elections. The party symbol is a passé, too. This has made them more autocratic than already, and party nominees are changed at whim up to the last minute.

All of it has meant that no aspiring candidate wants to do his bit in his constituency until after the party nomination had been confirmed. If he did so, too, the leadership fixes him/her for being over-ambitious even before the game had begun. If the leadership perceives itself as not being as popular as the opponent(s), money, and not the candidate, becomes the critical factor.

This in turn has created a post facto justification for government parties in particular making and hoarding big money from official contracts and the rest at all levels through the years in office. Large-scale ‘corrupt practices’ still go unpunished, whatever the reason and circumstance. The EC is helpless, hapless, but at times, clueless, too.

The electronic voting-machine (ECM) was the EC’s way of ending booth-capturing as had become the habit in some states. Today, large-scale bogus voting in ECMs after ‘purchasing’ the poll agents of the political rival has become a common practice in some states. The EC’s electoral observers and booth officials are either silent or indifferent or both or, else...

Credibility, connectivity

The greater dependence on leaderships and symbols for individual candidates to win their elections have made the latter less responsible, and even less accountable to the voter and the local cadre, alike. In most cases, even before he had put in his campaign team at the lower-levels, the polling is over and the results out.

So, the cadre knows not either the elected leader or the voter. He had learnt to see the leader from a distant long ago, whatever the reason. Each of the three has become an island in himself or herself. There is no accountability of one to the other or others. The current electoral scheme has established the credibility, but has also destroyed whatever connectivity that had been there in the previous generations.

The situation needs to be repaired before it became too late. In the absence of connectivity and accountability, the unfathomable authoritarianism of our political leaderships at all levels may have already reduced the democratic choice before his party, cadre and voter alike. The formidable cost of elections of the kind has made smaller parties unaffordable for their leaderships.

Independents, however popular they may have been, are out even otherwise, after the EC took special initiatives to eliminate the crop of ‘non-serious candidates’. It has also meant that ‘influential independents’, whom political parties used to court, do not find a place in the current scheme.

Once again, the electoral scheme on this score too has not served the purpose. Political parties and candidates who want ‘dummies’ in place to cut into the rivals’ vote-share still use the existing ways to do it. They also get additional booth agents to do their job, but the honourable ones are often left out.

All of it has consequences. It tends to push the national and regional polity into a two-party system, or two-alliance system, as few (smaller) political entities can survive the onslaught of high-cost elections. The latter is not an exception any more. It has become the norm, obvious in some places, not so obvious elsewhere.

There are occasions, when owing to other circumstances, individuals have become larger than institutions, but for wrong reasons, compared to the past. This has the potential to reduce our democracy to a nominal one, based mostly on nomenclature, if enough is not done, and in double-quick time to reverse the course.

It does not mean that the EC should stop – or, even go slow on -- checking electoral spending, the role of black-money in elections, and all other aspects of ‘corrupt practices’ in polls. The idea was to create a level-playing field for all candidates, political parties and leaderships. We should not allow the great gains of the past years to degenerate into an ‘Animal Farm’, where alone some animals are more equal than the rest.

T N Seshan as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) began using the EC’s dormant teeth to bite and where it hurts. The Indian experience of the past two-plus decades has shown that rather than the EC spreading out its rights and duties thin, it should focus on grey areas where more needs to be done, and effectively so.

In doing so, it should also realise and release party candidates from the clutches of the party leaderships – leaderships that then can go over the head of the party to the people first, and over the head of the people, to wherever, whenever.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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